How do you find treasures in a thrift store? Follow our tips

Mountains of clothes. Boxes of vintage glassware. Rooms stuffed with shoes, shirts, dresses, electronics, games and housewares.

That’s what life behind the scenes of a thrift store looks like.

PHOTOS: Finding treasures in a thrift store

When I started volunteering for Austin Pets Alive’s thrift store in May, I didn’t know what to expect at the new shop. Then I became a sorter. I stand in a back room with other volunteers, digging through piles of clothes-filled garbage bags donated to the nonprofit thrift store, which benefits the organization and helps animals in shelters.

Sorters pick out the best stuff we can find, hang it up, put it on shelves and then dig around for quality merchandise. It has hammered home the reality that you can outfit yourself from head to toe for less than $15 in some places. Today, our models and Austin Pets Alive dogs show some of those best finds.

Working at a thrift store has taught me a lot about thrift-store culture. Here are some tips to help you make the most of your experience and walk away satisfied. Good luck and happy thrifting!

  • Come often. Merchandise is constantly changing. If it’s not in your size today, something else might be tomorrow. “You never know what you’re gonna find there,” said Jan Gunter, spokeswoman for the Salvation Army. “The more often you show up, the luckier you get on finding a good deal.” If you see something you like, buy it. It may not last.
  • Check quality, buttons, zippers. Thrift store workers sift through thousands of donated items, and while they do their best to ditch the damaged ones, it’s inevitable that a few less-than-stellar items make it on a hanger. Look for stains and tears. Make sure all the buttons are there and the zippers work.
  • Ask for help. Just because you don’t see it on the shop floor doesn’t mean they don’t have what you’re looking for. There’s likely lots of stuff in the back that hasn’t made it out yet, and the staff may have exactly what you want in the storeroom.
  • If you buy underwear, make sure it’s laundered. Some thrift stores offer undergarments, but you need to know if they’re clean. Paul Kleypas with the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store says their shop washes such donations on-site. But if you’re getting them elsewhere, double-check for cleanliness. “They have to pass the first line of inspection of, ‘Do I want even touch them?’” Kleypas said.
  • Bring a magnifying glass. Sometimes the naked eye just don’t do. A magnifying glass can help you detect cracks in ceramics or read labels. “A magnifying glass or jewelers loop will help you determine whether a piece of art is an original or a print,” adds Karin Kokinda, store manager for Top Drawer Thrift.
  • Bring boxes and paper when planning to buy breakables. That vase or set of glasses might look great in the store, but they won’t look great if they get cracked in your car. Be prepared and get that stuff home in one piece.
  • Bring a fully charged phone. One of the beauties of thrifting is getting a steal on pricey items. But what if you think you’ve found something special but don’t recognize the brand of the label? Whip out that phone and Google it.
  • BYO manpower. If you buy a piece of large furniture, don’t assume a store staffer will help you load it. Some shops will not help load larger items due to insurance restrictions.
  • Ask for a deal. Hey, you never know, right? Some shops will cut you a break if you buy in bulk or want something that’s been sitting in the store for a while. Sometimes it’s worth more to the shop to free up some space than wait for someone willing to pay another $10 for the item you want.
  • Ask about a return policy. Many stores have a “no returns/exchanges” policy. But that doesn’t mean you can’t donate it back! Unless it’s broken, the nonprofit will probably love you for it. Donations keep these places running.

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Lifestyle

Austin 'Black Panther' fans put on their Wakanda best this weekend
Austin 'Black Panther' fans put on their Wakanda best this weekend

It has come to pass as many (eventually) thought it would: experts are predicting “Black Panther” will deliver a $235 million-plus debut over the four-day weekend, making for the third highest four-day gross in history.  As Box Office Mojo noted, it is only the fifth movie to debut with over $200 million over its opening...
Flipside Austin parties before, during and after SXSW
Flipside Austin parties before, during and after SXSW

SXSW muscles its way onto Austin’s social calendar in a couple of weeks, but you can wrestle down plenty of other options for parties before, during and after the main event. Feb. 23:  Wonders and Worries Unmasked. JW Marriott.   Feb. 28:  Austin Music Awards. ACL Live. March 1:  ...
Cyclist who died Saturday wrote about supplemental testosterone use in cycling
Cyclist who died Saturday wrote about supplemental testosterone use in cycling

Andrew Tilin died after he was struck by a car as he changed a flat tire while driving on FM 620. Mark Matson for American-Statesman   Andrew Tilin died Saturday, after he was struck by a vehicle as he changed a flat tire on the side of the road. I wrote about Tilin, who wrote a book called “The Doper Next Door,” in September...
Austin runner shatters personal record, hopes to encourage others with Down Syndrome
Austin runner shatters personal record, hopes to encourage others with Down Syndrome

Kayleigh Williamson dances at the finish line of the Austin Half Marathon. Photo courtesy Sandy Williamson An Austin runner who in 2017 became the first woman with Down Syndrome to complete the Austin Half Marathon shaved an hour and 45 minutes off her finish time this year. Kayleigh Williamson danced happily as she crossed the finish line...
Dear Abby - Sunday, February 18

Dear Abby: My daughter and her boyfriend have been together for four years. Despite being almost 30, he is very immature and constantly distracted by either his phone or his video games. Abby, he travels with his PlayStation everywhere he goes. When he comes into our house, he sets up his console in the living room, puts on headphones and plays games...
More Stories