I used to think I could live, somehow, outside of consumer culture. A grad student, bereft of funds and only partially cognizant of the exigencies of style, I bought only what was absolutely necessary, taking furniture from dumpsters and replenishing my wardrobe only on those occasions when, once or twice a year, I went to visit my parents and their charge cards. The only shops I spent more than a minute in were used book stores, and I told myself that my book purchases were academic necessities. I could even withstand the annual onslaught of Christmas — often holding out until (quite literally) the night before Christmas before stepping gingerly into the consumer maelstrom to snatch up a few (cheap, crappy) last-minute gifts.
Then I discovered thrift stores, and my latent consumerist cravings emerged with a vengeance. From my first big score (a set of useful mugs and an original oil painting based on the “Love is …” comic strip, all for $1.29) I was hooked. “The smart shopper shops often,” the sign in my local thrift proclaimed, and by this peculiar standard I was a genius. I bought shirts; I bought pants; I bought file cabinets. I bought black velvet paintings of kitties. I bought hideous ceramic figurines. I bought more than 100 novels about nurses.
Al Hoff understands the passion, the sheer irrational thrill of thrifting. Several years back, Hoff began a modest little zine, Thrift Score, to share her experiences with fellow thrift devotees. Soon the pages of Thrift Score were filled with letters from a vast and diverse Thrift Army, responding to her questions and giving all the gory details of their most obscure finds.
Now Hoff has distilled her thrifting wisdom into a book, also called “Thrift Score” — a guide to buying that makes (as they say) a perfect Christmas gift. Though not quite as deliciously eccentric as her zine, the book is an entertaining and practical guide to the lowest rungs of our consumer ladder, with Hoff taking on subjects ranging from the proper care and cleaning of thrifted lambswool sweaters to suggestions on how to furnish a Manly Den. (She suggests starting with an “All-American Cedar Souvenir Plaque.”)
As Hoff understands, the joy of thrifting lies not only in the occasional amazing score, but in the pleasure one can take in examining the raw materials of history firsthand. Thrift stores, after all, are where fads go to die; in a good thrift store, you can find dictionaries of CB slang, Pac Man pajamas, Masters of the Universe bedsheets. You can find almost every bestseller ever published — except, of course, the ones you might actually want to read. Every thrift store in existence seems to have a copy of Gail Sheehy’s “Passages,” John Naisbett’s “Megatrends,” Tom Wolfe’s “Bonfire of the Vanities”; very few of them appear to have been read.
And then, of course, there are the Herb Alpert records. Hoff has a theory about Herb Alpert. “Whipped Cream and other Delights” sold 500,000 copies when it first came out — and, as Hoff points out, most devoted thrifters have seen what seems to be “each and every one of these.” Perhaps, Hoff suggests, all the copies of this infernal album have left the hands of their original owners and are now caught in an endless limbo, circulating and recirculating through the thrift stores of America like an especially virulent urban legend.
My own passion for thrifts waxes and wanes. At times, even the thought of entering the squalid disorder of a thrift makes my skin crawl. Other times, I can feel the fever coming over me, and I will gladly spend hours braving the crowded aisles, the screaming babies, the miserable music, the rancid human odors, sorting through pile upon pile of junk in search of the perfect score. I plowed through my copy of “Thrift Score” in an evening, reading like a man possessed. The next day I hit a brand new thrift. The magic was still there — waiting for me like Herb Albert, whipped cream in hand.