Thrifting: Finding treasure in others' junk

Published April 26, 2007

While driving home from a story one day, I detoured through South Tampa with one mission in mind: The Salvation Army at MacDill Avenue and Bay to Bay Boulevard.

As far as thrift stores go, this one is pretty good, I rarely walk away empty-handed and, over the years, have found some unique tchotchke, designer clothes, even one-of-a-kind collectibles.

My impromptu foray proved worthy: No sooner had I walked in the door than I noticed the place was unusually packed.

Elderly women hovered in the dishes aisle, customers were sweeping up armloads of clothes, pillows, books; one woman even admired a slightly tattered wedding dress, well-cut, I thought, sleeveless, with satin covered buttons and a tulle skirt.

As it turned out, it was "Wacky Wednesday" - a weekly event where everything in the store was half off. The event is repeated on Saturdays, the sale clerk explained with a good-natured groan, and everyone in line chuckled a little, because if you love thrifting, such an event is a bonanza

I found a decoupage birdhouse of indeterminate age, shellacked and north woodsy with pink butterflies and yellow buttercups and the look of something heartfelt someone had once made in shop class. I forked over four bucks that's the half-off price in South Tampa and walked away satisfied.

I have long come to depend upon thrifting as a way of decorating my house, supplementing my art collection, even buying lovely gifts for discerning people who most likely have no idea where I shop.

Last weekend, while on a walk through my neighborhood, I happened into a great resale store that the owner fills with garage-sale finds and consignment items, all in good taste and cheap.

I bought a beautiful antique basket for $3.75 (that I will fill with small gifts and give away) and another gift, a substantial necklace made of sea glass and rawhide cord ($3), that, I'm quite sure, cost a bundle in a resort boutique somewhere.

Two pieces of nicely framed, signed original artwork by Florida artists cost $5 apiece and now hang in my kitchen.

I purchased two chairs for my courtyard recently at another Salvation Army and also lucked upon one of those stovetop gourmet popcorn poppers for $1.

According to information posted on the National Association of Resale and Thrift Shops Web site, 16 to 18 percent of Americans will shop at a thrift store during any given year; and about 12 to 15 percent will shop in a consignment or resale store. That's compared to 11.4 percent who shop in factory outlet malls.

"People love a bargain and the thrill of the hunt," says Adele Meyer, executive director of the Michigan-based organization that focuses on education and professional development for its members.

Of course, 30 years ago, people who thrift shopped "wouldn't tell anyone where they got their clothes" she says, because they were embarrassed.

Now a good thrifter can land his or her own HGTV show.

I think my own obsession has to do with excess: We are a society of stuff, stuff and more stuff: stuff purchased by people with too much disposable income who keep the stuff around in their homes for a while, tire of the stuff and then give the stuff away.

I thrift partly out of deeply ingrained sense of thriftiness and partly out of a philosophy that there is nothing wrong with something that has been used before and is still perfectly good.

On a recent trip to Sarasota I went high-end thrifting: to the Woman's Exchange (a fabulous nonprofit consignment shop for top drawer furniture and accessories) and to Sarasota Architectural Salvage, where you can buy cool architectural accessories from old buildings.

I've even been thrifting on the beach (I found great drawstring shorts for 50 cents). And I once made unsuspecting passengers in my car wait while I pulled over to run into a church thrift sale that spilled out onto the front lawn. Of course, there are things I will never find in my thrifting journeys. I have looked for years for an old surfboard to hang over my sofa, and a good, used canoe (for paddling not decorating) also seems to elude me.

That's probably because, like me, we tend to only haul away the stuff we can carry.

The rest just stays with us for a while.

Elizabeth Bettendorf can be reached at ebettendorf@hotmail.com.