For years I have shopped at thrift stores, a habit I picked up in high-school. I prefer shopping in such places for many reasons. The most obvious is financial: the wares in question are cheaper than those purchased new. I also believe that re-using things is cool and keeps me somehow separated from the increasingly temporary nature of our material lives.
Additionally, because thrift stores don’t have stocking requirements like a traditional store, when I stumble upon a piece of clothing or an old vinyl LP I derive a greater sense of pleasure, a pleasure directly stemming from the act of discovery, than I get when I shop at a standard store and blandly pull a pair of jeans off a shelf, or when I shop online and simply push a button.
But the number one reason I shop at second-hand stores is the people. In my extensive experience I’ve consistently found that both the shoppers and the employees in thrift stores are curiouser to me than those who shop at The Gap, a point upon which I’ll expand in a moment. But for now, a short tale.
The other day I was in a thrift store when I noticed a large Native American man shuffling about. A rumpled cowboy hat was crammed atop his head and a dirty black duster was wrapped like a cape around his shoulders. He walked with a cane, propelling himself awkwardly along in a manner that made him look much closer to 70-years old than the mid-40’s he probably was.
He caught my eye and as I was watching he sneezed loudly in exactly the way children are taught not-to: that is, he made no attempt whatsoever at covering his face holes and instead simply sprayed his snot and germs and whatever else across the room like bacterial buckshot. The force of this outburst was tidal and he rocked unsteadily on his feet for a long moment before he reached out and grabbed a nearby clothing rack to steady himself.
“God bless me!” he bellowed, to no one in particular.
A moment later he loudly asserted, in the sort of complaining tone you’d employ to cursingly accuse someone who tackled you illegally on a football field, “I could’ve broken a rib just then!”
None of the other shoppers responded to this (which is pretty awesome in itself), and a moment later he shuffled down another aisle. Slowly I plucked the few pearls I could find from the thrifty depths and approached the counter to pay.
The sneezer was already standing there. As the clerk was entering his purchases the man was yelling into a cell-phone that he held at arms length before his face. The call was on speakerphone and though I came at the tail-end I quickly pieced together that he was arguing with his mother about whether he would buy milk on the way home. I didn’t catch the full resolution of this dairy debacle for he quickly snapped the phone shut and screamed at the clerk,
“I can’t put the thing up to my head ’cause I get vertigo!”
And that pretty much sums up the character distinction I referred to earlier.
If you shop at a traditional store like The Gap, you’re guaranteed to come across the sorts of characters who would easily fit into a standard and realistic story, whether it be a novel or a TV show or whatever: the angsty teenage boy trying to buy the right clothes to look cool, an anxiety riddled middle-aged woman trying to cram her body into a pair of skinny jeans, a divorced father desperately trying to purchase something that will please his teenage daughter’s ever-shifting fashion whims. All good people and certainly all good characters, but all of the tame and predictable sort we’ve seen a million times before.
Now when you shop at Thrift Stores you will find the sorts of characters whom, if you came across them in a realistic novel or movie, you’d simply never believe in. These are the Ignatius J. Reilly’s and Walter Sobchak’s of the world, the sorts of unpredictable, stereotype-shattering characters who do and say things beyond most authors’ capacities to convince. I’m talking about people who break most accepted boundaries of fiction by going beyond most accepted boundaries of fiction. And they’re real.
So next time life feels a little dull, hit the nearest Goodwill. Odds are you’ll come across someone who’s operating so outside the norm that it’d be a shame if you didn’t stop and appreciate them. And who knows: you might just find a cool t-shirt or an old Elvis LP to boot.