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American Thrift Store: Photo Essay  photo

Here in the US, it’s often said that the best way to experience the so-called “real” America is to visit small towns. Right along Main Street, sipping low-grade Arabica bean coffee at the counter of a mom and pop café, the essential national character will rise, like the scent of cooking bacon, up through the manner and conversations of the working class locals around you. I don’t mean character as a matter of dress or genetic disposition – Wrangler versus Levi’s jeans; boxy versus rounded jaws; nor do I mean it as a measure of quaintness or simplicity, those visual elements of the nostalgic yesteryears preserved in the pickling jars of American period pieces such as Happy Days and The Brady Bunch. I mean character as the definitive, underlying qualities of a thing, its inner reality or, in Aristotle’s philosophical conception, its hypostasis. In this sense, any real America that might exist would manifest in the same way as any other country’s essence: as a measure of how we as a nation think; what we value; what we fear; what pursuits we find worthy of our time and energy; how we interact with others; and how we view ourselves and the world. For instance, are we greedy or generous? Communal or unconnected? Empathetic or thoughtless? Intellectual or hedonistic? Tolerant or small-minded? And how so?

Recently a rival notion of national identity has taken root. It debuted as parody on the derisive website the “People of Walmart” and has, through the work of civilian cell phone documentarians and blog anthropologists, spread through popular culture with the strangling persistence of a vine. Its core message: if you want to see the real real America, forget Main Street; go to Walmart. There in the cavernous, overstuffed aisles of the biggest big box store lives the modern version of Normal Rockwell’s iconic paintings, a dispiriting vision that offers an antidote to any remnant optimism about whether we, as a superpower, will forever remain as such, for in Walmart lurks the corrosive, fast food-eating, non-voting, prolifically reproducing, too-small-a-shirt-for-so-big-a-belly, uneducated welfare underworld that isn’t a world under anything at all, but instead has become the all too visible public face of our nation’s blotchy surface complexion, the nation’s true hypostasis, and it threatens to overtake the upper and middle classes and undermine the function of our entire country, if not civilization itself.

Neither the Main Street America nor the Walmart America conceptions are entirely true or entirely false, but rather, a bit of each. There are many Americas. Most of them can be found side-by-side within a particular socio-economic melting pot: that of the thrift store.

In America’s estimated 25,000 thrift stores, you can find piles of used video game controllers unaccompanied by their parent consoles, shelves stocked with 1970s, orange-on-green Osterizer blenders, and shoppers searching for either an inexpensive pair of jeans to keep their kids warm, or for a vintage leather motorcycle jacket with fur collar to wear to Saturday’s punk show. Here designer blouses hang next to generic ones. The poor shop alongside the middle class, each buying the castoffs of the rich and repurposing the assets of the dead. And it is here amid the refuse of generations that you will see what Normal Rockwell might paint if he were alive today: empty blue tins of cheap Danish butter cookies. A heavyset lady in a Rascal cart standing to inspect a coffee maker on a high shelf. T-shirts arranged by color, running white to red, green to blue. A black velvet painting of deer emerging from a wood. Screaming children and pleading parents. A five foot long shelf lined with wicker baskets. A brown porcelain basset hound which is neither an ashtray nor a bookend, but simply a figurine. And overhead, The Beatles’ “All My Loving” plays – background music as old as some of the toasters.

In our current economic straits, American thrift stores have experienced an over thirty-five percent increase in sales during the past three years. Pressured by the high price of gasoline, mounting personal debt and the mortgage crisis, enterprising Americans have learned to cut expenses by buying secondhand clothing, appliances and house wares. According to the consumer research firm America’s Research Group, some sixteen to eighteen percent of Americans currently shop at thrift stores during a given year. Where thrift stores were once the province of lower-income families, immigrants, hip, fashion-conscious youth and antiquers, more and more of the middle class are discovering their charms.

I’ve been thrifting since I was a child. My mother taught me. She was a yard sale bargain hunter, a coupon-clipping grocery shopper, and a dedicated antiquer who refurbished collectibles and resold them for cash. Although I never noticed the deprivations of poverty as a child, my family spent the first decade of my life alternating between close-to-broke and lower-middle class. And before my parents finally settled into the professions that afforded us great financial stability, my mom spent her free time regularly working a circuit of thrift stores and yard sales around Las Cruces, New Mexico and Phoenix, Arizona, where we lived during the late 1970s and early ’80s.

Mom loved the thrill of the hunt, the prolonged excitement of searching innumerable shelves and junk piles to find the intermittent score: a piece of collectible blue Depression glassware tagged at fifty cents; a wooden Art Deco nightstand, priced less than the modern pulpwood, K-Mart desk beside it. “People didn’t always know the value of what they had,” she once told me. “Finding those deals was addictive.” During the week, she would search the newspaper for upcoming yard sales and draw what she called “a plan of attack”: a map showing where each sale was located in the city. Then she would wake before sunrise on Saturday and Sunday and hit each sale back-to-back within those tight geographic clusters, swooping in with a raptor’s efficiency rather than driving back and forth across town and backtracking. Many Sunday mornings, she took me with her.

In the late 1970s, Las Cruces was a small town, poor in places, too. Underpriced antiques were abundant, and Mom developed a trained eye that could quickly spot collectibles among the chipped casserole dishes and Herb Alpert records. She found antique graniteware, furniture, jewelry, jars, utensils, pitchers, plates, China, spice racks, toys and milk crates. She’d pile everything in the back of our burnt orange colored Mazda station wagon, and back home in our sweltering rental, she’d scrub the rust off of metal, use a toothbrush to clean the years of accumulated dirt from joints and edges, and sand and refinish the wood before reselling everything to antique stores. Stores only gave her a fraction of the retail price, but Mom didn’t mind because she bought all her stuff so cheaply, and she worked in volume. Looking back, she relished the perpetual arousal of this tantric consumerism more than the acquisitions – the seduction of anticipation, the weeklong foreplay of it all. Yet as much as she loved the hunt, her primary goal was to generate income. This was her job between jobs. At one point back in Phoenix, before my dad found steady work, her reselling provided our family’s sole revenue.

Anyone who regularly thrifts knows the joyful intensity of the labor. Rifling through the sea of bins and racks requires a bird watcher’s acuity and a marathoner’s endurance, not only because you have to dig through hundreds of items in search of that proverbial needle in the haystack, but because you have to make regular, repeat visits to the same stores in order to find anything good at all. Thrifting is not like browsing new merchandise at a standard retailer. What you want isn’t going to be there on the shelf waiting for your arrival. Purchases are all predicated on the random mathematics of the chance encounter: maybe something will be there, maybe it won’t. It’s a formula for stress mixed with an intoxicating hope, a combination as potent as gambling, and potentially as time-consuming. Yet for those who thrift for fun and fashion rather than necessity, combing through oddities is half the point.

In the American thrift store, there are always 8mm projectors in pristine condition sharing shelf space with a ribbon-less typewriter housed in a chic, powder blue carrying case. Throngs of Latino men rummage through stereo equipment, their hands paddled through TV remotes and desktop computers too old to handle Facebook or YouTube. There are scores of candlestick holders. Numerous beat up Chutes and Ladders and Candy Land board games. Vacuum cleaners stand in a corner. Sealed bags full of doll parts hang on the wall. There’s usually a Samuel Adams lager pint glass in among the glassware, usually a souvenir coffee mug from a 10K race and a glass emblazoned with the depressing logo of some forgettable corporate event, its colors still vibrant thanks to its owner’s complete disinterest in using it. These queer prizes were once my bread and butter, as recycling such quotable phrases as “queer prizes” is for me now. It’s a line E.B. White originally penned in reference to life in New York, though he could just have easily written it for thrifters.

For the second half of my teen years and all of my early twenties, I was a dedicated thrifter. Although I didn’t frequent yard sales as my mom did, I did, like her, develop a regular route in Phoenix that I worked. I went to the same stores two or three times a week, sometimes more. I went on weekend mornings, late on weekday nights. I even ditched college classes to go early during the week, and I clustered my attack geographically. My target items were varied but particular: vintage collared button-ups and mod riding jackets; striped 1960s OP, Hang Ten and Hobie surfer shirts; solid-color uniform jackets and uniform pants to cut into shorts; mugs from old diners and glasses from soda brands and extinct chains such as Tab, Teem, Mr. Steak, Sambo’s and A&W Root Beer; anything involving 1970s skateboard culture, be it old helmets or old how-to books. I wore all of those clothes, all the time, with a dedication and pride like that of a nun to her habit. Nearly every glass and mug that I drank from was a collectible I scored for a few bucks. My apartments’ décor were what is normally described as “thrift store chic,” full of kitsch, though nowadays I often use to the term “trashtastic.”

Kitsch is a curious phenomenon. In the same way that cheese develops character through aging, so too does a nation’s trash. An object – even one poorly made and designed for obsolesce – accrues the cachet of the vintage simply by surviving. Enduring the decades of wear-and-tear and previous owners’ neglect, persisting without being mortally broken, stained or torn, one decade’s everyday items become another decade’s treasure. It’s a simple arithmetic: time depletes and alters stock, and by lowering supply, a thing’s value goes up, as does its allure as something alien.

The same happens with buildings, such as the interior of the thrift store I photographed here in late 2010. This is the Value Village in Glendale, Arizona. The store stands at the end of a small, stucco strip mall on Glendale’s main east-west artery, and its clock, signage and dated paneling are relics from the original business that occupied the space before Value Village. Was it originally a Longs Drugs or a Thrifty Drugs? Possibly a Skaggs Drug Center? Even though I asked around, none of the clerks could say for sure. We did, however, all recognize the same thing: that although the ownership had changed, the décor essentially remained intact. The wooden bins; the hand-painted, curlicue lettering; the terrazzo flooring; green, yellow and brown panels; the stacked, circular overhead vents – the building is itself an antique, vintage architecture housing recycled goods, which is why it caught my attention.

By their very nature, thrift stores make for a surreal composite. The defining colors and designs of entire decades stand side-by-side in a way that their creators – and The Creator, Himself – never intended. The neon ’80s glow beside the slick leather ’70s, juxtaposed against the gaudy green-and-mustard-yellow’60s. Each thrift store shirt and old appliance are very much “of their time,” yet here under one roof, it’s as if time didn’t exist at all.

At least, that’s as close as I can get to distilling the essence of the thrift store as an idea and cultural phenomenon. The fact is, I don’t care too much about what thrift stores mean in any symbolic or anthropological sense, or what they reveal about our current national economy or the nature of our citizenry. I just find their quiet chaos endearing, and because I’ve spent most of my life in them, they’re one of a handful of places where I feel most comfortable.






all photos by Aaron Gilbreath

image: Aaron Gilbreath