Thrift Stores: Memories and Things

I have this gigantic beige coat that has been lying unused a long time in my closet. It’s humongous with a gigantic aura of fake fur trimmings. It is certainly at least a size too big for me. It makes me look very well equipped for a trip to Antarctica whenever I get into it.

Because of the recent snow storms slamming the North East, I took the coat out at last a couple of times this season. I noticed that a tag  under its collar says L.L. Bean. Yet, I vividly remember the day I bought it at a store in Florida which is as far as it could be from a nice outerwear clothing store such as L.L. Bean or Burlington Coat Factory.

Having always lived in tropical climates, I was stumped a few years ago when I was due to visit Philly at the height of winter from Florida, where I lived then, for some interviews at a conference. I realized that nothing I possessed could match the kind of cold I might have to face up North. Knowing I’d never use the coat beyond the day or two, I visited the town thrift store to look for something suitable.

Image by brina_head on flickr

It was a biggish store with vast spaces full of clothes on hangers hung on rails with bright natural light coming in through the windows. Almost all the clothes there were either cotton or made of artificial silky material that hung on the hangers with slumped shoulders looking like they could be crumpled into little balls if needed.

This thick coat stood out amidst all this slinky fabric–so bulky that it seemed like it could stand on its own if the hanger was let go. It was the only heavy coat of its kind in the entire store, probably a remnant from a person’s stint in a colder climate before it was given away.

For $20, that heavy coat travelled to my closet destined to stand out a long time amongst all of my light, thin clothes because I was destined to live in warm places for many more years. On the rare occasion I travelled to cold places, it enclosed me like a tent and walked with me like a person. It always reminded me of someone else since I did not wear it enough times to have made it all my own.

I’ve never visited L.L. Bean, nor would I have bought a coat in just that colour or with just such a buckle had I really picked one from a real store. I like bright colours while this person clearly liked more subdued hues. Yet, repeated wear will sometimes make one’s perceptions adjust to coats as it does to repeated encounters with people one is at odds with. But the occasion for such repeated encounters had never arisen with my beige friend until I moved to the cold New York area.

In cold New York, this coat’s beige, furry presence has stood in my closet like an assurance through this bitter winter–that if all other pretty coats fail, I have a tent-coat to protect me if the winds come down once again from the North Pole.

Central Park. This seems like a never ending winter.
Central Park. This seems like a never ending winter.

I remember another thrift store in Florida that I visited often. It was located in a plaza in a not-so-upmarket part of town. In the summer, the dark, cool interior of the store contrasted with the dazzling sun on the concrete outside so that entering was like getting into the catacombs of an old people, a space where remnants of very dissimilar lives had been trapped in a small space.

Behind an entrance full of quaint desks and chairs and lamps and chests of drawers, with a leg broken here or a section dislocated there, a dress with shiny sequins would lie carelessly next to a woman’s formal jacket and skirt draped over a rack of clothes. It was as though a flamboyant girl was forced in her afterlife to live on right next to a prim-and-proper tweed wearing woman, draped over an aluminium rod in the back of a nondescript store,  where neither one’s questionable lifestyle nor the other’s self-denying virtue amounted to much consequence.

This store was not as organized as the one where I bought my coat and so pottery and decorative kitchen earthenware bits would all be heaped on a shelf towards the back of the store. A clay turkey cock with little practical use that I could discern would stand next to a man-and-woman salt shaker amidst trays, baskets, potholders with owl-faces and a host of knickknacks that someone somewhere had certainly spent a great deal of time and care to collect.

For me, they stood as memoirs of lives lived and desires cherished, underscoring the ephemerality of relatively insignificant moments that lend texture to our lives. Non-existent memories of unseen homes and kitchen counters and dining tables would come up in my mind in the darkness of that thrift store as though I were getting to know these people  long after those people and places and moments were gone.

The back of the store was a space where you could put on whatever extravagant clothes you wished for just for a few minutes, clothes that you wouldn’t normally even try out in brightly lighted proper stores at the Mall. The messy haphazardness that you’d find here set different rules so people could don on and off personalities outside of the regular spheres of their lives at will.

Now and then, I’d see a woman move around the back of the store, presumably as jobless as myself on a weekday afternoon (I was a student then), like a cat slithering in and out of heaped laundry in someone’s haphazard laundry room. There was a thin, cheap, full-length  mirror at the back where you could put on the remnants of these other lives to try on–a fitting room of sorts. There I’d see the woman put on a bright green hat with purple feathers and sling a silvery metallic handbag on her shoulder. Or perhaps I’d try an ancient leather skirt myself that I could never wear in the heat of Florida (and perhaps no one would have worn anywhere after 1960).

It was a place of messy freedom where you didn’t know what you’d find next. In many ways, most of those clothes and accessories were like my coat. You couldn’t determine size, colour or style.  Most stuck to their own personalities reminiscent of the people they had belonged to, but putting on those clothes was like walking with a myriad people who wouldn’t fit right into your life and yet were willing to walk with you.

Sometimes I could tell from the pleats and the material of a dress that an unseen lady several decades ago may have put in much hope and fear into that dress. Perhaps she had finished her cooking in haste to go to a store and return before dinner. She had then showed it to her sisters the next day, or perhaps shown a picture of herself in it to her daughter who had then moved far away for her studies, just like me. The dress sometimes spoke of the bond between mother and daughter that distance cannot change but can make so fraught with pain and longing.


When I moved from Florida to California, the thrift stores I visited were sunny and cheerful in my town. There would be cribs and chairs and sweaters lined up on weekends on a grassy patch adjoining the store, providing a merry air inkeeping with the pretty downtown it was located in . All the jewelry and light clothes and silks and pots and pans gave off an air of sharing and recycling that was the ethos of the town. I noticed an article in the local newspaper once that encouraged going to thrift stores to practice thrift as a culture.

Not so in my hometown Calcutta in the Sealdah area where thrift was practiced by the common man as a matter of necessity for some and as a cheaper way of buying fancy clothing for others. I remember small permanent kiosks under the fly-over selling second-hand men’s clothes with men thronging around a table with an air of competitiveness. There would be loud bargaining going on in an eddy of people around the kiosk while a great sea of humanity would be moving towards the train station in a stream right next to it.

Sealdah station.

If you were passing by, you would hear a man in the final stages of a loud bargain with the shopkeeper for a shirt while another customer would be seen to pay a handsome price for a very similar shirt before hurrying to catch the train.

Rumour has it that this second man would soon be seen to return to the kiosk after the first customer had already bought the shirt, encouraged by the expressions of accomplishment in getting a good deal vocalized by a co-customer. The second man would now return the shirt to the shopkeeper, collect the money he had used to “buy” the shirt and proceed to repeat the performance after a discreet interval when another customer had reached the final stages of the bargaining process.

Thrift stores. They tell so many stories about people.

21 thoughts on “Thrift Stores: Memories and Things”

  1. I am a very happy customer in the UK equivalent of the thrift store. Here they are all ‘charity shops’ e.g. Oxfam, Cancer Research, British Red Cross, Scope (mental health) etc. We all give our unwanted clothes and goods to these shops and many of us shop there as well. They are usually well-organised and run by volunteers – who are often great characters. There is no bargaining though.


  2. I love thrift stores, especially the ones I’ve found outside of the city. Here, too many have turned into “vintage” stores, driving the prices up. But the stories my mind finds as I wander the aisles, always free. 🙂


    1. I know. In Manhattan (or close, such as those in Jersey City or Hoboken), they’re vintage stores or thrift stores that are organized too well–just like regular stores with impersonal salespeople and customers. But in small towns they have a certain character . . .


  3. Your description of thrift stores sounds fascinating. Some of my friends rely solely on thrift stores to buy clothes and they find some unique and very nice clothes. However, every time I try to shop there, I seem to only find ugly, outdated. Such is life…


  4. I first started dabbling in “thrift” only when I moved to NYC on my own. My mother, who grew up wearing homemade clothes, would never in a million years allow me to wear something used. Having a strong sense of smell, and bad allergies, I often found (and still do) that bringing home other people’s old clothes (as much as I might love them) brings with it unwelcome energy or musty scents I just can’t live with. It doesn’t stop me from heading inside, though, and imagining the journeys the items have been on. I really do love thrift shops, just can’t bring em home with me


  5. When we lived in the Philippines, our children didn’t need sweaters or jackets. But when we came for homeleave in Seattle, it was usually chilly, even in the summer. So instead of buying jackets for growing children for such a brief vacation, we simply visited a thrift store after we arrived.


  6. A couple of summers ago, one of my teenage daughters decided to boycott regular clothing stores in an attempt to buy Made in the USA. Since she didn’t drive I had to be part of the experience. Although she didn’t find any more clothes Made in the USA in the thrift stores than she would have had at the mall, we both remember very vividly of this summer. Trying on clothes that already had lived a life somewhere else with somebody else inspired us. We imagined stories for the fancy dress, the faded sweatshirt or the frayed jeans. Who wore them? For which occasion? We still talk about that summer, something I’m sure we wouldn’t have done had we shopped at American Eagle or Abercrombie.
    Thank you for writing about your own second hand clothes experiences. And for the California pic.


  7. I agree with the above comment. Very comprehensive. I must admit I’ve spent little time at thrift stores (here called ‘op shops’), but the culture really fascinates me. The tale of your beige jacket was especially interesting 🙂


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