Cheap thrill

Secondhand stores give a lift to more than just my pocketbook.

By Karen Propp
August 9, 2009

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If cheap is the new black, my time has come. You won’t hear me bemoaning the spending limits the tough economy has inspired. Be frugal? No big deal. Parsimonious? You bet. Thrifty? That’s me. Finally, as a consumer, I no longer have to hide my lifelong passion: secondhand shops.

I first shopped at thrift stores like Goodwill in my student days. In particular, I remember a storefront in Allston, where a polyester-clad proprietress offered hot tea and a sympathetic ear to troubled souls. How I loved to eavesdrop on stories about wayward husbands and life-threatening illnesses while I tried things on behind a curtain in the back. I felt as if I were in someone’s living room, and it made shopping so much more human. Nothing in that store had a price tag. The shopkeeper made up a figure when I brought my items to the counter, her arithmetic always adding up to the sum I had in my pocket.

Once I became a working adult, it no longer seemed appropriate to frequent consignment stores and thrifts. Weren’t they dirty and disheveled? Unfashionable? Did I really want to wear someone else’s clothes?

I tried going to regular stores, but I was shocked at the prices. I could get a season’s wardrobe elsewhere for the price of one pair of jeans. I choked at the chemical smell wafting up from the department store carpeting. The music was awful. The lighting in the dressing rooms made me look washed out and weird. Somehow I had always looked better in the cracked thrift-store mirrors.

For a while I satisfied my bargain hunting lust with seasonal markdowns and clearance sales. I navigated the Kittery outlet mall in Maine. At Filene’s Basement downtown, I was one of the shoppers who shamelessly stripped down in the aisles to try on silk blouses and A-line skirts.

And then I began living near the Goodwill in Somerville’s Davis Square. At Halloween, the windows were hung with fabulously ghoulish costumes. Walking by one day, I spied in the window an ancient-looking clock with numbers in Hebrew script. Before I could fight the urge, I bought it for my son’s after-school program. The following week, I stepped in for a moment and spotted on the counter a nearly new Melissa & Doug wooden stable, complete with plastic horses -- irresistible at $5. Before long, I was perusing the racks. Old-timey blues guitar played on the sound system. I took a deep breath. It was good to be back.

What made me a true Goodwiller was divorce. When I moved from my marital home to an unfurnished apartment, I needed things. Dishes, bookshelves, a can opener, a laundry basket, lamps -- you name it. Every pre-owned item I carried into my post-marriage life was new to me. That solid oak chair with dovetailed joints and 1958 inscribed under the seat? So what if it had a few nicks. It had already lasted longer than my marriage. After that, every time I walked through Goodwill’s doors I felt like Ali Baba at the entrance of the robber’s cave. Everything I needed, and more, was there.

I’m not the only person visiting Goodwill. Lately, it’s one of the few companies in the retail sector to report rising profits. Did I mention that the Davis Square store is a social place, as well? Recently I ran into Joan, who was standing in line, waiting to be rung up by the cashier. After admiring her find -- an Ann Taylor jacket -- we caught up on news of each other’s kids, who years ago went to preschool together. At housewares, I nodded hello to artist-friend Nancy, communing with an unusually shaped vase in her hand. And how else would I know that Lisa was back in town if I hadn’t found her ensconced in women’s blazers?

Today, I’m driving to Goodwill in my

10-year-old Toyota (110,000 miles and runs great). In the back seat are a couple of plastic bags filled with things I no longer want or need: outgrown kids’ clothing, books, household odds and ends. I take satisfaction in knowing that I’m part of this continuous loop -- my junky bracelet will be someone else’s jewelry, just as someone else’s castoff clock was, for me, a treasure. And when I get to the store, who knows? If I look hard enough and am lucky enough, perhaps I’ll find a pair of golden slippers with diamond-studded toes, or a fish tank, big as a bathtub, filled with live, swimming koi, or a bugle that once sounded taps in the Civil War. It’s the endless possibilities that make me feel rich.

Karen Propp is the author of two memoirs and co-edited the anthology Why I’m Still Married. Send comments to

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