When I lived in Arizona, I spent an inordinate amount of time in thrift stores, buying a great deal of clothes for theoretical occasions that never actually materialized. Part of this was because I had too much free time, and part of this was the camaraderie that it fostered with friends who were as eager as I was to earn “scoreboard” on the world by getting perfectly useful things for virtually nothing. Hence, the thrift-store gentry, a term a friend coined to describe us bourgeois slummers in proleterian strip malls, our pseudo-aristocratic class of inveterate bargain finders satisfied in their by and large unnecessary acquisitions. What inevitably happens is that you begin buying things you don’t need because of the amount of scoreboard involved in buying them. Maybe you don’t play golf, but how could you pass up a perfectly good set of clubs at $1 a piece? Maybe that’s as good a reason as any to start playing golf, thinks the thrift-store gentry. Name-brand suits for under $10, a perfectly good reason to start wearing suits everyday (another good reason is to thumb one’s nose at the business bogus-casual favored out West, which means to disguise the formally rationalized office-place exploitation, the ability to dress informally being a one of the phony benefits corporations like to tout when detailing their ‘”friendly work environments.” And its amazing how much respect a suit will command in a town where everyone else is too lazy to wear them).
When one is always shopping at thirift store, one begns to feel a defninte sense of superiority. The ads that Savers, a west-coast thrift-store chain, would play over their PA system between songs by the likes of America and James Taylor, played on this, never failing to explain how the stores organized things for smart shoppers like ourselves, those who know aa real baragin when we see one, and how we are helping to save the planet by recycling things rather than playing the destructive game of always trying to keep up with the trends. “Good taste never goes out of style,” we were reminded, comfortable in our own.
The strongest psychological appeal of thrift-store shopping, if you are not a destitute mother trying to clothe her children on a minimum-wage paycheck, is just this, that you have the taste to find the good stuff in the midst of piles of garbage, without the aid of salespeople or contemporary fashion — you are able to see what’s good without referring to the current trend cycle for criteria. You can generate your own criteria for what’s worth owning and displaying as some crucial element of your personality. Of course, you are still shopping as your primary means of self-expression, but its an evolved, elitist kind of shopping, with a herd-defying dignity to it. All and all, it’s like most things in America, an ambiguous practice, half thwarting hegemonic consumerism, half validating it.
But what thrift-store shopping does is much like what I found so detestable in those Motley Crue facsimile shirts I decried in my last post. Thrift-store shopping removes the commodity from its original context and replaces it with one that’s a bit more contrived. What the facsimilie Crue shirt is trying to replicate and over for sale is not so much the aesthetic of the tour shirt but the satisfyingly kitschy experience of coming across one at the thrift store, and thinking it neat and unlikely — and then you buy the shirt, seeking to wear it to shift yourself out of context the same way, to be as neat and surprising and unlikely yourself when people come across you. Unless you are driven to the Salvation Army by necessity, every purchase you make there will be colored by this context, the “I’m a clever shopper” context, the “I’m a spelunker in the detritus of pop culture” context. You don’t avoid that dimension of personal ego-boosting and achieve pure utility shopping by heading to Goodwill. Rather, the agonistic zero-sum “scoreboard” component of shopping is maximized, revealing the competitive nature of the gratifications of consumerism more nakedly. So shopping’s not the open playing field that anyone can access and in which all can please themselves by participating; in other words, it’s not necessarily the foolproof social palliative post-war economists and politicians have claimed consumerism is, where evreyone can find goods in the market to self-actualize themselves. In fact, some will get these goods, and others will be late in coming, and will suffer humliation or deprivation as a consequence. In the case of thrift stores, latecomers are literally beaten to the object made unique and more precious by its random return to the marketplace. In retail stores, they are late to the trend and their adoption only affirms their status as a conformist, which, as Thomas Frank arged in The Conquest of Cool, is the worst sort of insult you can hurl at someone.
The shirt I’m wearing now is a linen shirt I must have bought at Savers for $5. I might have even got it for $2 using the $3-off coupons the company inserted in the University of Arizona schedule of classes and which we would hoard. My thoughts buying it were probably something along the lines of: “Hmm. Linen. I can spend five buck for a linen shirt. if I don’t feel like ironing it afterward I’ll just chuck it.” This must have been a much different consumer-decision process than the one that the original purchaser underwent. What I’m wondering is this: did that original person stake more of his dreams on this shirt when he bought it for $80 than I did when I bought it for $5? Am I wearing the relic of a disillusioned dream, someone else’s fantasy gone awry, with all the complementary delight of schaudenfreude mixed in? Or have I given that failed dream new life and somehow redeemed it? That’s what I think when I haul the bags of clothes back to the Salvation Army, mostly stuff I orginally purchased at thrift-stores, in more optimistic times, or at least in times where my concept of myself was more flexible, more open-ended, and I could dream up for myself more occasions for things like overcoats and three-piece suits and French-cuffed shirts. Maybe I affording someone else the cahnce to adopt my moribund dreams, keep that hope alive. And at the same time, I’m surrendering that kind of hope, the hope that I’ll be somehow more than I am, and I’m hoping instead that a new sort of hope will animate me, one that focuses on what I can accomplish rather than what I can amass.