March 12, 2015

Thrift store finds rather than family hand-me-downs

One unusual sign of the status-striving climate is the boom in the thrift store sector. Shouldn't their success be interpreted as a signal of, well, thriftiness and preserving traditions, rather than going into debt up to your eyeballs to afford showy new stuff?

But all that stuff on the shelves of thrift stores came from somewhere. Someone decided to throw out a bunch of old stuff, and left it out for a charity group to collect, instead of the garbage truck. Why throw it out? Because they were upgrading to something newer and showier. That the new stuff doesn't function as well as the old stuff, and breaks down faster, doesn't matter -- the point is to stay on the fashion treadmill, so you trade off quality for novelty.

Why not pass it on to someone in your family? Possibly they're strivers as well, and wouldn't welcome a gift of old stuff. But your average thrift store shopper isn't wealthy enough to look a gift horse in the mouth. They may want a brand new microwave, but getting a free one from a family member beats paying retail, and it even beats buying second-hand since the used item comes free from family.

It seems like the root cause has more to do with the abandonment of stewardship in status-striving times. No time to take care of people, places, and things when we're each super busy advancing our position on the totem pole. Just drop off any unwanted stuff at a third party, and let them deal with it. Commercial interests will find a more efficient way to collect your stuff than a church or school, but again what do you care if some company makes money off of your old stuff?

The libertarian, laissez-faire norms that undergird the status-striving climate also make it awkward to redistribute things among family members. Notions about the highest bidder, the price that the market will bear, and so on, are foreign to family relationships. So, just donate them to a commercial enterprise, and let them allocate your things to unseen and unknown buyers according to the market rate.

Weird as it may seem, perhaps the only way a person today could come into possession of the things that their parents owned is by scouring the thrift stores to see if someone their parents' age has recently donated such things, and make a payment.

Most of those things won't even be very expensive, so it's not as though the major weirdness comes down to paying an arm and a leg vs. getting it for free. Thrift store finds might as well be free. It's that you have to navigate a cryptic web of donors and re-allocators in a commercial setting, rather than interact with folks you know, likely face to face, as part of the gift culture, where receiving a gift puts you in the donor's debt somehow.

Relationship duties are a drag on uber-efficient status-striving, though, so forget giving and receiving gifts. We'll just pay a nominal finder's fee and come away with not only the item, but a completely blank slate of obligations afterward. Your only obligation is to pay the thrift store the stated amount; after that, you're in the clear, and they expect nothing further from you.

This parallels the lack of indebtedness that the charity owes you after giving them your second-hand stuff. You don't have to monitor them and see if they're behaving like a gracious gift recipient. They give you a voucher to get a tax write-off, and that's the end of it.

However much we may appreciate the kind of stuff that we can easily and cheaply score at the thrift store, we should bear in mind how symptomatic they are of the frayed social fabric, and try to go through family relationships before commercial transactions.


  1. Is there a measurable increase in thrift stores since the mid-80s? From my perspective, there doesn't seem to be, but I could be wrong. (Dollar stores is another story.) I did plenty of thrift store shopping in the 80s and early 90s because I used to wear a lot of vintage clothes (yeah I was one of those guys), and there was a plethora of stores. I was recently in a Goodwill store, the types of merchandise seems unchanged to me. I do agree that throwaway culture is a thing, but it's been around for at least a few decades.

    Again from personal experience, but my family hands down everything before donating it. I haven't heard from friends about their families choosing thrift stores over family, but maybe it's a trend. Have you noticed it personally, or have you seen stats suggesting as much?

  2. There are news articles about what big business the thrift store sector has become, now including extensive multinational chains, rather than the odd local place or the Salvation Army.

    The status-striving and inequality cycle went into its current phase in the mid-'70s to early '80s, so your experiences with thrifting in the late '80s and early '90s are not counter-examples. You didn't see that kind of popularity during the '50s and '60s.

    I see the evidence of people choosing thrift stores over family possessions by simply visiting thrift stores, perhaps more regularly than most folks. Everybody there is part of the trend.

  3. Hard to say what's going on. One thing is that extended families are just less in touch with each other, so giving hand-me-downs would be "awkward". Also, they may be afraid of giving offense - accidentally implying that so-and-sos kids don't deserve new stuff.

    Rise of charities may be tied to status-striving - lawyers get a substantial amount of charity donations through administering them - like 1/3rd to 1/2 in some cases. That doesn't explain the rise of thrift stores, though.

  4. Could also just be the current state of capitalism and the trend of monetizing more and more aspects of human activity. Simply going to thrift stores is not an example of the breakup of the family. In my example, I'm a skinny 6'4" and my dad is a stocky 5'11". I wore one of his awesome Pendleton jackets from the 60s in high school, but it looked ridiculous on me due to the mis-fit, so I started going to thrift stores.

    We can also look towards the trend of cheap manufacturing, and people buying items not meant to last. Is anyone going to hand down an Ikea sofa as an heirloom? Probably not, but they'll sell that shit on Craigslist or donate it to Goodwill. Throwaway culture, for sure. "Strivers?" I don't know. Maybe it's all part of the same thing?

  5. We frequently find bibles in thrift stores that were signed, presented gifts from grandparents to grandchildren.

  6. " Simply going to thrift stores is not an example of the breakup of the family."

    I was talking more about extended families losing touch with each other.

  7. "I was talking more about extended families losing touch with each other."

    Same thing, basically. Plus, how much stuff can parents pass down? If they've got multiple kids, that means maybe a few pieces to each kid, not enough to furnish a house. As for clothes, style and fit are the biggest factors in whether a passed down item gets worn, or gets passed down at all.

    In my experience, prime factor in throwaway culture, which is what I think this topic is really all about, is the ever increasing number of things we're expected to have, which leads to less purposeful spending, especially on large items. If we want to be able to pay for our internet, cellphone, Netlifx, cable, gadgets, etc., then we need to scrimp on the quality of, say, a sofa. Ikea to the rescue! Our need for a constant stream of interaction and entertainment is behind it all.

  8. There are multiple ways in which the striving climate leads to the growth of thrift stores, such as the throwaway culture and planned obsolescence, both stemming from people valuing the novelty treadmill value over quality and durability.

    But most of what really sells at thrift stores are not superior quality vintage electronics or everlasting Pyrex cookware. It's clothing that is at most 10-15 years old, and so still mostly in style but available for dirt cheap. Or housewares and furniture that, again, are not so old that they would prevent you from playing the novelty treadmill game, but ones that are relevant and contemporary -- glasses that look like they're from Crate & Barrel, Ikea furniture, fancy-ass coffee makers, and so on.

    The thrift store shoppers who go for higher-quality vintage stuff are a definite minority, in numbers and in sales.

    So, if most shoppers are going for semi-recent stuff for a cheap price, why don't they go through families? Everyone has one of those tower oscillating fans lying around somewhere, everyone has some quasi-sculptural drinking glasses they could unload, and everyone has too many pairs of jeans throughout the house.

    Breakdown in the gift-giving culture (primarily through families but also through close-knit social circles, community groups, etc.) seems to be the main driver behind the thrift store trend.

  9. To reiterate, I'm not placing all the "blame" on the would-be recipients (shoppers), but also on the would-be givers (anonymous donors).

    Maybe some of the thrift store shoppers would like to get a set of stoneware plates with designs painted on them, but their parents and other older relatives threw their sets away when they "upgraded" to stark, minimalistic plates from Ikea, Crate & Barrel, or wherever.

    Maybe they'd like to inherit a record player, but their parents threw away the old turntable because records became irrelevant or out of fashion somewhere along the way.

    In these cases, the would-be recipients have no alternative but thrift stores to find what they're looking for.

  10. Breakdown in the gift-giving culture (primarily through families but also through close-knit social circles, community groups, etc.) seems to be the main driver behind the thrift store trend.

    I attribute it more to the rise of the retro style in the mid-70s, where groups, mostly in the nascent punk rock scene, began scouring flea markets and garage sales for 50s clothing. And then some of those people started opening boutiques specializing in vintage wear, and since then, each decade has been preoccupied with the fashions of the decades 20 years previous. 70s - 50s, 80s - 60s, 90s - 70s, 00s - 80s, and to a lesser extant, 10s - 90s. But, we've reached the point of no return where, since the late 90s, the dominant style has somewhat normalized and the subculture has to become more nuanced when dredging up the past. Hence, we get normcore.

  11. And I should add that, in my experience, the vast majority of thrift store customers these days (and I was just in a thrift store last week looking for an old western style shirt because I'm playing in a country cover band) are the obviously poor and/or recent immigrants. Like, almost to a man/woman. I'm not talking about "vintage" stores, but good ol' Goodwill and the larger thrift superstores. It's people who simply can't afford retail prices. I'd say that, more than any other factor so far discussed here, is the driver behind any perceived increase in thrift store activity. Seems like a topic this crowd would be eager to bite into.

  12. "I'd say that, more than any other factor so far discussed here, is the driver behind any perceived increase in thrift store activity"

    That explains why some people are more likely to shop in thrift stores, but it doesn't explain why the middle-class are more likely to donate to thrift stores(not saying that the poor don't donate, but donations amongst the middle-class is a definite trend).

  13. A.B. Prosper3/12/15, 3:40 PM

    There are also quite a few Baby Boomers and older generations passing on. The thrift shops here are full of stuff, clearly owned by an older White person in a majority non White area.

    Also even in times of well thriftiness some well made items get passed on to someone else, people in most cultures at most times want to look stylish or want new equipment that actually better or more functional and so older stuff ends up in the thrift shop.

    Also as to your point, Curtis in the US the Middle and Working classes are the most charitable since they typically have some extra resources and an understanding of what the poor go through. The US rich are quite abstracted from everyday life and many are little better than a hereditary plutocracy having grown up affluent and simply leveraged it to earn more,

    There are exceptions but for the most part the pulling oneself up by ones bootstraps idea is rubbish . The US has very little class mobility except down for the working and middle.

  14. "That explains why some people are more likely to shop in thrift stores, but it doesn't explain why the middle-class are more likely to donate to thrift stores(not saying that the poor don't donate, but donations amongst the middle-class is a definite trend)."

    Donate as opposed to what? Giving it to their family? How can we tell whether the people who are donating to thrift stores didn't first offer it to a family member? That's absolutely the case when I donate. I'll ask my oldest son first, then other family members. Conversely, I have relatives who still ask me if I want something they're getting rid of, even though I'm in my mid 40s. 95% of the time in both scenarios, nobody within the family wants it, and so it gets donated. That seems a far more plausible scenario among people with families then some dystopian "nobody gives anymore" scenario.

    And yeah, most items in thrift stores come from middle class households, primarily because most households are middle-class. Rich people have "estate sales," which of course are just glorified garage sales. This is after the suddenly broad extended family shows up and fights over who gets the Tiffany lamp.

  15. Smaller families. Less opportunity to hand down. There are 2 years between my sister and I, but there are 3 years between my youngest child and her oldest. When there are only 4 grand children the odds of there being a girl or boy to hand down to are diminished, etc.

    mobility/living further away. It would cost me more to ship furniture we no longer need/want to my family than it would for them to buy it. And in the line of thinking it can cost to relocate your furniture from City A to City B as it would to buy new furniture.

    It costs almost as much or more than to repair than replace. Why would I spend $450 reupholstering a chair when I can get a brand new one for $500? Sure the new frame isn't going to last a lifetime, but it will last as long as the upholstery will.

    People live longer. Grandparents are using their stuff into their 80's. The result is grandchildren who have low funds are in need of cheap products. By the time my wife and I inherited my grandfather's dinning room table we had been married 5 years and had bought a cheap table from Pier1, which got donated.


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