The three best things about secondhand wardrobe shopping are: You never know what you’ll find, you never know what you’ll find and you never know what you’ll find.

If you head in with a specific need, say a certain shade of blue, long-sleeve shirt, in a size medium, you’ll most likely leave emptyhanded. But if you go in open to all the possibilities, you could just score a pair of handmade, genuine ostrich skin cowboy boots for $10. Been there, done that.

According to Jennifer Le Zotte, author of 2017’s “From Goodwill to Grunge: A History of Secondhand Styles and Alternative Economies,” in the past, “If you had a dress and it got worn out, you’d tear it up and make a pinafore for your daughter, and when that got trashed, you’d tear it up and stuff your chair with it.” 

There are few of us remaining who have the time, talent or inclination to do that now. I don’t have a daughter, and if I did, she probably wouldn’t be the kind of girl to wear a pinafore. And it seems kind of pointless to slit a hole in one of my perfectly good chairs just so I can get rid of some old clothes in it. When I have clothes taking up more closet space than they earned, it’s into the car they go.

That’s where thrift, consignment and donation shops come in. What’s the difference, you ask? According to online source smallbusiness.chron.com, “A consignment shop accepts goods from patrons, merchandises them for sale and pays a portion to the contributor. A buy-outright shop purchases used goods and marks them up to earn a profit. A thrift store is more likely to be run by a nonprofit organization or to support charitable causes.”

We’re fortunate to have all three in our area. While all of them provide the thrill of treasure hunting while sparing you the pain of paying full retail, each has its own advantage. From a buyer’s viewpoint, both buy-outright shops and consignment shops are likely to have top quality, in-season merchandise, not just items their owner could no longer bear to look at. Each incoming piece is carefully inspected for rips and tears, missing buttons, broken zippers and stains before it’s accepted. Donation-only shops are sometimes overwhelmed by bags of things that might not always be quite so perfect. While our local donation-only shops are meticulous about what makes it to the rack, in other areas it’s very much a “take your chances” scenario. I saw a great jacket in a local donation shop, only to find all the buttons had been cut off. Clearly whoever was stocking the rack that day wasn’t paying attention

From the seller’s point of view, a buy outright gives you the advantage of instant cash. With a consignment shop, you receive your share – anywhere from 40 percent to 75 percent – after the item sells. Understandably, buy-outrights generally offer less since they are paying upfront. 

Another huge advantage of secondhand shopping, and a personal favorite, is the possibility of finding vintage clothing and accessories. Wish you could dress like a character in a 1940s film or want an authentic look for a 1970s costume party? You might just find it on your next secondhand store trip.  

Not only do you find treasures to buy, you meet the nicest people. It’s almost impossible to not strike up conversations with fellow shoppers, each remarking on the other’s special finds. On one of my trips I met a lovely woman who shared that she once bought a fabulous, sparkling, Indian garment – she thought perhaps a wedding outfit – hand-embellished with gold thread. It should have been in a museum … but it was on a Halloween costume rack for $10.

There’s no doubt that for the vast majority of savvy shoppers, it’s all about the price tag. Where else can you get top quality, in-season merchandise for up to 90 percent off retail? 

Local secondhand shops owners know how addicting secondhand shopping is. They know most of us shop not because we need something, but because we enjoy the hunt. For that reason they don’t consider each other as competition and enjoy a cordial relationship. They often refer shoppers – or sellers – to one another.

Before loading up the car and heading to the nearest secondhand shop, consider calling first. Are they taking only in-season merchandise? Are they taking what you have? Some take only women’s clothing and accessories, others take everything. Is everything clean, seams and buttons inspected and ready to hang on the rack? Is everything free of wrinkles, pet hair or musty odor? Following these common sense guidelines will make you a valued seller, and could even get you preferential treatment when stores are short of space.

If you haven’t tried secondhand shopping, you’re in for a treat. And chances are, you’ll end up with a story that’s as much fun as your purchase.

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