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A Basic Guide to Thrift Store Shopping

A Basic Guide to Thrift Store Shopping

We live in expensive times. As prices go up and up and up (gas is hovering around $3.00 a gallon across the U.S., milk is expected to top $5.00 a gallon before the end of the year, and so on), even the normal discount stores are starting to feel a little pricey. For many of your basic household needs, you might well find a better deal at thrift stores (or charity shops in the U.K. and elsewhere).

Lots of people dislike thrift stores, for a number of reasons. Often people feel they are “above” thrift stores, that thrift stores carry nothing but junk, or that thrift stores are dark, dirty, and depressing. While there certainly are some pretty dismal thrift stores out there, most are fairly clean and well-organized stores that weed out the broken, filthy, and otherwise unusable before putting stock on the sales floor. And the customers come from all walks of life, from street-walking transvestites to trendy college kids to retired heiresses.

For two years in college, I worked in (and sometimes managed) thrift stores, and I’ve met examples of each of the kinds of people I just listed. One patron who invited me to his home to help pick up a donation turned out to be a retired Hollywood production designer, the walls of whose gigantic house were lined with photos of him standing with the stars of shows like Starsky and Hutch and Magnum, P.I..

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People shop at thrift stores for any number of reasons. Some are, as you’d imagine, poor parents and their families just trying to stretch their budget to cover all their needs; others, like the designer, are hobbyists seeking overlooked antiques and collectibles; still others make a business out of sorting through the records, books, and other stuff to find resalable goods; college kids seek out retro fashions and kitschy housewares; retirees seek out companionship and memories of past days; and so on. “Thrifting” is fun and it’s cheap — and it’s also a good deed, providing funds for various charities as well as keeping perfectly usable goods out of landfills and incinerators to provide a few more years of service.

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If you’re new to thrifting, here’s a few pointers to help you make the most of a visit to a thrift store near you.

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  • Be nice. The people who work in thrift stores are, as you can imagine, not usually paid very well. They may not be paid at all, as many thrift stores provide vocational training or rehabilitation services to people on some form of state aid. So be nice to them, just because it’s the right thing to do. If you frequent a particular thrift shop, you may even find that making yourself known and building relationships with the employees pays off with more than just good karma — if you have particular interests or needs, employees will often pull aside things that might interest you, or hold them behind the counter until you can get to the bank to pull out money.
  • Do the circuit. Thrift stores tend to cluster together in areas with high traffic and low rent. Make a day of visiting all the shops in an area. Since each of the major charities that runs thrift stores tends to appeal to a different kind of donor, each store will have a slightly different kind of stock, so take the grand tour and take it all in.
  • Know the specials. Many thrift stores run different kinds of specials, often offering discounts of 50%, 75%, or even more off their regular daily prices. In my area, one chain takes 50% off anything with a different color tag every week, another discounts anything dated over a month ago, and still another puts out a monthly calendar with different half-off items each day (like ‘anything with a zipper”, “anything plastic”, and so on). Your stores might have discounts on a day of the week, or for certain kinds of people (military and seniors are commonly offered discounts, and sometimes students as well). Ask what’s on sale when you walk in.
  • Know your charity. Some thrift stores are run for profit, so this doesn’t apply to them; for the rest, knowing who sponsors the store might provide valuable insight into what you’ll find there — or incentive to patronize (or not patronize) specific stores. Contrary to popular belief, most thrift stores do not exist to provide cheap goods for the poor — they exist to raise money to support their organization’s missions. Here’s what a few of the major thrift store operators support:
    1. Goodwill Industries: Provides vocational rehabilitation for the disabled.
    2. Salvation Army: Offers shelter, food, job training, and spiritual guidance to the poor.
    3. OxFam: Runs development efforts in Third World nations.

    Many thrift stores are also run by churches and veterans’ groups; their goals are usually pretty self-evident. The best thrift store I ever visited was run by the Friends of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City — the wall of fur coats was behind the grand piano, near the crystal chandeliers.

  • Know what you need. It pays to keep a running list of things you need or want. Thrift stores are great for kitchen wares, office supplies, sports equipment, books, and electronics (especially VCR’s, CD players, scanners, and CRT computer monitors). Furniture is also easily found, though it may take some looking to find furniture that is a) in good condition and b) attractive. A lot of people also find good clothes, although I personally find this too hard of a struggle to be worthwhile — clothes are rarely arranged by size, let along marked, and even when they are arranged somehow they quickly get tossed out of order (if you do buy clothes, make sure you launder or dry clean them before wearing them — most stores don’t). You probably won’t find exactly what you want the first time you walk in a thrift store — you have to think longer-term than that. But with patience it usually is possible to find just about anything — I recently managed to find a decent, working turntable, with a good needle, after looking for well over a year (and I paid $7).
  • Be creative. One of the fun things about thrifting is that you will see things that lend themselves to uses quite different from their original intended functions. A waste-basket can hold poster tubes, a suitcase can act as a coffee table, a record crate can be turned sideways to organize binders, etc. Keep your eyes (and mind) open for objects the might fill a need in an unusual and interesting way.
  • Have a use in mind. This is a warning: don’t get carried away. Be creative, be practical, but also be sure that you can actually use everything you pick up at thrift stores. Low prices and the “here today, gone tomorrow” nature of the stock can lead to hasty purchases. Don’t shop for needs you might have, down the line — shop for things you can use immediately when you get it home.
  • Give back. Don’t forget to drop off the things you no longer use or need when you’re at the thrift store! Most of us have a pile of stuff to give away “someday” — old clothes, an unused piece of furniture, a box of books pulled from the shelf to make more room. When you’re heading to the thrift store, pack it up and take it with you.
  • Haggle. I don’t like to say this, because I hated when people bickered over prices with me when I worked in thrift stores. Don’t haggle for the sake of it — chances are you’re already getting a bargain, and stores aren’t under any huge pressure to move any particular item (unsold stock, especially clothes, is often sold to exporters who ship it overseas). But thrift store employees don’t have much to go by in pricing goods for sale, and they make mistakes — if something seems clearly overpriced, ask to speak with a manager (don’t put floor staff in an awkward position) and make a more reasonable offer.
  • Don’t be afraid to leave empty-handed. Thrifting isn’t like other shopping, where you go in with a list of what you want, get it, and go. Thrifting is a scavenger hunt, where you can hope and dream about the Ultimate Bargain but have to expect not to find it. Half the fun is in the looking — and in thinking up goofy uses for the unidentifiable products that someone, somewhere, once thought fit to spend good money on, or in making up back stories for the forlorn detritus of people’s lives, stuff marked “Bobby, 1st grade” and “Cheryl, love you forever, Dina”. Have fun and don’t worry if nothing strikes your fancy enough to take home with you.

Thrifting is obviously not the most efficient or productive way to shop, so think of it as part of your leisure activities (with occasional payoffs) — the time you spend hopping from store to store is what you do next action lists, priority quadrants, and time tracking to make time for. Take a day your next free weekend to explore the thrift stores in your area and see what you come up with!

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Last Updated on August 20, 2019

Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard. Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

Curiosity

Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

Patience

Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

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When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

A Feeling for Connectedness

This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

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1. Research

Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

Learning the Basics

Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

Hitting the Books

Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

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Long-Term Reference

While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

2. Practice

Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

3. Network

One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

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These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

4. Schedule

For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

Final Thoughts

In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

More About Self-Learning

Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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