More Than Polyester: the Rediscovery of The Thrift Shop

Damien Cave | Posted on 09/01/04

The wide-collared, blue polyester shirt I was wearing required serious mending, given the rip at the collar and the various colored threads that I'd used to reattach its buttons. But with my girlfriend's parents waiting for me at a fancy Manhattan bistro, I hardly had time to stop at a tailor. So, with $20 in my pocket, I headed for the thrift store where I originally found the shirt five years ago, Andy's Chee-Pees on West Broadway in Greenwich Village.

Little seemed to have changed since my first visit in 1996. The shirt racks up front remained overstocked with one-of-a-kind prints, stiff leather jackets hung to my left, and the musty odor made me feel like I was in a rock club rather than retail. But then I started noticing the price tags. Every shirt I grabbed, from a Lacoste short sleeve to a formal, cotton button-down, ran $30 and up. Prices of corduroys, tuxedos and T-shirts had also doubled or tripled.

"What happened?" I asked the clerk, an unshaven hipster who must have replaced the old hippie with the gut. "I remember when these were $10."

He just shrugged. "Yeah, well, times change," he said.

Indeed, they do - and not just at Andy's. Over the past few years, I've visited dozens of thrift stores from California to Connecticut, and after interviewing owners, shoppers and retail experts, this much is clear: Items being thrown out are now more in than ever. Thrift-store sales have increased by 130 percent in the past decade at one major nonprofit chain, and new companies dealing in vintage continue to grow and push prices higher. Some stores, no longer secret treasure chests for the poor and curious, have even become modern retail outlets, complete with track-lighting, Jaguar-driving customers, and cafes that serve cappuccino.

It's a loss of simple authenticity that I, for one, when desperate for a good deal, find about as welcome as a trip to the mall the day after Thanksgiving. And yet, for those of us who value thrift - those of us who truly cherish economy - there's reason to rejoice. Increasing prices reflect a major spike in demand. Our pseudoreligion of reuse has become popular enough to compete with conspicuous consumption. Indeed, now that eBay is worth more than the Gap, Sears and Federated Department Stores combined, the stigma of second-hand is miraculously passé. People in every income bracket - and of every age - are learning to thrive through thrift.

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Thrift stores essentially started with the Salvation Army. Launched by a Methodist minister in London around 1865, the organization sought to both preach the Gospel, and alleviate the social strains of industrialization. Its initial strategy centered on thrift. The Army sent out pairs of women called "sisters," who traveled throughout the city collecting, sorting and recycling unwanted goods. The clothes, utensils and other items that "salvage brigades" gathered eventually found a home in a "salvage depot," where the poor could buy them for a fraction of their original price. The first store opened in London in 1895; two years later, a depot appeared on Manhattan's Lower East Side.

New York City at the time was in the midst of a wrenching social transformation. Decades of massive immigration had combined with corrupt government and the raw capitalism of the era to create horrific slums. Jacob Riis's How the Other Half Lives, a powerful book of photographs published in 1890, captures the moment. It's filled with pictures of ragged orphans raising themselves on the streets of lower Manhattan, and families packed into dark apartments without plumbing. The stink and appearance of poverty seemed to be everywhere.

There was no government assistance to rely on - a city health department wasn't formed until 1895, when New York's population was already over three million - so religious and private philanthropists tried to stand in the gap. Churches began to serve food and distribute clothing. Agencies such as Clara Barton's American Red Cross, founded in 1881, suddenly appeared during disasters. As for thrift, it wasn't an optional virtue; it was simply a means of survival. Used goods, whether bought at the local Salvation Army or borrowed from neighbors, often were the only goods to be had.

Thrift and thrift stores, however, were destined to become valuable on a broader scale. In 1916, in order to support preparedness efforts leading up to World War I, the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), began sponsoring National Thrift Week. The idea soon spread: the National Education Association, an organization of teachers and school administrators, adopted a curriculum for students that focused on saving and reuse, and other social service agencies started calling for the donation of unwanted goods. Shirley Powers, a historian with the American Red Cross, describes a postcard from a New Jersey chapter from 1919: "The front shows a photo of workers in a room with tables spread with miscellaneous items around the edges. The back reads in part: 'The Red Cross Shop wants your discarded clothing of all kinds...furnishings, pictures, bric-a-brac,' and it gives a phone number for a truck to come pick up the stuff."

When the Great Depression hit, donations slipped. The Mormon Church started the Deseret Industries chain of thrift stores in 1938 mainly to create jobs. Buyers consisted of the destitute. My grandfather - who grew up in working-class Brooklyn and later owned a successful high-end clothing company - says that 1930s-era thrift meant taking care of what you owned, not buying used. "We all wore hand-me-downs," he says. "I used to wear my father's shoes and they'd put cotton in the front - and that was perfectly acceptable, as long as it was in the family. But no one would ever go to thrift shops." The reason was simple; there was a stigma there. "Everyone thought that you'd have to be awfully poor without a hope in the world to do that," he says.

This is a mentality that has proven difficult to break. But if you're looking for pioneers in this culture war of clothing, look no further than the adventurous wealthy women of the 1950s. Seeing that the American consumer economy produced more than it needed, many of them decided to open for-profit stores. They tended to set up shops where they lived, whether it was the tony Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe, San Francisco, or Manhattan's Upper East Side. Some sold clothing on consignment, in which profits are shared with the person donating, and others simply bought and resold what they liked. With names like Encore - the Madison Avenue shop where Jackie Kennedy reportedly donated her clothing - the stores offered a classy boutique feel, and designer clothing at discount-store prices.

The stores benefited in large part from the boom. "In better times people donate nicer items and shoppers keep returning," says Irene Dickey, a retail expert and professor of marketing at the University of Dayton. "In the tougher times, people donate items that are more worn out, and discount and traditional department stores have aggressive sales to move their merchandise, so the competition is greater."

In the '60s and '70s, thrift stores also benefited from the cultural loosening of the time. As hippies dropped out of mainstream society, they made more room for a style that included old clothing (if they wore it at all). New stores also opened, keeping profit and social conscience in mind. Buffalo Exchange, for example, a chain of twenty-four thrift stores with a dedication to "social responsibility" - and with sales in 2003 of $29 million - started in Tucson in 1974. It would later spread to San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury and other bohemian neighborhoods.

College students in particular helped the stores succeed. Many eighteen to twenty-four-year-olds began shopping not just for great deals, but also for a way to stand out through quirky purchases. John C. Franke, a professor of fashion at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, takes his students to thrift stores to teach them about fabrics and styles. While attending Lehigh University in the 1970s, he found a thrift store in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and says, "I got addicted. I bought art deco furniture and art nouveau and great clothes. I was into '40s smoking jackets and pajamas."

Still, despite such interest, thrift stores remained decidedly outside mainstream culture. By the 1980s nearly every American town of more than twenty thousand people had a place for donations and second-hand purchases; the Salvation Army had grown to a national organization with thousands of employees and billion-dollar budgets. Hippies, punk rockers and Mods were willing to admit that they'd picked through the stores that trafficked in used goods - but they were essentially alone.

"People were into conspicuous consumption," says Adele Meyer, executive director of National Association of Resale and Thrift Shops, and the former owner of a store in Grosse Point, Michigan. "Women would come in all the time to buy designer suits and dresses, but they would rather have people think they had a sugar daddy than admit they bought their clothes at a resale shop. In those days, people would hide in the fitting room if someone they knew walked in."
This would soon change. And pop culture led the charge.

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I first heard Nirvana in a friend's van, complete with tan shag carpeting throughout and a tape deck hanging above the rearview mirror. It was 1991 and the music, which was dubbed "grunge," sounded rougher and more authentic than the heavy metal or hip hop that we usually listened to. Here, with Nirvana, Pearl Jam and other bands, were musicians who rejected the made-up, glammy '80s. They wore old flannel shirts, and sweatshirts that hung over ripped jeans. They didn't shave; they rejected the image-centric role offered to them by MTV and other big companies. Pearl Jam even sued Ticketmaster to save fans from high ticket prices. For those of us who were born during the era of disco, they were nothing short of heroes. Their frugality became immediately worth mimicking, especially for college kids on a limited budget.

But it wasn't just music that sent us into stores with musty clothing. We also started shopping at thrift stores because we had an urge toward silliness, self-deprecation, and thrift stores offered the cheapest form of funny fulfillment. I remember walking through thrift stores all over New England and thinking that there must have been a giant rapture for people with bad taste. The sheer amount of dark brown polyester was earth-shaking. A single match and the store would have gone up in flames.

You could always tell when someone had died, too, because an entire rack would be dedicated to the same size. Once, at a thrift store in the basement of a Cape Cod church, I found no less than a dozen pairs of plaid pants, all lined with Crayola-bright colors, and in the same size. I bought four pairs at $3 apiece, even though I'd never worn plaid and wasn't really sure that they'd ever be more than a joke. And that was exactly the point. For Halloween costumes, or some silly Christmas party, I knew that I could make them work.

Before long, several films tapped into a similar notion. Richard Linklater's stoned throwback Dazed and Confused hit theaters in 1993, offering glimpses of the bell-bottom jeans and tight T-shirts that could be found in abundance at nearly every thrift store in the country. Two years later, eBay started auctioning used knick-knacks online and The Brady Bunch Movie once again recycled old styles for the silver screen. This was followed by the psychedelic juggernaut of Austin Powers in 1997, The Last Days of Disco in 1998, and a host of TV shows that were either set in times past, or used styles stolen from another era.

The thrift store business, in turn, exploded. "Movies really make a difference," says Kristina Bracero, a twenty-seven-year-old clerk at Cheap Jack's, another Manhattan vintage store that's outpriced its name. "After Moulin Rouge, it was all about the '20s."

At Goodwill Industries, one of the biggest chains of nonprofits, sales nearly doubled between 1993 and 1998. After noticing that Hollywood designers were picking through stores in Orange County for new ideas and better fabrics, the company also started a line of boutiques. With names like Best Kept Secrets, they offered designer products for slightly higher prices. Some of their locations even leased space to restaurants and launched cafes.

"More people than ever are shopping at thrift stores," says George Kessinger, Goodwill's president and CEO. The nonprofit now manages 1,950 stores, an increase of 38 percent since 1993. Sales and donations have jumped by more than 130 percent during the same period. "Thrift is completely mainstream," he says.

The rise of successful discount retailers, such as Target and Old Navy seems only to have contributed to the trend, as more and more people came to accept the value of cheaper goods. Clothing in particular seems to have become a nucleus of thrift. According to the Consumer Expenditure surveys compiled by the U.S. Department of Labor, pretax income for the average American family rose from about $38,000 in the mid-'90s to nearly $50,000 in 2002 - but the amount of money spent on clothing stayed essentially the same. In 1997, the average American family spent $1,729 on apparel and its services (such as dry cleaning). In 2002, the most recent year that statistics are available, the amount spent on clothing amounted to only $1,749.

For some, it seems, thrift stores became a supplement to other discount retail options. For others, shopping for secondhand treasures has become "a quest" says Linda Hutson, a business partner in the Rag Shop, a consignment store in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, that's seen annual sales increases of 20 percent since opening ten years ago. "They're doing it as a sport," she says. "They've made it a fun process instead of a necessity process."

There are drawbacks, of course, to this kind of growth. Great old clothing is now harder to find. Many urban thrift stores have started stocking new, cheaply-made knock-offs to meet demand. (Concert T-shirts are a present favorite.)

Shoppers also don't necessarily subscribe to the ethos of reuse. "When Halloween comes, everyone wants to dress like it's another time," says Bracero at Cheap Jack's. "They wear it once and throw it away." Simply put, says Michelle Parker, another one of Cheap Jack's young clerks, "most people just don't get it."

Then there are the higher prices that result in part from increasing demand. Don't the increases hurt the poor people that thrift stores were designed to help?

Such criticism, however, fails to reflect the reality of thrift. The core of the industry relies on return and steady business, not one-time Halloween shoppers. Most people who shop at thrift stores visit regularly; they appreciate both the quality of what's being sold, and the idea of reuse. They're people like Sergei Petrov, the thirty-nine-year-old New York stylist who recently bought a $400 couch at an Upper East Side thrift store, knowing full well that it would have cost $2,000 new. Or Mandy DeBoer, twenty-two, a senior at the University of Central Florida, who says that she shops at thrift stores "partially because it's cheaper and partially because it's not corporate." Or Patricia Fields, the costume designer for Sex and the City, who regularly used secondhand clothing on the show, and who plans to launch a "vintage" line with Candie's in the Spring of 2005.

These are the people driving much of the sales and growth in the U.S. And their interest isn't just in consumption, says Meyer, at the Association of Resale and Thrift Shops. "Years ago, there was a lot that was just thrown out," she says. "People don't do that anymore with things that are usable. They're donating them instead."

"Even though wealth has been growing, people are more thrifty now," another store manager told me. "Everyone is more money conscious."

The well-to-do are hardly the only shoppers either. "Overall," says Dickey at the University of Dayton, "it is estimated that 6 percent to 9 percent of American consumers regularly shop at thrift and consignment stores because they feel that they can't afford most firsthand items, and 7 percent to 8 percent are deal-hunters who shop at thrift stores as a hobby or pastime and have fun."

A visit to the Memorial Sloan-Kettering thrift store in Manhattan on a recent Saturday bears this out. Among the customers, I counted four middle-age Latino women, a blonde teenager with her mom, a hippie baby boomer with long stringy hair, and a white-haired woman carrying an expensive Coach bag. At the Salvation Army store I visited in a run-down neighborhood outside New Haven a few months ago, the crowd was a mix of young kids from Yale University and older locals.

This is exactly the kind of mix that even for-profit thrift stores work hard to preserve. The owners of the Rag Shop intentionally stock furniture and clothing at a wide range of price points. At Domsey's pair of 7,000-square-foot stores in Brooklyn, prices haven't gone up in fifteen years. Suits can be had for $20, shirts for $3, pants for $10. All the clothing is dry-cleaned. The racks are spaced a healthy distance apart, and the customers tend to be a mix of new immigrants and younger hipsters just starting out in New York.

I didn't see a single person that looked wealthy, and the store's owner confirmed that it was a representative mix. "We aim to run clean thrift shops with beautiful clothing at fair prices," says Dave Salm, co-owner of the company, which has been based in Brooklyn for nearly fifty years. "That's just what we do."

It's all possible, he says, because there's no shortage of clothing on the market. "It's a commodity like anything else," Salm says - and Domsey's is a wholesaler too. About 90 percent of the clothing that Salm buys in bulk from nonprofit distributors ends up being sold in Asia, Africa and Latin America - which is why it's common to see foreign men abroad wearing cheerleading sweatshirts from Indiana. "The business isn't about what you sell in the States," he says. "It's what you sell abroad that counts."

Salm, a compact man of few words, didn't seem particularly happy about the state of the industry when we met in one of his stores. He complained that business is tougher than ever. With thrift stores being highlighted everywhere from the New York Times to glossy fashion magazines, new, aggressive entrepreneurs have moved onto his turf. Some of the immigrants that shop at Domsey's have now started businesses of their own, shipping to their own countries. And the wealth of clothing that was once ignored is now being picked over more than ever. These days, most of the '70s clothing that first drew me to Andy's Chee-Pees has disappeared or been bought.

But as Salm and I stood in front of his well-lit and organized store, stocked with several items that were worth far more than what appeared on the price tags, it was hard not to be struck by the sheer magnitude of what he was describing. Over the course of a ten-year period, a one-hundred-year-old attempt at social service had become a cultural phenomenon and a multibillion-dollar business. Thrift stores, once retail pariahs, had not just joined the mainstream - they'd become profitable mines of American style, the memory banks of a fickle consumer culture.

A society of shoppers, long condemned for their consumerism, somehow found a way to cut down on waste, help the poor, save some money and look cool in the process. America's penchant for reinvention had struck again - and suddenly $30 for an old shirt seemed like quite a bargain.