My parents liked treasure-hunting at flea markets when I was young. My dad was always on the lookout for "royalty stuff" (cups and tins and things with pictures of the Queen's family on them), and we went along to poke through the tables of books and old toys. But thrift shops were pretty much unknown to us. The only one in town was run by the hospital auxiliary (volunteer ladies), and it was on a side street with other little offbeat stores. It was kind of dark and full of polyester shirts that all had the same weird smell. I used to go in there sometimes when I was in high school, looking for vintage clothes (hidden under the polyester).
Later I moved to the larger city where we still live. From the late '80's through the mid '90's, I regularly checked out several thrift shops, most of them right on the main street. There was a Salvation Army store where nothing was priced at all. When you brought your stuff up to the counter, the lady sized you up and decided what she felt like charging you, and that was it. If you looked down-and-out enough, she might give it to you for free.
There were two different Goodwill stores, both with their own personalities. The one we liked best was right near the downtown bus station. The Apprentice liked to pick out junk jewelery and hairdo stuff there when she was little, and they also had a great piled-up bin of toys that was fun to dig through. And good book bargains. There was the $2 copy of Timetables of History I found, and the bag of very old Cuisenaire rods for a quarter (nobody knew what they were), and the rubber boots I found for The Apprentice when she needed them the most, and the troll-fabric shirt, "size preschooler". There were the little handfuls of Duplo that I used to find, loose, in the bottom of the big toy bin, that helped to build up our collection.
But a few years ago, all the thrift stores run by organizations (like the Goodwill) moved out of the downtown, out into less-accessible places like strip malls. There are only a couple of independent stores left in the core, where the people who need them the most can readily get to them.
And when you do drive out to the new stores, you have to be prepared for their change of face. The new shops are cleaner. Things are bagged and labeled, arranged tastefully on shelves. (And always priced.) In reaction to their becoming dumping grounds for dinosaur computers and putrid couches, most of the shops are now very picky about what they will and won't accept. Mainstream shoppers...those who never liked "used stuff"...won't be afraid they'll catch anything nasty there.
There are fewer surprises now (good or bad). Fewer treasures. Less junk...no more of those ugly necklaces for a quarter that my preschooler loved. No atrocious crafts made thirty years ago for somebody's Christmas bazaar. No books with ripped or unreadable covers (the kind that I could take a couple of hours looking through if I didn't have somebody small tugging at me). The CDs are more likely to play (or at least more likely to have a CD inside the case), but they cost $2.50 now instead of 50 cents.
And there are fewer "characters" shopping there. Nobody hollering. You don't have to stand next to somebody who obviously hasn't had any exposure to soap and water in awhile. They can't usually get out to those places now unless they have transportation and make a special trip.
I don't blame the thrift shops. It can't be easy just trying to pay the rent, keep things going and not turn into a free dumpster. But I miss the old shops, the old ladies, the old stuff that was always missing a piece here and there...but if you were lucky you'd find another one that was missing a different piece, and tell everybody who'd listen what luck you'd had.
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