So... I live in Southern California, in one of those 1970s-built apartment buildings with the semi-decent landscaping and layout, but whose interiors are in slow, oppressive decay. These places cater to mainly grad students, meth-makers/users, and shall we say, persons of dubious morality. One of the latter, (my upstairs neighbor no-less), the other night, threatened to poop on my car, thrown a brick through my window, and kick my teeth in . Ah, the Inland Empire (meth lab explosion/ identity theft capitol of the USA) :<
But what has this sad story to do with Thrift Store Adventures?
Only that to Know your surroundings is a crucial skill when looking for a decent thrift store. Rule number one is to find a neighborhood that's not too nice but not too shady, either. Too nice and you'll probably not find any thrift stores at all. If you do, they're likely to be "upscale" places with $600 Levi's jeans and other outrageously over-priced ephemera that just kind of negates the whole thrift store mining process. And, you know, the place still smells like mildew.
Now, I lean way more to the shady thrifts, in mildly gentrified neighborhoods. They're generally more interestingly messy and offer up more miracles when you dig than your typical spic and span, what-you-see-is-what-we-got variety. But, there are pitfalls too.
If you go to a place that's too shady it might have potentially nice stuff, but you're also in danger of getting your car scratched or dented, being eyeballed by gang-bangers or being followed by mental cases, or possibly having to wait inside an extra half-hour after you finished looking until that guy who's waving a gun around in the parking lot moves on (all of which are first-hand experiences). More often than not, a shady neighborhood thrift store is not that exciting. It's just dank, dark, moldy, sticky, depressing, and usually a complete waste of time -- that is it doesn't yield.
Not to be all artsy-fartsy, Gleaming the Cube, pseudo-zen about it, but you've to have a developed sense of smell to sniff out the best thrifts. And a lot of that is just getting a feel for the landscape, their natural habitat. It sounds kooky, but it's in the air, like static before an electrical storm.
Had enough mixed metaphors? What follows is of a short guide to navigating the urban geography of thrift stores and their neighborhoods.
Part One: Support Your Local Thrift Store
The Bigger the Better: First off, it's of the big-box variety, which I just naturally prefer. For some, the vastness might be tiring or overwhelming, but in my mind the more room for junk, the more potential for gold. The above store one of my favorites for precisely that reason. A lot of the pictures I've shared were taken inside this cavernous place -- which oddly enough, as kind of tiny originally.
Another thing about this place it still has old signs up in the parking lot from the lumber store that used to be in this space. Look Twice: many thrifts used to be banks, grocery stores, roller rinks, etc.
Nondescript is good: This is another great thrift but it doesn't look like much from the street. Looks like DMV, actually, which would make most people drive fast in the opposite direction. I was taking a new route and the word "thrift" on the sign caught my eye. I went inside, the angels sang hallelujah, end of story.
So there's two more rules right there 1) Take different routes: you might get lost, but you might find a great Goodwill. 2) Autonomic thrift store response: train your brain to recognize this word as you drive by at 35-55 mph. Sometimes you'll get lured in by a Thrift Bakery or a Thrifty Boys Automotive, but more often than not it's a thrift store.
Night time is the right time: sometimes it's just nicer at night, when the aisles are not packed (case in point: only 2 cars in the parking lot on one of 'em is mine), you're less likely to suffer through screaming babies, and you might get lucky and snag something that's being set out the next day or something that someone else hid earlier. And, as subcategory, Flagstone, Neon, and Googie: some of my favorite thrifts are done-up in a space age, oh-so-50s, mid-century modern (aka Googie [or what I call Spears and Bubbles] style) building material. Old is good, because the neighborhood might be old and therefore the treasures more abundant. This Salavation Army (ha! I'm keeping that typo) is smack dab in the middle of Lakewood, one of the first post-war suburbs, and a great retro neighborhood.
Newer and smaller is alright too: If time is short, and I have to choose between older big box and newer small box thrift stores I'm going to go big box. However, the smaller places do have their charms. And you never know. I pulled a 78 copy of Les Baxter's The Passions out of this particular store.
Another sad truth that thrift stores tend to burn out quickly, and the above place is already dead. I used to drive by it everyday, and I would have hated myself If I didn't at least go inside once before it was boarded up. So, I say Get in before its gone.
Stick with your Faves: I'm basically a creature of habit. It's important to take take unusual and varying routes because you just might find a great, tucked away thrift (see above). But as my mom might sing in her preschool class: Make new friends, but keep the old, one is silver and the other is gold.
I have old faithfuls, like the Goodwill pictured. Currently I visit and revisit around 7-8 stores on a regular basis (used to be like 15, but I no longer have that kind of time and gas isn't so cheap anymore). Each thrift store has its strong areas and weak ones. Maybe great for books, but not clothes; wonderful for furniture, but over-priced when it comes to records. Once you've developed a feel for each store's specialness, you can cut out a lot of the wasted time to concentrate on the richness.
But then again, much of the fun of the thrift store is to stray off the beaten path. Some of the best stuff I've found is by wandering into a strange section. Like this 1920s Girl Scouts blouse I found in the kids clothing section (it's Sanforized!):
Next time part two: the people in the thrift store's neighborhood.
So, never let it be said that eniksleestack ignores his goofs or his readers. About the Girl Scout blouse, TSA reader baikinange said...
Hate to burst the bubble, but if that label goes with that blouse, it's probably not 1920s. The label looks very 1950s-60s. Labels say more than style to determine the period of a garment.
Very true, and I'm usually pretty good at dating garments by their labels, but this time I was a bit off. I did a little research and found out that the distinct "Sanforized" trademark was first registered for copy write in 1930. It was one of the first anti-shrinking processes to be applied to mass produced clothing and was especially popular for uniforms.
Digging a little more (using the fantastic web tool Google Image Search) I discovered this membership card dated 1945 with a girl wearing a similar sailor uniform (in lower right bubble):
I even found some great history about the Girl Scouts and the Mariner program, which the uniform is clearly a part of. According to the site Cheesecake and Friends:
During both World War I and World War II, Girl Scouts served their country on the home front collecting waste fat and scrap iron, growing Victory Gardens, and selling defense bonds. During that time special programs on seafaring and aviation, called Mariner Girl Scouts and Wing Girl Scouts were developed for Senior Girl Scouts.
Ain't the internet grand? And I was only off by 20-some years. :p Still a great thrift store rescue, as far as I'm concerned, and even better now that I know a bit more about its Word War Two heritage.