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How to be a master thrift-store shopper

There are many reasons why people thrift. Some want to avoid the mall, others want a unique wardrobe with vintage flair. Everyone wants a deal. Whatever your reason, treasures await you if you’re willing to put in the time and effort.
There are many reasons why people thrift. Some want to avoid the mall, others want a unique wardrobe with vintage flair. Everyone wants a deal. Whatever your reason, treasures await you if you’re willing to put in the time and effort.(stock.adobe.com)

What do you think of when you think of thrifting? A musty smell? A weird hairball attached to a worn-out sweater? Or maybe a blimp-size dump of unorganized clothes?

It’s very possible you will encounter these things, but look past them and you’ll see there are many benefits to secondhand shopping. It supports a sustainable lifestyle, it’s cost-efficient, and there is a certain novelty to it.

“I like the idea that something I’m using has a history,” avid thrifter Jonathan Fletcher said. Fletcher, 56, has been frequenting thrift shops since he was a high school student, buying everything from clothes to the crutches he needed after his recent knee surgery.

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There are many reasons why people thrift. Some just want to avoid the mall, others want a unique wardrobe with vintage flair. Many thrift store shoppers are parents just trying to keep up with their growing kids who don’t stay in one size for very long. But one reason is constant: Everyone is looking for a deal, especially college students. And since streetwear and ’80s style have made a comeback, thrifting has become even more popular.

Hanna Schenkel, a Northeastern student and environmental engineering major, has picked up thrifting and emphasizes the sustainability part of secondhand shopping. “Reusing and recycling have always been huge things that have been pushed on us since we were in middle school. I feel like people don’t see clothing as something that uses so much time, labor, and resources, but it really does,” she said.

Here are some tips from savvy shoppers on how to thrift effectively.

Come prepared . . . and do your research

Some thrift stores are pretty dirty, so it’s not uncommon for people to dress appropriately. Don’t be embarrassed to bring gloves and even a face mask. Also, if shopping for garments is your main concern, wear tight-fitting clothes that will allow you to pull on a sweatshirt or pair of shorts over your clothes to check for a good fit.

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If you’re worried about the cleanliness, don’t be afraid to call or check a thrift store’s website to find out whether they wash clothes before putting them on the rack. You can also ask what their policy is for the condition of donated clothes. Some thrift stores don’t have the ability to wash the clothes they are selling first because of the sheer volume of what they receive, but smaller ones might.

Expect to invest some time

Thrifting can involve a full-body workout of shuffling, throwing, and digging through clothes, looking for just the right thing in just the right size. It is important to give yourself time to thrift, sift, and hopefully find an item you will treasure.

Go to a wealthy ZIP code

This is key to finding deals on quality clothing. Fletcher said if he’s ever near Palm Springs, he’ll take a trip to a thrift shop there. He found a pair of $150 shoes for just $15 and said he never would have found something of that quality in his hometown thrift store. “If I’m in a ski town or something like that, I’ll look at the thrift stores around there,” Fletcher noted. He said there’s a high chance to find good, sought-after brands like Patagonia or Marmot. Thinking of the environment and the vibe of the place you are in can give you a good idea of what might be in that town’s thrift stores.

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Set boundaries

It’s good to set some basic guidelines for yourself, such as “don’t buy used socks and underwear.” It is also important to set price limits. Spending $20 for a T-shirt is probably too much at a thrift store, but the usual at a retail store. “I like to go into a thrift store with a goal to find something specific,” said Schenkel.

Have an open mind and get creative

The clothes you find in a thrift store might come with snags and missing buttons. Maybe sweaters have lost their shape. Schenkel said she bought a pair of jeans with a hole and then later purchased a sew-on patch to cover the blemish. Now, she said, she receives endless compliments on them. She added that if you find something you like, but it’s a little big or boxy, it’s possible to have it tailored to fit —

or tailor it yourself. “My mom had a sewing machine at home, so if I found a shirt a little boxy or big, I would just alter it and make it cropped or a little more trendy.”

It is a lot easier to salvage items than you think. For one thing, don’t be afraid to make clothes unisex. Oversize blazers, sweatshirts, pants — really, everything — is all the rage right now. If you’re a small woman, don’t just look for items in the petite section. Go to the men’s section or go up a few sizes. If you like a top and it’s a bit small, don’t be afraid to cut it up, add fabric, or take out the seams.

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Is all of this effort worth it?

Isn’t it easier to just buy new clothing online, in the size you need, and have it delivered to your door in perfect condition? Maybe. But where’s the fun in that?

Fletcher, the avid thrifter, said he once found a 1950s camera with a 50mm 1.5 Nokton lens in a thrift store and bought it for next to nothing. As a photography professor, he realized the value of the lens and turned around and sold it for a whopping $675.

Now that’s our idea of fun.


A list of your local thrift stores can be found by doing a search on www.thethriftshopper.com. Meghana Patnana can be reached at meghana.patnana@globe.com.