Second hand pearls … second hand curls
This essay was first published in:
upstreet – number nine – 2013
Waiting in the airport for my Southwest flight from San Diego to San Francisco, my eyes light on a smartly-dressed mature woman, a Judi Dench-lookalike in jeans and a knee-length cashmere sweater over a black turtleneck top, a long patterned scarf tied just so and tossed over one shoulder. Her bag is a creamy caramel-colored satchel, not wide like a briefcase but boxy with two clasped sections. Along with the usual hodgepodge of things we might carry in our bags (a list would fill the page), it can accommodate a book or two —Kindle or tablet if you’re so inclined—plus a sandwich, candy bar, water bottle, scarf and gloves … you know. And yet very compact. Near the handles, in a gilded swirl of calligraphy, are interlocking initials, possibly notable ones, though designer logos may as well be Cyrillic to me.
When she catches me eyeing it and her for the umpteenth time, I speak up. “I’ve been admiring your bag; it’s gorgeous.”
“Thanks,” she says. “Amazing what you can find at thrift stores—only $35!”
I’m impressed, more so than if she said she’d paid ten times that at Bloomingdale’s. Unlike retail shopping, which puts the emphasis on flaunting names that say, “I paid a lot for this,” the world of second-hand shoppers encourages bragging about bargains, celebrating good deals.
Everything from toothpicks to a baby-grand
Audrey, a dedicated thrift-store shopper like me, calls us “gundies,” from segundo, Spanish for second. This is the first I’ve heard this tag, though she says it’s very hip, and Audrey knows hip. With her violet hair (it was magenta last month), proliferating tattoos, and cobbled-together wardrobe, Audrey keeps me up-to-date on pop culture and fashion while maintaining my natural curls in their unnatural auburn hue at her shop, Gypsy Doll. I look up “gundi” (under multiple spellings) and find only the description and mating habits of a small rodent, also called a comb rat, native to the rocky desert regions of northern Africa. When I find Gundie’s Recycled Auto Parts in Seattle, I think I’ve discovered the missing link, but it turns out to be named for its founder, Walter “Grandpa Gundie” Gunderson. Still, the term fits, and I adopt it.
“Second Hand Rose” is our theme song, introduced by Fannie Brice in 1921 and re-popularized by Barbra Streisand in “Funny Girl.” The name has been adopted by countless stores—thrifts, used stores, second-hand stores, resale shops, consignment shops (or shoppes)— from Manhattan to L.A. Rooted in the age-old practice of bartering, elevated to the honorable distinction of recycling, it comes back to that old saw: “one person’s trash is another’s treasure.” Stores range from tiny to gigantic, grubby to upscale. Every city has something like a Goodwill, AmVets, or “Sally’s” (Salvation Army), often vast warehouses with everything from furniture and appliances to dishes and kitchen gadgets, clothing, shoes, sporting equipment, jewelry, and books. Wedding gowns (some with tags still on—stories waiting to be told), furs and feathered boas, construction hardhats and ten-gallon Stetsons. Smaller stores include the Second Hand Roses, the thrifts run by churches and charities and the trendy private boutiques. Here in San Diego I’ve browsed through the racks at Wear it Again Sam, Dress to Impress, Frock You, and Flashbacks, among others. The goods run the gamut, whether they call them second-hand, recycled, pre-owned, outgrown, or just plain used. “Gently worn” is a frequent claim, though many items appear to be survivors of the Dust Bowl or Desert Storm. I’ve frequented them all, explored their back rooms and dusty corners, picked over the gems and the junk, searching for those elusive you-know-them-when-you-see-them finds.
Like antique collectors, we gundies take pride in our perspicacity and can always recall the rare and remarkable rescues. Mine include a cornflower yellow cashmere sweater, a pullover in a men’s extra-large that I wore over t-shirts for years, even after it became stained and moth-eaten beyond salvation. A Wilson’s brown leather jacket from a resale shop in downtown Seattle for $15! A t-shirt that I found some thirty years ago at a church rummage sale—the time and place are fixed in my mind by the boyfriend who lived nearby—with an abstract geometric design, Klee or Miro-like. It’s almost threadbare now; I rarely wear it and have to wash it by hand. And just last month—serendipitously, as I’m currently writing about the ’60s—I found a smoky blue t-shirt with a silver peace symbol marked down to half price at a posh consignment shop.
It’s no wonder that I feel abused
I never get a thing that ain’t been used
I wasn’t born with a silver spoon—even a tarnished hand-me-down one—in my mouth. My family wasn’t well off, and you couldn’t even call us middle class. Were we poor? It’s hard to say, so probably not. We lived decently, were never deprived of life’s necessities, and enjoyed a few frills now and again. My mother was frugal, so you might think that I’d inherited this particular propensity from her, but I don’t recall her ever shopping at thrifts or going to rummage sales. We lived in a small town with few resources, and she didn’t drive, so maybe she didn’t have the opportunity. But I doubt that was the reason. I believe she would have found it degrading. She was proud, and I’m sure she wouldn’t have risked someone recognizing her coat or my back-to-school outfit as their recent discard. Had I been aware of the possibilities and given a say in the matter, I would have risked detection for a couple of Jantzen dyed-to-match sweater and skirt sets.
I became a gundi when I got out into the world and had to deal with the reality of supporting myself. I took to bargain hunting like a poppy to sunshine and was proud of my ability to ferret out hidden treasures. For true aficionados, thrift shopping becomes a hobby even when it’s not a necessity, and I’ve honed my skills through times of scarcity and plenty. During a few high-earning years I saw no incongruity in buying a wool blazer at Nordstrom and then browsing the thrifts for shirts and sweaters to layer under it. At My Sister’s Closet, the YWCA’s storefront, I would drop my discards at the back door, collect my tax receipt, and then pop around to the front to check out others’ castoffs.
Even our piano in the parlor
Father bought for ten cents on the dollar
While the song doesn’t mirror my life, its plaintive lyrics evoke a few stories. I don’t recall the origins of the piano in my childhood parlor, but when my daughter was little, she took piano lessons at a local music store. She participated in the store’s annual festival, in which a hundred kids pound in unison at fifty spinets, and afterwards we bought one of the used festival pianos, which they sold off at bargain prices.
Even Jake the plumber, he’s the man I adore
Had the nerve to tell me he’s been married before
The man I adore was in his forties when we wed. He hadn’t been married before, but he wasn’t factory-new either. I met him through a friend whose college boyfriend he’d been; their friendship survived their romance. I guess that makes him “gently used,” and all the better for having been broken in.
Stuff in our apartment came from father’s store
Even things I’m wearing, someone wore before
OK, you say, we’ve been in a recession, but really, what’s new? There are always people facing hard times, looking for ways to do and have more with less. Is there a recent upsurge in thrift shopping due to the economy? Yes, I’m sure of it, though I haven’t seen any statistics. What I have seen is perhaps more convincing—indications that it’s become a fad. Like grunge, ripped and shredded clothing, the tattier the better, that came out of financial hardship but was picked up by the fashion industry and turned into a trend. My Google search—we have to do that nowadays, don’t we?—yields a plethora of “how-tos” to capitalize on the craze, as if buying a ragged flannel shirt or retro capri pants requires a special set of skills. And you know it’s an “in” phenomenon when it’s picked up by rappers like Macklemore in “Thrift Store:” I’m in this big ass coat / From that thrift shop down the road…
When I was a student in the ‘80s, I was a research assistant for a prominent U.C. San Diego sociologist, Jackie Wiseman. In the course of our work together, I learned that Jackie had published an article that studied thrift store shoppers as a unique subculture. I remember the gist of it, how she captured the milieu of thrifts and the deportment of those who shop in them. She noted how shoppers in department stores keep pretty much to themselves. They try on clothes behind curtains in private booths, self-sufficient with three-way mirrors or accompanied by a shopping buddy of whom they can ask, “Does this make my butt look big?” A stranger’s feedback from the next dressing room is likely to be thought rude and interfering, met with silence or a stiff smile and a frosty “Thank you.”
In contrast, Jackie’s findings and my experience bear out the communal nature of thrift store shopping. Only the swanker places have dressing rooms, so we try things on right in the aisles, over or under what we’re wearing. I like to shop in a tank top and leggings; others wear shorts or long skirts. Other shoppers’ opinions and questions are welcome: “That looks great on you, honey; you can wear it with anything.” Or, “Where’d you find that? If you’re not going to take it, I will!”
Everyone knows that I’m just Second Hand Rose …
I’m off to the AmVets at the bottom of the hill. It’s Saturday afternoon, prime time, even the overflow parking lot is full. I park up the street and walk past the furniture displayed on the sidewalk, up the ramp and into the cavernous space. The clothes are easy to navigate, separated by gender, type and style and grouped within those categories by color. I’m looking for a new hoodie and long-sleeved tops to layer under sweaters for the San Diego winter, such as it is. But really I’m here for color. I don’t mean a black or red or green shirt, but local color, a frame of reference, a milieu for this essay.
There’s a festive air. People of all sizes and shapes and colors are laughing and calling out to one another, sharing their discoveries. A teenage girl, dyed jet black hair and red red lipstick, tights and a skinny striped shirt, pulls on dresses that look like something from a ‘50s sitcom, the kind Lucy or Ethel would have worn, tacky prints with oversized collars. On the hanger they’re dreadful but they look perfect on her, the height of retro fashion. Her mother stands by with an overflowing cart, looking pleased that this shopping extravaganza won’t cost her as much as a couple of items at Macy’s.
Then to the Bargain Box, run by the local Assistance League, a neighborhood shop with just a few racks of clothes and shelves of household goods. I’ve had luck here; I once found a pair of wedgy sandals (only $3!) that I wore for years. The mannequins in the window are decked out in seasonal apparel: wedding gowns in June, red in February, green for St. Patrick’s Day. Last month’s fall plaids and harvest colors have made way for Christmas kitsch—a bulky reindeer sweater paired with shiny green pants—and party wear, a sequined blouse with a long black velvet skirt. A woman walks around gripping a glittery red and green patterned vest that more than one person covets: “Are you going to take it?” “I don’t know yet,” she says, unwilling to relinquish a potential treasure to their waiting hands. Another woman pulls a pair of jeans up under her skirt and looks at the prominent bulges displayed in the mirror. “Oh hell,” she says, to no one in particular, “that’s it; I’m going back on Atkins.”
I leave empty-handed but uplifted. There’s something of a shared humanity, a generosity of spirit, if that doesn’t sound too syrupy, in the give and take. I don’t romanticize poverty, but I’m stirred by the resilience and compassion—overpowering the odors of mold and air freshener—the feeling that we’re all sisters under, or on top of, the skin. Nu?