Vintage Salvation

Reviving hope in the great American thrift store

Many New Yorkers lost their faith in the fashion potential of the Salvation Army's thrift stores years ago. I have some hazy memories of good shopping in the early '90s, but, unbeknownst to me, it was already coming to an end by then. Vintage buyers routinely gut the racks of anything remotely stylish, hike the prices up to ungodly levels, and sell the same pieces in more upscale settings, where the retro hipness is spelled out for shoppers who may have been grossed out by "used clothing" but love the idea of "vintage."

In Manhattan, at least, it seems the Salvation Army itself caught on ages ago that many of its customers were not just the needy, but also the trendy. The small shop on Spring Street, between Crosby and Broadway, is still far from a vintage boutique, but prices have reached a mark that would have been unimaginable 20 years ago. A newly renovated thrift store on 23rd Street, just west of Sixth Avenue, has high ceilings, a fancy window display, and modern lighting.

During a four-year exile (called college) in Ohio, I rediscovered the Salvation Army, and it was better than New York had ever been. In fact, my almost weekly trips there were just about the only thing that could justify the claim that those would be the best years of my life. The store was one town away from campus, and it was clear that the vast majority of my peers were too lazy to take advantage of it. This is the most crucial used-clothing criteria: Make sure you are shopping for looks the people around you think are hideous.

In those days, my main goal when putting together an outfit was to be funny. Irony was alive and kicking, and the shopping was certainly easier when I wore anything with airbrushing, brass buttons, or poofy sleeves. When my boyfriend visited, we had a screaming fight over a pair of white sweatpants with a gigantic fake Gucci logo down one leg, which I won, but only had the guts to wear them, with pumps, a few times.

Speaking of college, wasn't it Jean Baudrillard who said, “Everything has already happened . . . nothing new can occur"? Let's not tackle that in full here (who are we kidding, really?), but in fashion, it is often the feeling that prevails. With the biggest trends being regurgitated from the '60s and '70s (Bohemian, Edie Sedgwick), and even Goth and Victorian looks, the coolest girls skip the high-end retro stuff and find originals. But can it be done in this cesspool of referential fashion?

We took the G train (many, many times) to investigate several Salvation Army stores, and discovered the answer is . . . yes, but it's not easy. Here are some important strategic tools to consider before you embark on the journey.

Take a Hike

If you can't get to Ohio, your best bet at being an outsider is to travel to the city's limits, where the hipsters are scarce. But of course, you won't be the only one who thought of it; so while the possibilities are greater in the outer boroughs, stick with the biggest stores. The thrift shop on Steinway Avenue in Astoria is beloved by stylists and devoted shoppers alike, and it is gigantic. A recent visit even brought back memories of the Midwest.

Freaks and Geeks

At Steinway, our best finds were vests, which have recently come back into style, if you can pull it off. Because this is a trend that hasn't been in style any time recently, and is not as widespread as, say, the shrug or the peasant skirt, there is a huge selection of long-abandoned men's and women's vests. So keep an eye out for your most individual style instincts. And if you don't have any, we pity you, in many ways.

Off-Peak hours

If you work 9-to-5, you are at a disadvantage. The best time to go thrift shopping is always on a random weekday, when the racks have been restocked and the place is empty. Otherwise, you're competing with a lot of vintage hounds on Saturday (all locations are closed Sundays, of course), so get there as early as possible! When we walked into the Bed Stuy/Clinton Hill thrift shop (22 Quincy St.) at 3 p.m., we saw some hip-looking girls hauling gigantic bags out the door. Being scooped is not a good feeling.

Cart it

If you're in a big enough location, there will be shopping carts available. Don't hesitate to grab one and fill it up. This is shopping that requires an open mind and a high tolerance for dust—try on anything that catches your eye. At the Atlantic Avenue (near Nevins Street) shop, our favorite find was a brown smock that had been finger-painted by a little kid. Turns out it makes a pretty cute mini-dress, but we almost passed it by. And if you think you'll be heading to a dressing room with your own mirror, you're in for a rude awakening. You'll be rolling your cart to a corner spot with a mirror. We suggest wearing a skirt with leggings and an undershirt you're ready to be seen in, to ease the process.

 
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