Ode to thrifting

December 2, 2011
Susie Guenther Loewen |

I’m a third-generation thrift shopper. It’s one of my favourite things to do on a day off – just to walk over to the thrift store, and take a look at what they’ve got this time (though sadly, there’s no longer a Mennonite Central Committee thrift shop in Toronto). My grandparents were faithful customers and volunteers at the very first MCC thrift shop in Altona, Manitoba, for decades. My mom taught me the art of searching through the racks, eyeing clothing for cut, colour, quality. Almost all of my clothes are second-hand. And of course, early on, I learned about the thrill of the find – when you come across that book/item of clothing/piece of furniture/painting/dish/LP record, etc. that’s just your taste, and in great shape, and only three bucks?! It’s like a treasure hunt, thrift shopping. There’s a sense of mystery to it.

Most of us could probably list off a few of the benefits of thrift shopping (and I don’t just mean the stellar finds like those above, found on the MCC thrift shops website). It’s a way of recycling and reusing things instead of sending them off to the landfill. The money you spend goes to a good cause (unless you’re at Value Village – charities only receive a small portion of their profits). But there’s more to it. Not only are you reusing items, but if you’re careful to choose good quality things, you can use them for years to come. You can tell what will last if something’s still looking good after someone has already tried it out for a while. And not only is your money going to a good cause, you’re also keeping it out of the hands of those whose business practices definitely do not involve fair trade.

But these are still fairly practical considerations. I think thrifting goes deeper than this. For one thing, it slows you down. There’s no way to thrift shop quickly. The search takes time, so it teaches patience. It’s also not about satisfying the customer’s every whim: there’s a good chance you won’t find exactly what you were looking for, and there isn’t a rack of ten identical items, and then ten more in a different colour or size. There will be disappointments, and also pleasant surprises. Thrifting requires a certain kind of openness to the unknown and unexpected. I find a certain homeyness to thrift stores as well – there’s that feeling of connection to the history of things, to lives lived in other eras. Thrift stores are kind of like museums in that way. Things arrive there with a past. And of course, the whole idea of “repurposing” sparks creativity and imagination. You might find an item of clothing that doesn’t fit you, but you can use the fabric for something else (especially if you have a few basic sewing skills), or an old desk that just needs a coat of paint. A lot of the time, thrift store finds aren’t ready-made; they require some effort on your part, a bit of work to make it useful, and yours. They’re do-it-yourself projects. All of these factors make regular stores seem quite a bit less interesting, in comparison. Things are just laid out, ready-made, identical, brand new (not to mention exorbitantly expensive). There’s no sense of history, of connection to other lives, of quirky one-of-a-kind-ness.

But as much as I might sing its praises, thrifting is still shopping (despite the clever use of thrifting as a verb), which means it’s not immune to the materialistic impulses of regular shopping. It can still make you believe the myth that buying stuff will make you happy, and it can still involve going home with a bunch of stuff that you don’t need (because the money’s going to MCC, it’s okay, right?). There are also the perils of “vintage” stores, where second-hand items are just displayed a bit more nicely, and the prices hiked up (the same could be said of antiques). And there’s also the reason why there are thrift shops crammed full of stuff in the first place: sure, some of it might come from estate sales or not be needed anymore, but how much of it is there because people buy way too much stuff in the first place, and then get bored with it, give it all away, and buy all new stuff? Or else people are convinced that they need a whole new set of clothes every single season, to keep up with every little fashion trend? I might be benefitting from these breathlessly-quick shopping cycles (and so might MCC), but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some underlying issues there.

In the end, maybe thrifting is the least of several evils. It’s a crack in the shiny veneer of a consumerist/materialistic economy in which the rich get richer and the poor become destitute, in which the past is spat upon in favour of the dizzy newness of the future. It’s a glimmer of the undoing of those injustices – that is, as long as we follow seventeenth-century British poet George Herbert, who advised, “Be thrifty, but not covetous.” Thriftiness, you see, got our forebears through the 1930s, and it can probably help us out now, too, during this recession - but covetousness will only dig us in deeper.

So at this time of year when we’re being bullied by advertisers into spending our life savings at the mall, why not mix things up a bit? Try opting for the lesser evil, bringing a sense of history, mystery, and a bit of altruism to the season, and having a thrifted/repurposed/homemade Christmas.

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