Sunday, January 29, 2012

My First Thrift Store

In high school, I discovered my hometown thrift store: The Thrift Shoppe. It’s the crown jewel of Whitewater, WI as far as I’m concerned. This thrift store has a special place in my heart, not only because it is where my love of thifting began, but also because it hasn’t changed since. It’s a time capsule of bargains.

From the outside, The Thrift Shoppe looks like your grandma’s house. On the inside, however, you’ll find no doilies or plastic-covered furniture. Instead, the 9 rooms of this 100-year-old house are chock full of neatly organized treasures. Owned by the nearby Lutheran Church, this thrift store has been energetically staffed by beautiful grey-haired volunteers for 45 years. In my opinion, it is top-notch in pricing, variety and service. Plus, it’s the definition of “quaint.”

I still remember the first shirt I bought there, in large part because I wore it so often. I loved that shirt. I’m pretty sure I thought it made me super cool, although looking back I needed more than a shirt to help me in that department. I don’t know what happened to it, and sadly the only evidence I have now of its existence is this picture of me wearing it and playing the contra-bass clarinet. Was I super cool, or what?

I do find it strange that I don’t know the whereabouts of that shirt. I tend to hold on to well-loved clothes long after I’ve stopped wearing them. I still have the jean jacket I adored in 5th grade, a sweater I coveted and saved up for in 9th grade, and several items from my formative thrifting years in college (some of which still make the rotation to this day).

Why do I hang on to these clothes? Why am I so attached? Am I saving these things for my future children, in the hopes that they’ll be as super cool as I am? Or am I just too sentimental? If I let go of the much-loved things in my life, am I somehow letting go of a part of myself?

These clothes are woven with memories, and for me, part of the memory is the moment we first met: Me, tirelessly searching the t-shirt racks. I spot something promising and my heart skips a beat. A quick scan for stains, size, softness--all signs point to…YES! Well, it is very nice to meet you! You’ll be living with me from now on. Special bonus for being funny or weird. Here’s one of my all time favorites:

It’s not always easy to visit the Whitewater Thrift Shoppe. While they have scheduled hours, they aren’t plentiful. And if you’re only in town because it’s a holiday, forget it. They will probably be closed a week before and after. But this is all part of the charm and what makes it great. Goodwills may be open on Sundays and have a rack of t-shirts a mile long, but they sure don’t have charm.

What The Thrift Shoppe lacks in convenience it more than makes up for in character: the handwritten price tags; the carefully organized craft section; the lovely woman who will write out your receipt in loopy script and gently wrap up your purchases. She will ask you if you go to the university or if you are an artist. She will rip apart the receipt, stab the store copy onto the metal holder and wish you to have a great day. By the sparkle in her eyes, you will know that she means it.

This is the thrift store I want to shoppe at. The next time I head up the creaky stairs to sift through the shirt rack in the attic, I’ll catch a glimpse of the dusty corners of my youth. And it will feel a bit like going home.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Intermittent Forks

When I was in teacher school, I learned about the power of intermittent reinforcement. That's why casinos are such a lucrative business. People feed slot machines because they want to win big and the sporadic small payouts fuel that hope while emptying wallets. Similarly, the intermittent reinforcements of thrifting keep me coming back for more. Going to one estate sale full of Precious Moments figurines and XXL women’s clothing is validated when I score a pile of vintage wrapping paper at another. I find myself not only scouring thrift stores and garage sales for these treasures, but also the places of daily life. My treasure-hunting-antenna is always up!

As a middle school reading teacher (and reinforcement distributor) in Queens, New York, I was lucky enough to teach a program requiring a class-size of no more than 15 students. Having a small class not only saved my sanity, but saved me money while stocking my prize bin. My students never knew when or for what they might receive a raffle ticket, but the chance kept most of them in check. If intermittent reinforcement can wrangle middle schoolers, it is a powerful force indeed.

As a side product of my small classes, however, I was sequestered away in the old home economics room, which hadn’t been used in several years. Opening the door for the first time felt like cracking the seal on a hyperbolic chamber. The stale-aired room was cramped, dusty, and resembled the inside of a house in desperate need of remodeling. Rows of wooden cabinets lined the walls beneath a mysteriously stained drop ceiling and wooden boxes covered exposed gas jets that remained from the previously removed ovens. Ah, to be a teacher.

Middle school is an inherently strange place, and this environment made the experience that much more bizarre. Weirder still was the fact that many of the cabinets and drawers still contained 40-year old dishes, pans and cooking utensils. I don’t know what middle school home economics class made fondue, but look what I found:

Unless there is suddenly money in the budget to teach the finer points of cheese-dunkery, I’m pretty sure no one will miss it.

Several of the drawers and cabinets had been screwed shut, and on the last day of school, I brought my screwdriver and went to work, hoping to unearth a hidden treasure. What I found was better than a pouch of magic beans: a whole drawer full of silverware, several pieces of which were stamped “BD. of ED. N.Y.C.” Jackpot! I couldn’t dream up a better reward for my harrowed time spent in the throes of NYC public education.

Now, every time I sit down to enjoy a meal I can savor that job as a distant memory, one bite at a time. After all, I earned it.