Second Chances in Secondhand: Life Lessons from Thrift Stores

the author, Olivia Inkster, at her local Goodwill

“One person’s trash is another person’s treasure.” 

Yadda, yadda, yawn. But, as I make my bi-weekly walk to my nearby favorite resale shops, I think about this quote. Sidenote: it’s usually said to us women after a breakup. Just think about that. Humans are never trash. We may behave like it. We may speak like it. We may produce it. But, there’s always another chance to recycle, UPcycle, what once was or could have been. It can be. It still can be.

The other day, my entrance to Goodwill started as just a desperate search for a haven from the rain but quickly evolved into organic conversations with fellow customers, appreciating the memories people leave behind for others to create entirely new ones from. At my neighborhood stores, we are on a first-name basis, and we celebrate wins together. Some days, it’s a Violent Femmes worn-in t-shirt for $3, and others, it’s me bringing in things from my past that no longer serve my newly edited life.

In the act of thrifting, we give away, or sell, what no longer brings us function, joy, or beauty. Maybe, we’re low on cash. Maybe, we’re low on space. Maybe, we’re low on mental and physical energy. No matter what, we release things in our lives. We lighten up. And usually, someone else picks those things up and recreates them, rebuilding the energy and breathing new life into them –things that, to us, were dying or dead.

The adage above echoes through the aisles of thrift stores, where faded denim jackets, porcelain teacups, and forgotten vinyl records await their second chance. As I step into these time-worn havens, I am not merely shopping; I am embarking on a quest—a quest for quality, uniqueness, and stories woven into every thread and hanging by each bead or piece of fringe.

Thrifting, once whispered about in hushed tones, has now emerged from the shadows. It’s no longer a secret society of bargain hunters; it’s a vibrant community of seekers and storytellers. The rise of online platforms like ThredUp, eBay, and Poshmark has democratized thrifting, making it accessible to all. Younger generations, fueled by environmental consciousness and a desire for authenticity, have embraced thrifting as a lifestyle choice.

Simple Tips for Thrifting

Before diving into the racks as a customer, arm yourself with knowledge. Whether you plan to resell for profit, or you’re on a personal search, know valuable brands—learn to distinguish between high-end and fast fashion. Understand precious metals; differentiate genuine gold, silver, and platinum from their impostors. Familiarize yourself with hallmarks—the tiny stamps that whisper a piece’s authenticity. The internet is your ally. Auction sites like eBay provide insights into current values and identify marks of quality. Jewelry appraising tools help evaluate potential finds.

I keep my phone on, fully charged, just in case I have questions regarding brands, fabrics, materials, and metals. But, for the most part, I’m a toucher and a feeler. This carries over to most aspects of my life. Go for what works. I need to touch the fabrics; I can feel the quality. That, I do know. But, just because I adore something on the rack, doesn’t always mean that it will work for me. I used to resell popular and designer home-ware and fashion, so I was always open to purchasing something that would be simply perfect for someone else. You can choose to do so too.

Stores like Goodwill and Salvation Army don’t always offer dressing rooms. If you can’t privately try on, I’d wear something that you can easily layer while still being able to determine the shape and fit of clothing that you may wish to try on or take home. Mirrors are located throughout the store. Find one and monopolize it (Kidding! Be prepared to share!). Come prepared in snug pants, leggings or shorts, and a tee or tank. Just layer up or layer down. Some shops and stores, like Goodwill, offer a store gift card for returns, and I often choose to go home with particular finds and decide there if my piece of artwork or my new slouchy jeans are just right. You’ll know. Or, you won’t.

Feel for quality. Check sales. Determine the try-on situation. Confirm exchange or refund policy.

I walk throughout the entirety of the store. People place things in random sections. Things can be mismarked. Ask, and ask nicely, and generally, it works in your favor. If there’s no clear price or it is missing entirely, inquire about it. Secret: they’ll generally go low if you inquire with earnest sincerity, especially if you’ve picked out additional items. They want their customers to be excited. As you continue to meander, it happens—the thrill of discovery. For me last week, a vintage brooch, nestled among costume jewelry, winked at me. Its intricate filigree tells tales of forgotten soirées and whispered secrets. I cradled it, knowing I’d unearthed a treasure. See, it’s divine. It’s unexpected. I carry a short list of general items I’m looking for or would like, but sometimes, that ONE thing you weren’t expecting, finds you.

Thrifting isn’t just about objects; it’s about people

There’s the kind-hearted store owner who shares details of donated heirlooms. In larger stores, it’s the staff roaming around with carts, restocking the racks and refilling the shelves, discussing their ride to work. The fellow thrifter who points out a hidden gem or sways you from the suede loafers to the leather ones. Quality service transcends transactions—it’s the warmth in a smile, the genuine interest in your quest. I ask people their thoughts. About their day. Some people are just there to work. Some people are there to wander. Some to distract. Some to hunt. Some to power-shop. All are valid on any day.

As I leave the thrift or consignment store, Goodwill or Salvation Army, my bag holds more than trinkets—it carries memories. The thrill of the hunt, the camaraderie with fellow seekers, the banter with staff and our conversations about our days, and the satisfaction of finding quality treasures—it’s all part of the magic. There is magic in each visit. You just have to find it.

So, next time you step into a thrift store, remember- you’re not just shopping; you’re weaving stories into your life. Our lives are connected by the conversations we have, the heartstrings we pull, and the fabric we choose to represent us, even if just for today. Tomorrow, our hunt for silver linings and silver bangles continues if we so choose to venture into a thrift store.

–Olivia Inkster

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