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.
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.
Where to shop
Here are some of the local thrift stores that benefit local nonprofits organizations.
Assistance League of Austin. Raises money to provide clothing for school children, assault survivor kits for hospitals and other programs. 4901 Burnet Road. 512-458-2633, assistanceleague.org/austin
Austin Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore. Helps build homes for people in need. 500 W. Ben White Blvd. 512-478-2165, austinhabitat.org/restore
Austin Pets Alive Thrift. Raises money for Austin Pets Alive’s animal shelters. 5801 Burnet Road. 512-373-3099, austinpetsalive.org/austin-pets-alive-thrift-store
Goodwill. Raises money for job training, employment placement services, and other community-based programs for people with barriers to getting work. 32 local locations, goodwillcentraltexas.org/locations
Hope Family Thrift. Supports the Austin Disaster Relief Network. 1122 E. 51st St. 512-467-4940, hopefamilythrift.org
Salvation Army. Raises money for the organization’s rehabilitation program for people with addiction. Four local locations, salvationarmyaustin.org/family-stores
Savers. Benefits Easter Seals of Central Texas. 4001 S. Lamar Blvd. 512-442-8011; 5222 Burnet Road, No. 600. 512-323-0707; 11101 Pecan Park Blvd., Cedar Park. 512-257-0359, stores.savers.com
St. Michael’s Academy Thrift Shoppe. Supports St. Michael’s Academy. 5907 Burnet Road. 512-436-9948, smatshoppe.com
Texas Thrift Store. Helps veterans, children with cancer and people struggling with homelessness. 5319 N. Interstate 35. 512-380-0025, buythrift.com/store-locations/austin
Thrift Land. Benefits Vietnam Veterans. 512 W. Stassney Lane. 512-326-1510, familythrift.com
Thrift Town. Helps local schools and nonprofits. 5700 Manchaca Road, No. 240. 512-442-7200, thrifttown.com
Treasure City Thrift. Benefits the Inside Books Project to bring books into prison and more. 2142 E. Seventh St. 512-524-2820, treasurecitythrift.org
Top Drawer. 4902 Burnet Road, 512-454-5161; and 7101 Woodrow Ave Unit B, 512-454-8646, Ext. 105, topdrawerthrift.org
Vincentian Family Center and Thrift Store. Raises money for Society of St. Vincent de Paul, which provides services for needy people. 901 W. Braker Lane. 512-442-5652, ssvdp.org/thrift-stores