I wander the aisles of Texas thrift stores to clear my mind. That is not all I do when I visit the Lone Star State. I also eat miles of enchiladas with my family when I’m there. But I will eventually find myself inside one of the many Goodwills in Austin, where I spend hours staring at junk that could, in the best possible circumstance, be very valuable.
Treasure hunting isn’t why one should embrace second hand retail, though. There are plenty of practical reasons to shop at a thrift store. A smart and eagle-eyed shopper on a budget can find quality clothes and dishes and suitcases. My mother would send me to school wearing shirts and pants and shoes she bought at a local store named Treasure Trove and no one was the wiser. At first it would embarrass me because I was sure I was wearing something a wealthier classmate’s mother had donated but, eventually, I got over that. Partly because I was given little choice. I suppose I also go to thrift stores because I’ve been doing it my entire life, broke or not.
But everybody who shops at thrift stores secretly hopes they’ll find a diamond in a shoebox full of a grandma’s costume jewelry. There is the legend, too, of the little old lady who found a first edition of Gone With The Wind and sold it to a book collector for tens of dollars. Her tale is whispered in every Goodwill across the country.
There is a meditative quality to strolling through the aisles of a thrift store. I imagine it’s a little like foraging. I wouldn’t know exactly what that is like because, you know, I’m not a bear, but patience is probably involved. So I walk around the musty merchandise softly humming to myself. I pick up a knick, I put down a knack. I think it was the Taoist poets who said time spent shopping at a thrift store is time not taken out of your life. Don’t quote me on that.
I feel safe and unhurried when I exit the Texas heat and enter a cavernous, air-conditioned warehouse of bargains. There’s no pressure to buy anything. A department store is full of new stuff begging to be loved. A thrift store’s inventory isn’t so desperate. The stuff is just thankful it’s not in a landfill. It’s stuff with a second chance to take up space.
There is plenty of space in Texas.
Thrift stores are where I cultivate my inner-Grandma. I am wise and frugal and in no rush to do big important things. But if I find a nice sweater that will fit a loved one, I’m going to buy it and then subject the sweater to aggressive dry cleaning.
Every thrift store smells like old books and mothballs and dust. This is a comforting scent. It’s honest. Capitalism’s true musk. Inhale it.
If you’re not a thrift-store veteran, then I suggest having a plan before you go. Here’s what I advise: Be open to wonder. You might not find anything you want, but that is not the point. You might also find exactly what you need, but that is not the point, either. The point is to roam, come what may.
I usually start my trek looking at the shirts. A worn-out cowboy shirt that was probably originally owned by an actual cowboy and would be fashionable in a downtown coffee shop. A t-shirt that reads “World’s Greatest Lover,” which was probably worn by the world’s most mediocre lover. A tuxedo shirt with a wine stain, a brand-name button down, a Hawaiian shirt with buttons missing. I pick through jeans and slacks and overalls. Everything is $1, $2, or $5. I recently found and purchased a red shirt with the word “MATH” on it in giant letters. Why did I buy it? The universe told me to.
I’ll saunter through aisles of snow globes from exotic American locales like Las Vegas. In the same aisles are ashtrays — great crystal ones and homemade ones painted by children. There are always giant balls of tangled Christmas lights here and there.
There is little logic to the layout of a thrift store. A left turn at the blazers or a right turn at the hats can lead to an all-new section of (all old) rubbish. I’ll briefly sit in ancient sofas that still remember the weight of the family that lived their life on them. Someone decided to buy a waffle iron and then, later, decided enough with the waffles. A section of religious figures — saints, the mother of god, her son — pray. It being Texas, there are aisles of mugs, plates, and signs daring anyone reading the inscription to mess with their home state.
The painting section is always good for a visit. There are reproductions of classic works of art. The kinds of bland landscapes you’d find hanging in a motel. Then there are the original works of art that I always want to buy. Awkward abstract self-portraits and hills covered in happy little trees. All sloppy and true. I’d frequent a museum of thrift-store art.
The technology section always features computers from 10 years ago. There are stacks of VCRs and record players. There are usually plenty of VHS tapes and records to buy, too. There are DVDs of old Robin Williams movies and CDs of old Whitney Houston albums. The toy section is usually full of dirty stuffed animals and slightly deflated basketballs and, occasionally, a toy from my childhood that I will buy. It’s a good place to find multiple generations of super soaker water guns.
And then there are the books. The books are my favorite. There are dog-eared bestsellers (especially Stephen King.) I will flip through self-help books that promise everlasting happiness. At every thrift store in Texas, there are, at least, five copies of the 50 Shades Of Grey erotica series. And then there are my favorites: dusty classics. Don Quixote, Moby Dick, Great Expectations. I just finished reading a copy of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men that cost 50 cents. That was a steal. The book is not as funny as I had hoped.
If I don’t find anything worth forking over a few bucks for, it’s perfectly acceptable. I’m not there to buy more stuff; that’s just a byproduct of why I go to thrift stores. I’m there to empty my head and spend time with junk eager to tell its story. Most of all I am there to roam. So I eat a plate of enchiladas and then another. I walk my family’s old dog under a hot Texas sun that’s yellow like a hardboiled yolk. I drink instant coffee and watch cable news commercials selling medical devices and reverse mortgages. And when I can, I escape to a thrift store. Every so often I am loaded with precious family baubles to drop off because that is the circle of life. Then I wander to clear my mind.