The Dignity of the Thrift Store
“Through tattered clothes great vices do appear; robes and furred gowns hide all.”
—Shakespeare, “King Lear”
A few years ago, my blue dress with cornflowers started to shred. This mattered greatly, because the frock had been my last decent outfit and my family and I were broke. Our landlady, a former police officer with bobbed red hair and the kind of bangs Uma Thurman wore in the film Pulp Fiction, seemed to understand that this was a problem, because I was also hunting for a job. So she took me on a nine-minute walk to Warehouse Outlet—from the outside a bleak-looking box of a shop with bins and fluorescent lights—to get new threads.
“I buy all my clothes here,” she said conspiratorially. “You will love it.” I shuddered a little.
I was 46 and had just moved to deep Brooklyn with my husband and our two young sons. Like so many before us, we’d moved here from another American city to chase opportunities. The problem was that our family was struggling to get by on $25,000 a year, and had almost nothing in the bank. We were not alone in our neighborhood, living on an income below the poverty line. According to local news source, Patch, approximately 27.2 percent of my neighborhood, Kensington, and adjacent Borough Park lived in poverty as we did. Before this midlife move, we’d been living off the grid, dreamy artists supported by our generous families. But that was all over now, and I had a new life to create.
Our bills were piling up fast. I could barely look at the homeless shelter that went up around the corner just after we moved in, because I feared it would be our lot one day. And winter was looming.
I can attest that it’s hard to build a new life when you are wearing torn pants and battered shoes.
That was why I not only went to Warehouse Outlet once to buy outfits for job interviews but also why I kept returning. While some other women who came in there were in the same monetary straits as I was, many were from vastly different backgrounds. They wore saris or burqas, and their young children clutched smartphones and plastic Spiderman figures.
We were all attracted by the same sign: “New Items Every Day. We Buy Closeouts and Liquidations.” Women descended like ravens on these new shipments. (Admittedly, so did I.) They flipped through Dora the Explorer pajamas or brown (and only brown) men’s medium (and only medium) down jackets or first communion dresses. My smile didn’t matter, and neither did my “excuse me’s.” These other shoppers have even physically knocked me down. (Never try to come between a woman and affordable clothes for her children or grandchildren.) There is a reason for this aggression. The clothes at Warehouse Outlet are often lovely: brand new, nicely designed and good for wearing to a job interview, or the office, and keeping a baby’s feet dry.
To me, the beauty of this store—as well as outlet and 99-cent stores everywhere—is that it subverts the idea that you must earn a lot of money to pass in our society; that you need $100 for a jacket to be chic or even just socially acceptable. These stores serve as an argument: there are flowers blooming in the desert. They express that true elegance comes from care and attention, not as a result of wealth or hyperconsumption.
Warehouse Outlet embodies these values. Tossed-aside pants revealed a mini bin of plastic earrings designed like wedding cakes, clusters of roses or gold filigree from India. Some were chrysanthemum-shaped—minty green or pale pink. I bought them (my choice, $3) and felt like an empress or an heiress. I soon had a collection of earrings. With these earrings, I could seduce someone (if I weren’t married) or just enjoy the weight on my neck or feeling put together and proper. Nobody needs to wear earrings. They are by definition luxurious. I felt rich, even though my kitchen is linoleum and my apartment needs a paint job to cover the cracks in the hallway. For far less than a bag of groceries, I could go on a shopping spree.
A mega bin filled with baby clothes sits under the front window. Mothers and grandmothers sort through them, touching each outfit with great discrimination. Yes? No? Maybe? The women sort and sort, as women have done in markets for a thousand years. I do the same and find a white linen shirt. Six dollars! (My landlady was right.)
“Naisha, you got bras?” Steven, the manager, shouts from the backroom to a clerk.
“Steven, can I tell you something?” she shouts back. “From 3:30 to 6 we were down in the basement sorting.” The saleswomen work long hours and FaceTime their kids at the dinner hour.
Of course, there can be a dark side. I’ve witnessed a fight between two female shoppers, both seemingly down on their luck, scrapping over glossy high heels. One tried to steal the shoes. The owner chased her out, screaming that he’d call the cops.
In tony Park Slope, Cobble Hill and Brooklyn Heights, you might not see such a skirmish in a shop. For one thing, Amazon Prime runs like water into brownstones and apartment buildings. And the stores are almost all high-end—Rag & Bone, Bird, their names like urban prayers.
But who needs them?
It’s interesting how your mindset changes if, like me, you have devoted yourself wholly and out of necessity to outlet shopping, with the occasional vintage-store foray. Once I needed a swimsuit, so I popped into Victoria’s Secret on Fifth Avenue, remembering it from my youth as selling midrange clothing. After three years of shopping at Warehouse Outlet, I was stunned to find that $50 at Victoria’s Secret bought virtually nothing. Stupefied, I rode escalators in a crazy spiraling wave. After the outlet, the store seemed like a Disney-fied Guggenheim, floor after floor of perfectly folded displays of bras and panties.
I could afford neither its padded bras nor its demeaning idea of womanhood, but the store itself filled me with longing: Where were the shrewd grandmothers, restless kids in the corners and toddlers’ Superman pajamas stuck between dish racks and men’s slippers? Where were the flowered potholders? The random blue raincoats? And where was the pleasure of leaving with two new dresses and a pair of jeans, all for 20 bucks?
So what if the outlet shoppers didn’t always share well. I knew they were looking for dress shirts for their husbands and their children, shirts that were cotton and that they could afford, and I understood.
Elizabeth Gollan is working on a book about her life as a caregiver and personal chef and the political and cultural meanings of those professions.
Co-published with Dame Magazine.