Thrift Shop Treasures

[NPR, “All Things Considered,” May 20, 1997]

I’ve walked a hundred miles in another woman’s shoes, and I don’ t even know her name. I’ve ironed her blouse, hemmed her skirt, and carried her handbag. She’s not one person, but a composite of dozens, women of all ages and races and creed.

But there is one thing they all had in common: they were all mostly my size.

I became a thrift-shop customer reluctantly, over a process of years. I first stepped inside my local Salvation Army store lured by the rumor that there were books in there, cheap and plenty. That first visit offered little to encourage a return. A musty, grandma’s-attic smell hung in the air. Forlorn furniture sat here and there, flanked by giant table lamps, a wooden crate full of curtains, shoes lined up by color.

On a repeat visit I was lured from the bookshelves toward a set of four old wooden chairs with backs steepled like the Empire State Building. A week later they were freshly painted blue and sitting in my kitchen. Then the corner of a piece of embroidery caught my eye, as it stuck out of the curtain bin. It turned out to be a large piece of visionary folk art, and the cashier gave it to me free. When I took it to an art dealer for an appraisal, he offered to buy it.

But the idea of buying used clothes made me shy. A little nonchalant examining of the racks swiftly overcame this hesitation. Here were clothes I’d never be able to afford, silks, suedes, fine wools, exquisite styling and high priced labels, for a few dollars each. Till then I’d been buying new clothes at much higher prices for much lower quality. Pride went out the window, and a lovely red raw-silk suit went in the bag.

The explanation was obvious once I thought about it. The key to thrift shop quality is the donors, and a few miles away was a swanky development full of professional women. I’d be glad to recycle their expensive purchases. I just hoped I wouldn’t run into them in the grocery store.

It’s been years now, and I’ve become a connoiseur: Salvation Army, Goodwill, Value Village, Amvets, every store has its charms, and a couple even have dressing rooms. Best of all, every time I buy clothes I have a chance to donate back previous purchases that have lost their novelty. So I don’t actually buy clothes at a thrift shop—I just rent them. And decked out in my rented, second-hand, thrift shop finery, I’m much better dressed than I used to be.

About Frederica Matthewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service,, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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