I might not remember this exactly, because I haven’t tuned in to hear Oprah talk about anything in many years. It was one of her “etiquette” shows, I think, all about what’s polite and what’s rude, the things you should never do. Re-gifting—passing along a gift you didn’t want to someone else—was on the list of don’t-do’s. She said it was bad mannered. And I remember disagreeing with her, even then. I thought it was just wrong not to find better homes for things you didn’t need or want. Because whatever the item was, it had most likely required some amount of planetary abuse in the making. Too late to undo that, but at least it might have a useful life and some respect before hitting the landfill. Best of all, though, the gift-giver could avoid shopping for another present—new stuff.
I notice there’s an update about re-gifting on Oprah.com. Different people are quoted, with different opinions—some still maintain it’s the height of rudeness, while others see the logic in it. Who knows what Oprah herself believes; maybe she’s coming around.
This post, however, will take you beyond re-gifting—all the way to thrifting. Imagine that person you want to do something really special for, but you have no idea how—until, wandering around a thrift store, you find something you know is perfect. It has happened to me more than once. You just have to shop differently.
There are different levels of thrift gifting, so you have choices. Will you pretend it’s new stuff? Maybe it looks new and you want to add an authentic-looking price tag. Or maybe you’ll attach a fun tag with a heart and your name—just to give it the feel of something new, and to be honest. Or maybe you’ve found a tea set, not a single chip, but the box it came in isn’t there, so it doesn’t look new—you don’t care; you know it’s just the right thing, and you find some old box. No pretense. In my case, everyone knows I never buy anything new, even for gifts, so anything goes, as long as it’s thoughtful.
I hope the following pictures and captions inspire you to thrift gift, and to break away from absurd rules of etiquette that support malevolent, exploitative corporations over local merchandise recyclers: our thrift stores.
These beautiful 1834 woodcut prints—with documentation—were only $3 each. They’re a reminder that you don’t always have to go to an antique store to find antiques. You just need to develop an eye for valuable old things, and visit the thrift stores.
Almost every thrift store has a basket section, usually filled with dirt-cheap baskets—not like the ones above. Clockwise from left, these photos show the traditional work of the Tohono O’odham, the Hopi, and the Tarahumara (or Raramuri). If the store staff are knowledgeable, these natural weavings won’t be found tossed in with the $1.99 baskets; they’ll be behind glass near the cash register. Do the prices of baskets reflect the cost of labor in the region where they’re made? It seems likely, but I don’t know. The Tohono O’odham and Hopi live in the United States; the Tarahumara are in Mexico but have managed to hold onto much of their ancient culture (perhaps that’s valued). In any case, if you find any baskets like these for thrift-store prices, you’ve chanced upon a bargain. It happens. If not, get some of the cheap ones and put another gift inside. It’s worth a little more in a basket.
Speaking of baskets: this is a rare thrift store find by my friend Marion—which you may or may not recognize as a bunch of devil’s claw pods. If you scroll back to the Tohono O’odham baskets, you’ll see small areas of black woven into the design. That’s the long finger of the devil’s claw. T.O. weavers—and their numbers are diminishing—store this resource in bundles like this: compactly, sharp ends pointed inward. But what a mystery this is. Did a weaver’s hands get too arthritic to continue her craft? Why wasn’t it given to another basket maker? How did it end up in a thrift store? I love these second-hand mysteries! If you do happen to know someone who would appreciate something like this bundle, I’m sorry. You won’t find another, at least not in a thrift store.
Thrift stores usually have a good selection of like-new vases. Some of the standard glass ones are so inexpensive that I’ll get half a dozen and store them outside (turned upside-down, to avoid mosquito breeding) for when I want to bring someone flowers, maybe as a holiday hostess gift. I can tell them not to worry about bringing the vase back. This time of year, I like to go to my pyracantha source, where heaps of the bright berries are spilling over a wall into the alley, and make a bouquet or two. They last longer than flowers. And they’re not, as some think, poison. You can make jam with them. (There are other kinds of red berries, some poisonous, so know your plants.)
The freehanded blue vase is my favorite of all time. I love it so much I’ve convinced myself it was shaped by a famous, skilled potter—was it NW or MN? Or even KZ? Let me know!
If anyone on your list is into glitz, sparkle, and glam, look for it at a thrift store. Don’t buy glitter new, especially if you love seafood. It’s plastic, and it ends up in oceans.
When I don’t know what I want, except that I know I want ideas, I check thrift stores. Wouldn’t this thumb piano be great for a kid who leans toward music?
It’s rare to find tools this shiny and new looking—suitable for hanging as art!—in a thrift store. But good tools are durable, sometimes even generations old. To me. they’re as acceptable showing normal wear-and-tear as antiques. Girls need ’em, too.
Kitchenware often does come in sets at thrift stores—sometimes chipped, but often not. If there aren’t quite enough pieces to make a set of six or eight, put together a set of four. I’m told these are perfect for eggnog, hot spiced cider, and ice cream. The color’s right!
But kitchenware gifts can be one-of-a-kind, too. I use this spouted bowl at least once a week. I love just holding it—it’s heavy—and running my hands along its thick, smooth rim. I learned a bit of French, too: The subtle gold lettering isn’t referring to something small. “Le petit déjeuner” means breakfast.
I remember I bought this bowl at one of the upscale, Eastside thrift stores, where the shelves are artistically arranged and you can see most everything at a glance. There are also dusty, super-cluttered, chaotic versions—and everything in between. So shoppers have a choice. I like them all, and tend to visit whichever one is near where I am.
Don’t you think this small shelf-let would appeal to a number of types? It’s a way to display a three-dimensional art piece on a wall. And the featured art could easily rotate. If this is a gift, the art to be displayed could be given along with it.
When you polish off the nuts or cookies that a boss or colleague has given you, what do you do with the tin? Some people wash out the crumbs and give it to thrift stores, which is why they have so many, in a variety of shapes and sizes. If the painted decoration on the tin is too commercial, I like to cover it up with tape and stickers. And then put something inside—just about anything.
Sometimes I don’t know a thing exists until I see it in a thrift store. Maybe that will happen to you—you’ll see a gift you didn’t know existed. (This phone case was “like new” when I bought it, but now it’s getting dirty from use.)
My purchase of these wooden shoes was a lovely kind of frivolous act. I can’t wear them or think of any other purpose for them. But they were clearly hand-carved, and probably old, and that appealed to me. I didn’t know if they were generally valuable, but they were certainly worth more than the five dollars the thrift store was charging. They presented another thrift-store mystery: inscribed near the opening on each was the word “EILMARKEN,” which, in German, refers to a kind of express postmark. Were these the shoes of a speedy runner? Did one run in such shoes? Why German, when the shoes seemed Dutch? I hope someday someone can explain the inscription.
These shoes make me happy when I see them, and they remind me that frivolous gifts can be wonderful. If they’re not new. In fact, second-hand stores can sometimes make frivolity possible, with their low prices.
Most people like to pick out their own home furnishings, but once in a while someone needs help. The photo on the left features some thrift-store furnishings. The solid wood entertainment center cost him just $45, as large furniture was on sale that day. (If there’s anything better than thrift store prices, it’s thrift store sale prices.) The small black table was $10, and the CD shelf was a bit less. He bought the shirt for $3.50, just to have people ask him whether he really worked at Costco. (No.) With second-hand prices you can afford more gags. To the right is a baker’s shelf that found a place in front of a window. The light-catching curtain is also thrift.
On the left is a wicker chair in beautiful shape considering it’s thrifted. Placing it under a porch roof should keep it that way a while longer. Next to the chair is a lamp I bought for $20. That’s more than I would usually spend on anything used, but I was taken by it—the antique feel, cut-glass spangles and dragonflies on the shade. Once in a while I give myself a gift. You should, too.
So now you have it: My rather random sampling of some gift-like items you can buy at thrift stores, and bits of philosophy to go with them. But just for fun, since I started with Oprah, I’m going to end with Yoko Ono. Last week I landed on the documentary, “LennonNYC,” in which she related a short anecdote. During the time she was by herself in New York, she happened to see a pair of fabulous silk pajamas in a “vintage shop.” She went in and bought them, thinking to herself that she very much wanted to see what man might fit them. (I presume they didn’t fit her.) In the end, John came back, and fit into them perfectly, and they were back together.
I don’t know if a thrift store is the same as a vintage shop. There are other names: second-hand store, antique store, maybe even flea market. But they all have one thing in common: the stuff they sell is used. Even fabulously wealthy Yoko wasn’t afraid of that.
Good for her. And us! And the planet!
Newstuffsucks will take a two-week hiatus for the holidays. See you in 2022.