Being frugal and having two children for whom I care deeply aren’t two things that always go hand in hand. While I’ve long prided myself on happily house-hunting on Craigslist and drinking Kirkland-brand wine at home before dinners out, I want to give my kids everything, and everything costs a lot of dough.
I tried striking middle ground, and here’s what middle ground gets you: a lot of particleboard. Wall decals. One very comfortable nursery recliner that, every time you sink into it, makes you remember you bought it from a furniture store with a mascot. In truth, the middle ground can get you a lot. If you look for them, you wind up with a lot of free fire hats, goodie bags that are significantly better stocked than anything I ever saw as a 3-year-old, a full flock of teensy plastic ducks they give your kids to distract them at their well-child checkups. Actually, it can really start to pile up, which is what led me, as we outgrew it, to start taking a lot of stuff to Goodwill, which in turn got me in the door at Goodwill.
I’ve never considered myself much of a bargain hunter. I have my tried-and-true routines—like Costco, like Ikea, like recycling the lids of coffee containers as planter saucers—and I stick to them, rarely deviating in search of that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to repurchase somebody else’s ottoman. I’m not a snob. But for one thing, I thought, I don’t have time to hunt for bargains. For another, isn’t everyone else already doing it? I don’t like competition. I’m not a competitive person.
But it breaks down into a finer set of points. There’s competition, and there’s competition. There’s the outright kind—football’s the obvious example—wherein you go head to head with your opponent, knocking helmets, exchanging leers.
I’ve never liked football. I’ve always loved gin rummy, but I’ll only play with people who are stealthy and mean.
That first day in Goodwill, I spotted a lamp on a table that was just sitting there, all on its own. It wasn’t part of a display. It didn’t even go with the table. It stuck out, almost like someone had put it there for me, maybe God, or a Goodwill employee. I really wanted that lamp. The longer I looked at it, the more I wanted that lamp. I had just the spot for it on a shelf over my desk, and the cubist design on the lampshade made me realize all of a sudden how much I’ve always loved cubist designs. Then another woman walked up and took it and stuck it in her shopping cart.
That should have been the end of it. But I’ll be damned if three minutes later a be-smocked worker didn’t come by with that same lamp to plonk it down on that same mismatched table. “She didn’t want it?” I asked him. “She didn’t want it,” he said. “You know, we got this lamp in 20 minutes ago.”
A third woman glanced at the lamp as I clutched it to my chest in the checkout line. “That’s a great lamp,” she said. “I know,” I snapped. “They got it in 21-and-a-half minutes ago.”
I was hooked. I came home with that lamp, a really great Halloween costume that I’ll definitely wear one day and a wardrobe of clothes—each—for my kids.
With secondhand, there are no rules! Only choices. That’s good if you’re looking for an excuse to select your next Halloween costume in February, bad if you like any rhyme or reason for the asking price of anything you wish to buy. The Goodwill I shop at shares a wall with a vintage store, and one of the cashiers confided in me that the owner next door comes in to run up and down their aisles, plucking clothes off their hangers to scuttle with them back over to her place, arrange them on a mannequin and resell them for an amount he didn’t care to specify. We’re not running a charity here.
I’ll tell you where the real trouble lies when you shop secondhand, and that’s auction houses. They’re so much more dangerous because there’s rivalry, and it’s in real time. It’s easy to walk away from a chandelier in a Pier 1 because it’ll be there next week, or, if it won’t, something else just like it will. The Pier 1 people know that you know it and work tirelessly to instill in you a false sense of urgency, to compensate. They pounce on you the moment you walk through those doors like you’re a fat stack of cheeseburgers and they’re cheetahs who haven’t eaten inside of a month. One time I was just walking past a Pier 1 and slowed down in front of a window display. The salesperson who spotted me bounded across the floor, leapt into the window display and began wildly gesticulating at me with both arms, all while flashing what seemed like at least one-and-a-half times the usual number of teeth.
An auctioneer would never. Because auctioneers are so cool, you see. So are the bidders—you can spot the veterans a mile away. (God, I love the veterans. They’re the worst dressed and they never smile and it’s so obvious they have money but they just can’t be bothered to spend it on menial crap like shampoo.) I was at one auction where the asking price on a set of baby bowls was $40, and two ladies who knew their business went to work on them. They shot up to $200 in the space of 15 seconds, not so much as flinching. Then, when the one finally closed the deal at $250, she caught my eye from across the room and winked.
Pier 1, what can you offer me on par with that?
The thing is that once you have bid, a sense of ownership has already started to take root, as in, Those are my diminutive bowls patterned with bunnies, and I’ve got a big piece of paper with numbers that I’m knowingly flashing to prove it! You can walk away from the box store with the promise to come back with your joint-bank-account partner or after a sufficient passage of time devoted to “having thought about it,” but after having bid on them, you’re not walking away from those bunny bowls. Not easily.
My mother volunteers at a thrift store, and I can’t help but wonder whether all this is a coincidence. Working at a secondhand shop isn’t something she meant to do, sort of like how I didn’t mean to redecorate my entire combined kitchen/living room space around the bizarro schematics of one cubist lamp. It’s a gig that essentially landed in her lap, and it’s so perfect for her because thrift stores get a lot of garbage dumped on them, and if there’s one thing my mom’s good at doing, it’s taking out the garbage. I mean that literally. The woman’s house doesn’t possess a speck of excess.
My mom’s shop is up in Old Town Manassas. Proceeds benefit the Prince William Medical Center, which is wonderful, but if I’m being honest, the fringe benefits aren’t too shabby, either. She calls me when they get a good batch of baby clothes in. “Don’t ever buy a vase new,” she says darkly, all but tapping the side of her nose.
Thanks, Mom! You’re the greatest. And to prove it, I got you this fantastic costume for next Halloween.