I was a second generation thrift store clerk.

Goodwill Industries was an angel for my mother. After a suicide attempt, Mama was afforded a long, leisurely rest at the state hospital in Columbus, Ohio. Once she regained her strength, she remained there but took the bus from the hospital gates to a Goodwill store for “training”.

Mama loved working at Goodwill. There was always something new to look at and interesting people to meet. She made friends with some of the regular customers and got to know what they were looking for. Old postcards? Vintage dolls? Gold jewelry? Sometimes she’d set back and hold small items for her favorite customers.

When Mama’s Goodwill location was scheduled to shut down, a few of those customers offered to serve as references for Mama in her search for a new job. Because of them, she landed a position as a copy clerk at a research facility that paid well enough that she could afford her own place. (And she stayed long enough to get a pension.)

Mama not only worked at Goodwill, she shopped there. And even after she changed jobs, she continued to “thrift.” She appreciated nice things and, thanks to thrifting, she surrounded herself with them. And she bought things for others.

My infant daughter had LOTS of clothes. Except for a few special outfits I stitched up for her, and her underwear and shoes, almost everything she wore came from Goodwill or from the yard sales Mama tracked down every weekend.           

After Mama retired, she moved from Columbus to live near us in Virginia Beach. She had a tiny house of her own that had once been the servant’s quarters behind a summer cottage. She quickly found the best thrift stores at the Beach and furnished her place with her finds. Her walls were covered in framed pictures of all varieties, whatever appealed to her. And if something else appealed to her the next month, she’d switch out the artwork.

I came to depend on Mama’s shopping prowess. I was often flat on my back — the volatile weather at the ocean front aggravated my CFIDS/SEID — and I didn’t have much energy left for tramping around in stores. The grocery was often too much for me, thank you. But if I wanted a bathrobe, or a black cotton cardigan, I would just tell my mother. She accepted each request as a personal challenge, like a quest! It might take her months, but she’d find whatever I’d asked for.

All her friends ( and some of mine) were envious. How did she ever find that perfect Liz Claiborne dress? And she paid how much for this tea-kettle? She was SO LUCKY!

And let’s take a look at Mama’s luck. Her luck worked like this: she went thrifting often and knew which stores had good stuff and reasonable prices. She checked the yard sales in the newspaper and mapped out a route to ones that looked promising. She took her time. She bargained. She was charming.

I remember the first time I drove Mama to my favorite thrift store in Virginia Beach. After thirty minutes, I was ready to leave. Mama? “But I haven’t seen everything yet!” And she did mean everything. I bought a paperback (it turned out to be a gay romance, the first one I’d ever seen — I didn’t know such things existed!) and sat down to read. I was halfway through that book before Mama was satisfied that she hadn’t missed anything. She had carefully looked at each and every blouse, skirt, dress, etc. in the store, sliding hangers across the racks one by one.

She was just as thorough at yard sales. She’d size up the offerings and quickly check out the prices. She wouldn’t waste time with people who weren’t serious about getting rid of things. But if they were, she’d look at everything. She’d spend so much time at some yard sales, she and the sellers were old friends by the time she handed over her cash. She’d come home and tell me their life stories.

Thrift shops, estate sales, consignment stores, rummage sales, church sales, flea markets, library sales, etc.– Mama could be found wherever bargains were waiting. She bought clothes and art and furniture and rugs and dishes — and lots of books.

Mama loved to read. And she loved to read to her granddaughter. She bought my little girl countless used books which were, eventually, passed along to three younger brothers. We still have some of those books.

And that is how I came to be reading Mark Alan Stamaty’s Who Needs Donuts? to my grandson Atticus this afternoon. At the end of the book, Atticus turned back to the page where Sam sits in the grass. He pointed out Mr. Bickford and the tiny giraffes and other creatures almost concealed within the myriad individual blades of grass. This marvelous book was another of my mother’s “lucky” finds.

What wonderful thrift store purchase is your favorite find?


5 thoughts on “Thrifting is in my Blood

  1. Ahhh! I love my thrift store treasures. Maybe the James Mont chest of drawers for $25?
    Or the two replicas of Japanese haniwa monkeys? Or the bronze paper knife that looks like a bat. Or, or, maybe the Oleg Cassini rainbow sequin dress? A thick pink Chinese rug with a dragon on it? Or the sign from the Equator in Tanzania? So much for so little. Thanks Julia.


      1. Thrifting with my mom was part of growing up for me too. I love your story. I once found the perfect Mother’s Day card for her: “Happy Mother’s Day to the wise woman who taught me that the best things in life are half price”.
        She opened a thrift store in her retirement community. It has been a smashing success.


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