There’s no bigger downer than buying a new sweater and then, on your Monday morning commute, seeing three other people on the metro wearing the exact same thing. This, in a nutshell, is why I go thrifting. But that’s just the beginning. I mean, you go to a store, any store, and you’re basically being spoon-fed an aesthetic. Are you really making decisions when you shop at J. Crew? I’d argue the exact opposite. But you go to a thrift store, you have every decade from the Seventies to the Aughties, every subcultural uniform from each respective era, all crammed in there. You have no choice but to make constant decisions, whereas most shopping experiences don’t require any judgment whatsoever.
(This is why many people, upon their first thrifting experience, say they feel overwhelmed.)
There are more down-to-earth reasons to thrift, too. It’s cheap. You can get five full outfits for like seventy bucks. And shopping at a thrift store means you money goes to charity, and not an evil sweatshop-using corporation. (And let’s be honest, in today’s America, voting with your dollars is more meaningful and consequential than actual voting.) These reasons, and many more, are why I’ve been renting a car at least once a month for the past several years and ranging out into the suburbs (and exurbs) in search of one-of-a-kind treasures that, in general, I wear for a year or two and then sell on Ebay for low three figures. So here, benefit from my extensive thrift experiences …
UNIQUE THRIFT/VALUE VILLAGE
10121 New Hampshire Avenue
Silver Spring MD
There are a number of Unique Thrift stores and Value Villages, but this place is two of them under one roof, with a bonus multicultural bazaar in the middle. This place is as big as an airplane hangar; you should prepare to spend three hours here, at a minimum. I always go to the store on the right (Value?) first, because it has more stuff, so that once I make it through that one, the second one seems light and easy by comparison. This one probably has the best clothes – especially coats and jackets – of any thrift store in DC. Also, it gets bonus points for the wackiest miscellany; there was a life-sized poster of Colin Farrell as the villain in that terrible movie “Daredevil” here for years, for $200. The fact that it’s gone means that someone paid $200 for a life-sized poster of Colin Farrell as the villain in that terrible movie “Daredevil.” Just let that sink in for a minute.
I can’t list all the great stuff I’ve gotten here over the years; all my best Cosby cardigans, an antique black leather armchair with matching ottoman for $15, a rare Schwinn from the 70s, the last model made from airplane-grade steel, that I rode for several years and then sold on Craigslist for $500. Also, the bazaar in the middle sells the most random assortment of retail goods you’ll find in any one place in DC; knock-off Apple Bottom jeans, cellphone cases emblazoned with the logos and colors of obscure Eastern European soccer teams, new-in-box Super Nintendo video game systems that are decades old. (I think a good litmus test for a significant other is, if you buy them a Super Nintendo for a gift, and they’re not thrilled, dump them immediately.)
INDIAN HEAD THRIFT
4800 Indian Head Highway
Oxon Hill MD
This gem is located just past the very very southern tip of the District border. I’m pretty sure you can stand in the parking lot of this store and throw a stone into DC. Once you navigate the mystifying system of frontage roads to get to this place (basically you have to make an unprotected u-turn across 3-5 lanes of traffic), and weave your way through a parking lot that appears to have taken mortar fire, you will discover a treasure trove unlike any other. There’s a sizable section still devoted in this store to VHS tapes. Think about that. This place is the thrift equivalent to Pompeii. Everything’s still here, undisturbed for years.
Lady thrifters tell me that this store has the best clothes for women. It also has a really good book section; if you transplanted the book section into a storefront in, say, Mount Pleasant, it would instantly be one of the top used bookstores in the city. It’s also by FAR the cheapest thrift store in the city. I have no idea what system they use to price stuff here, but I highly suspect it’s the “write a random price on a tag and staple it on” system. You’ll find jeans here for less than a dollar – like, designer jeans from the late 80s that would cost $75 in a “vintage upcycling boutique” that Gwyneth Paltrow shops at. Oh, and there’s a ton of VHS tapes. (That wasn’t even a joke, I still have a VCR.)
9880 Washington Blvd N
Laurel, Maryland probably isn’t a suburb, but is it an exurb? Maybe not. It might just be a town in Maryland. Regardless, I still like to make the hour long drive up there from time to time (the non-Beltway route takes you right through downtown College Park, where you can see the retail managers of tomorrow getting drunk on two dollar beers today) and make the local thrift circuit. Somewhat puzzlingly, for a town this size, Laurel has three thrift stores, two of them quite large. But the best part is how un-picked over they are. “Picked over” is the thrifter’s bane; it means that other thrifters have been there before you and picked over the racks, stealing all the best stuff. The telltale sign of a picked over store is that you’ll find random groupings of really good stuff on the ends of racks or on the “re-rack rack” (where the employees put the stuff that people try on but don’t buy), where the picker-over deposited all their ill-fitting selections.
Laurel, though, is far enough out there that very few thrifters ever get out there. And the people who do shop there are mostly looking for mall bargains and kids school uniforms – functional stuff. These racks are like museum exhibits of early-to-mid Nineties fashion. It’s definitely worth the drive. Plus, Laurel is basically rural Maryland, so there are a lot of whimsical places to stop at; trucker diners, combination bowling alley/roller rinks, Arby’s. It’s like a mini-vacation to a bygone era.
GEORGIA AVENUE THRIFT
6101 Georgia Avenue
Yeah, renting a car or getting a Zipcar can be a pain, not to mention expensive. This is the thrift store closest in and easiest to get to by public transportation, though it may be awkward taking the bus back home while carrying a five foot tall velvet black light painting of a panther. It’s a little expensive (for a thrift store), since it’s in the city, but it’s still really cheap. The clothes here aren’t that great (maybe because, as the most accessible thrift store, it’s always picked over by people who make a living reselling this stuff on Etsy and Ebay), but the housewares and “miscellany” is top-notch. From terrible taxidermy to lamps made of antique whiskey bottles to southwestern-print sofas that will make jealousy-steam blast out of your friends’ ears, this place is top-notch. My apartment got pretty bad at times (for years one of the walls of the bathroom was just loose bricks with trash bags taped over it) but the five-foot-by-six-foot framed poster for an Italian porno from the Seventies I bought here single-handedly kept my place at “bohemian” level, just above “hovel,” for at least half a decade.
By Franklin Schneider