[NPR, "All Things Considered," May 20, 1997]
I’ve walked a hundred miles in another woman’s shoes, and I don’ t even know her name. I’ve ironed her blouse, hemmed her skirt, and carried her handbag. She’s not one person, but a composite of dozens, women of all ages and races and creed.
But there is one thing they all had in common: they were all mostly my size.
I became a thrift-shop customer reluctantly, over a process of years. I first stepped inside my local Salvation Army store lured by the rumor that there were books in there, cheap and plenty. That first visit offered little to encourage a return. A musty, grandma’s-attic smell hung in the air. Forlorn furniture sat here and there, flanked by giant table lamps, a wooden crate full of curtains, shoes lined up by color.
On a repeat visit I was lured from the bookshelves toward a set of four old wooden chairs with backs steepled like the Empire State Building. A week later they were freshly painted blue and sitting in my kitchen. Then the corner of a piece of embroidery caught my eye, as it stuck out of the curtain bin. It turned out to be a large piece of visionary folk art, and the cashier gave it to me free. When I took it to an art dealer for an appraisal, he offered to buy it.
But the idea of buying used clothes made me shy. A little nonchalant examining of the racks swiftly overcame this hesitation. Here were clothes I’d never be able to afford, silks, suedes, fine wools, exquisite styling and high priced labels, for a few dollars each. Till then I’d been buying new clothes at much higher prices for much lower quality. Pride went out the window, and a lovely red raw-silk suit went in the bag.
The explanation was obvious once I thought about it. The key to thrift shop quality is the donors, and a few miles away was a swanky development full of professional women. I’d be glad to recycle their expensive purchases. I just hoped I wouldn’t run into them in the grocery store.
It’s been years now, and I’ve become a connoiseur: Salvation Army, Goodwill, Value Village, Amvets, every store has its charms, and a couple even have dressing rooms. Best of all, every time I buy clothes I have a chance to donate back previous purchases that have lost their novelty. So I don’t actually buy clothes at a thrift shop—I just rent them. And decked out in my rented, second-hand, thrift shop finery, I’m much better dressed than I used to be.