Second-hand Seattle

Is it possible to shop almost exclusively at thrift stores and not look like a ragamuffin? You bet, but it's not easy.

Crosscut archive image.

The grand opening of a Bellevue Goodwill store. Goodwill on the Ave in the U. District opens November 5. (Goodwill Industries)

Is it possible to shop almost exclusively at thrift stores and not look like a ragamuffin? You bet, but it's not easy.

The lure of the thrift store is that proceeds can help a non-profit organization, recycled clothing is the ultimate in eco-friendly shopping, and the rock-bottom prices are easy on the wallet. Some of the deterrents are the funky smell kicked up wherever used items are accumulated in one place, the crowded racks, and the frustration in finding sizes.

But let's face it, the economy of the situation is unparalleled. Save clothing exchanges, the local thrift shop is by far the most economical shopping out there. Budget conscious college students have long felt the lure of thrifting. Apparently, mainstream America is following suit.

The National Association of Resale and Thrift Shops (NARTS) reports that in a survey of NARTS members, 75 percent of resalers experienced a 30 percent increase in sales in April 2008 over April 2007. NARTS also reported that 80 percent of the stores surveyed experienced an increase in new customers.

According to Christine Bragale, a spokeswoman for Goodwill Industries International, Goodwill sales nationwide are up 6.2 percent in the first six months of 2008, compared to the same period last year. In response to this new fashion-savvy clientele, Goodwill has created a Fashion Focus section in many of its stores, featuring more fashionable clothing and designer labels.

Goodwill is also expanding in the Northwest, with a new location in the U. District due to open November 5. The new Goodwill on the Ave will feature hip, trendy apparel and accessories and be approximately one-quarter the size of a traditional store. It will provide a more intimate shopping experience. "We are very excited about testing a small-store model in an urban neighborhood like the U-District. The success of this small store will allow us entry into similar neighborhoods where we have found it difficult to find larger spaces," said Cindi Forslund, vice president of operations.

Following is an interview with a group of veteran thrifters who possess more than 90 years' combined shopping experience. They share their advice on how to best navigate the racks.

Meredeth McMahon: Why have you chosen to stick with thrift stores over the years?

Julie Brunett: I shop (at thrift stores) because I am an uber recycler. I don't want to buy new clothes unnecessarily and bring them into circulation. Also, I love a good find and a good deal. Even when I have the money to shop at new clothing stores, I still shop thrift stores.

Lisa Loop: I love the whole idea of giving an item a new life, not just because it's good for the planet but because I adore the notion of being part of a continuum where people come and go, but the things we create go on; our buildings, our books, our clothes.

Tatiana Masters: I started thrifting with my friends because we were bored high schoolers with an eccentric taste in fashion and way more time than money.

Jason Spainhower: I started in the early 1980s for the same reason I still thrift today, as a way to afford the unusual clothes I like.

Meredeth: What is the most difficult part of thrift/consignment shopping?

Lisa: It takes time to really find the good stuff. You have to allow yourself enough time to get bored, and get to the point where you don't think you're going to find anything — that's when the fantastic items magically appear. I'd say an hour is the minimum needed to get there.

Jason: Keeping a clear head about things that are almost right. You have to focus on the item and not the price, since something that is almost the right fit or bargain won't get worn.

Julie: Holding back and not buying too many items I don't really need.

Tatiana: It can be difficult to find something that you love that's not the wrong size or has a hole in it or smells funny.

Lisa: I don't worry about that, because I can wash or air them out and get rid of the smell pretty easily. Once, I bought a blouse that smelled like someone's bad perfume and I couldn't get it out. I had to donate that blouse back to where I bought it. But that is one time in thirty years.

Meredeth: When scanning the racks, what do you look for? Color? Brand?

Tatiana: I focus on one or two types of things (jeans, skirts, blouses), then scan for color. Value Village sorts by color, which makes this easier.

Julie: Brand!

Lisa: I tend to see my favorite colors, whether I'm looking for them or not. For whatever reason, I rarely stray out of my color palette. Brands are a total wild card. I think with practice you learn to tell if something is good quality, regardless of label.

Jason: I look for colors first, because the right brand and the wrong color is worse than the other way around.

Meredeth: Do you have a method for hitting the stores so you don't get overwhelmed?

Lisa: I try to go during week days if possible, earlier in the day if I can. I take one area at a time. Some areas don't interest me, so of course I skip them. I will share this tip, though it's a secret ... the men's department often has mislabeled women's gems that sit unnoticed. So even if I'm shopping for myself, I give it a look. Being overwhelmed is part of the process of thrifting. Take a deep breath and slow down. Also, I always allow myself to leave empty handed. It's not a waste of time.

Julie: In Seattle, I usually have only one store that I frequent.

Tatiana: Go in looking for a few specific items (denim jacket, plaid skirt, striped blouse), but stay open to finding something fabulous that you haven't thought of. Don't shop hungry!

Jason: It's about the same as going to any store: Set a time limit, know what you need, and look at the racks for those items first.

Meredeth: What was your best find ever?

Jason: I found a current season Façonnable sports jacket for eight dollars at the Dearborn Goodwill a couple of years ago, and it did not seem to have ever been worn. The outside pockets were still sewn shut, and there was a salesman's card in the inner pocket. Even better was the fact that I had actually tried one on at Nordstrom.

Julie: The most recent, a brand new pair of Naot sandals, in brown, the color I was looking for, and the style I was looking for. A $100 deal.

Tatiana: Lucky dark denim jeans, nearly new, perfect fit, once hemmed, $15 (versus $150 in stores).

Meredeth: How do you avoid making mistakes in your purchases?

Lisa: I make mistakes usually because I buy too much on a good day when I should have just taken the best few things. I also do better shopping alone. Friends respond to how cool something is, but not necessarily how often you'll actually use it.

Tatiana: If you like something, look it over carefully for holes and stains. Don't be afraid to smell it!

Jason: I decide what I am looking for before going to a store (this was learned the hard way — although I am down to an even dozen cardigans, for a while I bought any clean natural fiber cardigan that was good fit, and I ended up owning fifty or sixty at the peak. Moths took care of most of them.) I don't buy anything I don't get excited by.

Julie: Making sure the clothes are not faded, stained, have rips, or otherwise. I walk over to a window if necessary so I can take a really good look.

Meredeth: Which are your favorite thrift shops, and how often do you go?

Tatiana: Goodwill and Value Village for real down & dirty thrifting, TakeTwo consignment (a for-profit shop) on Capitol Hill for more expensive but high quality, well-chosen second hand.

Lisa: I like Goodwill, all the branches, and Value Village. St. Vinnies is also great. Sometimes I shop every week, usually when I am purging my house of extra items and need to go drop them off. Other times months go by and I don't make it in. I often visit thrift stores in other towns when I travel, as well as flea markets. I have thrifted all over the world. In college I wore almost exclusively thrift store clothing, but the small town where I lived then was a gold mine for old forties dresses, beaded sweaters, and cowboy boots. There was an old lady named Hazel who had turned her whole house into a charity thrift shop, but you had to know her to be invited in. No competition for the boxes and boxes of society lady castoffs. I kept some of the beautiful, silk sixties mini dresses from Hazel's for years. Scarves, bags, fur coats — she had the most amazing things. The money all went to the hospital auxiliary, I think.

Julie: Goodwill in Ballard and on 145th and 15th. Only when I need things, clothes or otherwise. Once a month maybe on average.

Jason: The Goodwill on Dearborn is great, but requires a lot of patience. I go at least once a month, and every couple of weeks, when it starts warming up in the spring (a lot of people clean their closets, so it's a good time). Gentlemen's Consignment in Madison Valley (a for-profit store) is a good place for more traditional men's clothing, and when I am actually doing suit stuff, I'll go by once a month just to see what's coming in.

If you shop Seattle Thrift Store Guide

NWSource Guide to the best Seattle Thrift Stores

City Search results for Consignment and Thrift Shops in Seattle

Lost in Seattle Thrift Store Establishments


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