Ode To A Recycled Urn: The Second Hand Shop     
by Marjorie Dorfman

Are you one of those who cannot resist a bargain? Have you discovered the joys of the thrift store or are you still in the second-hand dark? Have a look and see.

Bargain: something you can’t use at a price you can’t resist.     . . . Franklin P. Jones

In this expensive, I-can’t-get-it-for-you-wholesale world of ours a store that can offer a man’s shirt for a buck or two, a suit for ten dollars and paper-back books for 10 cents a piece seems a fantasy a world away from consumer reality. It isn’t though. The non-retail world has taken a small bite out of America’s inflated economy and deflated wallets with its recognition of the thrift shop and its up and coming cousin, the consignment store. If you are impressed with low prices read on, but don’t forget that Macys never tells Gimbels or The Salvation Army. Where recycling ends and the bargains begin in these testaments to American ingenuity and thrift, is not clear, but be assured that ghosts abound within the multitude of donated items, telling tales in and out of school about their former owners.

There may be some survivors of twenty-percent-off sales who do not know the difference between thrift shops and consignment stores. Allow me to clear the mud, so to speak. A thrift shop is always run for the benefit of a charity. The name of that charity must be posted clearly by the cash register so that all who buy know exactly where the proceeds are going. Tax deductions are given in lieu of payment for donated items, which is how the shop maintains its inventory. A consignment store is a private enterprise. The merchandise is either new or gently second-hand, and payment is given in the form of a pre-determined percentage of sales. (These are set at the discretion of the owner and vary from shop to shop.)

I have been both a frequenter and manager of several thrift stores in my checkered past. For those of you out there who have never set foot in one of these shops for fear of becoming second-hand, I can tell you that it’s a more interesting environment than you would ever imagine. In one of my stores I once received a cocktail dress in an anonymous bag of clothing that had two bullet holes on one side! (As both a writer and lover of mystery fiction, I would have given anything to be a fly on the wall where that party was!) There was also the day I discovered that buried treasure does not always lie at the bottom of the sea. I went to work and found lying against the door to my shop a soiled paper bag with a moldy box. It was so dirty that I hesitated to open it. To my surprise, among a host of worthless trinkets, a ruby ring and one antique gold locket lay sparkling inside. A note read: "He gave me these and I don’t want them. Can you use?" That was my defining thrift shop moment and I’ve been hooked ever since.

There are thousands of thrift shops throughout the United States and each one is unique, whether it be the manner in which the goods are displayed within the space provided or the nature of the items themselves. I would venture, however, after being inside so many of them that they all smell more or less the same, (like a musty old cellar). They all provide a sort of cultural graveyard for fads and trends that have lost their significance and have no place to go in this fickle world of ours. There is always a kind of suspense that hangs in the air when one enters one of these shops because there is no way to know the bargains that lay waiting inside. You will see stains you have never seen before and in all likelihood will never see again. Pictures, furnishings and bric-a-brac range from early tacky to extra tacky. Those stores run by richer charitable organizations carry the finest antiques and furnishings, but with them come the heftiest price tags as well.

I am always amazed at the people who frequent these shops. Mine eyes have seen the glory of wheeler-dealers, mamas, papas, beggars and even deposed royalty. (One customer swore she was a Hapsbourg after drinking just one Pepsi). The oddest of souls seem drawn to these places, like second-hand moths to second-hand flames. I once knew a woman who owned half of the real estate in Scarsdale, New York. (Her brother owned the other half.) Her husband ran a huge pharmacy across the street from my store and she came in to gossip and shop several times a week. She always wore dark glasses and spoke barely above a whisper, confessing to me that she feared some of her neighbors might discover that she bought all of her linen and underwear in thrift stores! She rarely spent more than five dollars at one time. (I actually considered blackmailing her once over her confessions when I was desperate for cash.)

Despite the bargains that abound, there is always someone who feels they can get things for a cheaper price. I used to rotate my inventory by maintaining a 25 cents bin that held garments that had been reduced more than once and hadn’t sold over a period of time. I would often get "heated feed-back" from customers insisting that my prices were too high. I have seen shoppers who look perfectly normal fight vigorously with sales personnel over two cents tax, the argument always being about tax being paid on a second hand item. The government screws us twice, etc, etc. After hearing it for a while, I almost believed it, but almost doesn’t count, does it?

In the end, the key to the success of the second hand shop lies in what unites these shoppers rather than separates them. Everyone is seeking the inimitable bargain, the white elephant (also other colors) that in many instances cannot even be identified. (The term "UFO" is much more appropriate here than in tales about little green men. I’ll bet they visit us looking for bargains too!) Don’t forget the old adage: "One man’s meat is another man’s poison." The thrift store carries this philosophy to another plateau of reasoning. "One man’s garbage is another’s treasure." The concept can certainly be expanded to include human trade-ins as well. Exchange those relatives and friends you no longer like, owe money to or in general have grown tired of. You don’t want your husband, I do. I’ll trade you my ex spouse for yours.

Think about the tension of meeting people that could be instantly relieved by people recycling themselves in a congenial, bargain store atmosphere. "Whatís your sign?" and "Are you on the pill?" could be replaced by a more celibate and lasting "look what I found!" and "my grandmother had one just like this!" To ponder what lies yonder may prove to be a waste, but one thing is certain. The second hand shop is here to stay and forever tempt those humans among us that cannot exist without the quest for a bargain.

Did you know . . .

Copyright 2002