I remember the first time I walked into a thrift store with the intention of finding a dream dress or the perfect purse. I was in high school and I’d been thinking about going thrifting all day because I’d been reading all of these vintage fashion books from the library and I wanted to find a real vintage dress… for cheap. 😉 When my sixteen-year-old self walked into that Goodwill for the first time, I was struck (and a bit put off) by the smell, the disorganization, and the sheer size of the place. I walked around, touched a few shirts, picked up a knickknack or two, laughed at the ridiculous Christmas table settings, and walked out with nothing. I remember thinking that my inability to find thrifted treasure was a result of my location in a small Indiana town. I figured all the neat old vintage clothes must be in hipper, more affluent towns. WRONG. Was I ever wrong.
I learned most, if not all, of my best thrifting tips when I was in college in Greencastle, Indiana. Now I’m from a small town, and I love small towns, but when I went on huge study benders where the only cure for sanity was a nice little dose of retail therapy, Greencastle didn’t cut it. Shopping for clothes in Greencastle meant hopping on down to Fashion Bug or the Peebles next to China Buffet. Yup. No joking, that was it. So I started going to (incredible) Goodwill on the town square. Throughout my four years in Greencastle, I realized that thrift store clothes could be better than clothes from the mall and I picked up a few tricks and tips that helped me sift through the, I’ll be frank– total crap, that is in all thrift stores and find the thrift store treasure.
When I go thrifting, I usually have a general list of things I’m always looking for– stripes, globes, polka dots, retro prints, silk, craft supplies, cameras– and that really helps me sift through unorganized stores. With a general knowledge of what you want, it makes shopping easier because you can scan the store and let the things you want pop out.
I used to think that the best thrift shops must be in New York City or somewhere really cool, but that is NOT true at all. I actually HATE the thrift shops in New York. They are overpriced and rather small. (Eight bucks for a (boring) used shirt? No thank you.) There isn’t much digging and scrounging around in big-city thrift shops… and isn’t that most of the fun? Small towns usually have a lot of old people that donate the best stuff, (Read: vintage 1960s dresses and swoon-worthy Polaroid cameras), and shoppers in small town thrift shops are rarely hunting the same things that a vintage-grubbing hipster hunts.
This is so important because if you are serious about snatching the best thrifted stuff, you need to know when it first comes in stock. My favorite Goodwill shops usually bring in a large batch of new stock on Wednesdays, but it varies from city to city.
It never hurts to strike up a relationship with the employees, either. In my favorite shop here in town, I usually talk to the book-stocker, Stan, and one day he asked me what I was looking for. I said I was on the hunt for nice old atlases for some projects, but I can’t ever seem to find any on the shelves. He looked at me with a cocked eyebrow, “You mean you want old maps from the 40s and 50s?” I couldn’t say yes fast enough before Stan replied, “Well honey, I find tattered old books like that all the time! I just didn’t know anyone would want them!” It never hurts to ask.
The things that thrift stores have in stock are always so random, so you need to have a routine to make sure you don’t miss anything good. When I was in college, I went at least once a week, always. Sometimes if I was really stressed out, I’d even go two times. Needless to say, the ladies that work at the Greencastle Goodwill totally knew who I was. 😉
when you’re thrifting, you always have to be prepared to lift a box, move a plate, and dig in. The best cameo necklace could be hidden under a poofy hair scrunchie from the ’90s or something and you’d never know with just a glance!
Extra tip: Make sure you check the locked glass cabinet in the front of the store– that’s where I’ve found a lot of really cool stuff. My favorite vintage Coach “Willis” bag, for one.
Don’t count out an extra-large shirt if you walk by the rack and the print or pattern sticks out. Flex those sewing skills and choose items for what they could be, and not what they are at the moment. Make a shirt smaller, hem a skirt– if you like a design on a big baggy shirt, think about what it could be! And as a side note, I hardly ever buy fabric from the fabric store for my crafts and projects– I usually buy something from the thrift store and repurpose it. Recycling, people. 😉
Sometimes when I am walking down an aisle, I just run my hands along the clothes to feel them. I’m always on the lookout for natural fibers, especially silk and wool, and feeling the materials helps me find the silk in the clothes rack. 😉
Sometimes I wear an 8 in one store and a 4 in another– when you’re thrifting, it is really important to try stuff on and make sure it doesn’t fit in an odd way. Sometimes you’re even surprised by how good a piece of clothing looks on you.
While it’s good to go in with a plan and a list of what you want, it’s just as important to keep an open mind for things that you stumble upon.
And be sure to consider an item’s potential as well– just think, what would this look like with a coat of paint? A nice scrubbing? Some new soles?
Bonus tip: If you’re really only looking for great vintage clothes and you don’t want to hunt and dig around grubby old stores, head to the antique shops. They’re more expensive, but they’re curated more carefully. And when you look around, they’re everywhere. (At least in the Midwest.) 😉