Avid thrift store shoppers share tricks of trade

thrift store

The first things you notice when walking inside any second-hand store are row after row of racks filled with clothes of every colour pallet, shelves exploding with shoes, bins brimming with hats and scarves, and baskets crammed with costume jewellery.

The adage “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” truly applies here, says Emerencz Merkle, co-manager of Divine — a part vintage, part retail store on 17th Avenue S.W.

Merkle — along with her co-manager and a seasoned thrift shopper — have discovered tips and tricks to make second-hand shopping less of a chore and more of a pleasure.

However, for any of these tips to be valid, all three “thrifters” say that persistence and patience are the best weapons in a second-hand shopper’s arsenal.

Patience, young padowan

“Thrifter” Vanessa McCuaig says that it’s important to know that for every treasure that’s found, there are hundreds of items that won’t make the cut — many won’t even make it past the first cursory glance.

thrift store

Emerencz Merkle has been thrifting since she was a kid, and says she loves it because every item has its own unique story.
Photo by: Jodi Egan

Shoppers could spend up to two hours in one store just sifting through racks but should eventually find something, Merkle says. So those who don’t have the stamina shouldn’t second-hand shop.

Megan Erickson, Merkle’s co-manager at Divine, says it takes time to find that pair of genuine 1960s Levis jeans or that authentic Metallica concert T-shirt that actually fit.

Try things on

Unlike regular retail stores, thrift stores don’t have singular items in multiple sizes. If you find the perfect tweed jacket but it cuts off the circulation in your arms, it’s not a find, Merkle says.

With this in mind, don’t trust the size tags on the inside of clothing, McCuaig says. Items in a thrift stores are often stretched out from previous wear, or shrunk from washing, so it’s important to take the time to step into the fitting room to truly examine the fit.

Often, smaller thrift stores don’t have change rooms, so McCuaig says to dress appropriately so you can try on over your clothes.

“Always go dressed in layers so you don’t feel awkward when you have to take stuff off,” McCuaig says.

With current fashion trends incorporating baggy jackets and blouses, Merkle suggests that items too big can be worn to flatter the body with belts or synchs.

Keep an open mind

One of the golden rules of “thrifting” is to keep your eyes and mind open, Erickson says. You’ll never know what you’ll come across when you look hard enough.

“Go with a set idea of what you want, but don’t constrict yourself,” McCuaig says.

thrift store

Emerencz Merkle says you’ll know when an item is a find because as soon as you see it, you can’t imagine leaving the store without it.
Photo by: Jodi Egan

Wear clothing staples, like your favourite jeans, jewellery, winter jacket or other basics to see if the thrift items you’ve selected are easily paired with your current wardrobe.

However, Erickson says you shouldn’t feel confined to your list since the best “finds” often come when you’re not looking for it.

“That’s the good thing about vintage, you’re bound to find a little gem, even if you don’t know what you’re looking for,” Erickson says.

Only buy what you love

Thrifting is often a temperamental process, McCuaig says, so it’s tempting to buy an item as a trophy for all your searching instead of buying an item because you want it.

Watch for situations like this because it’s not uncommon for what you buy to end up in the back of the closet, or back in a second-hand store, McCuaig says.

When you find a diamond in the rough amongst the racks and bins of clothes, Merkle says it feels like the stars have aligned. A find should fit, flatter and suit your style and when you discover it, you’ll never want to take it off, she adds.

It’s important to walk into a second-hand store knowing what your needs and wants are, Merkle says, and those who do, are often the most successful shoppers.

If you’re on a budget, Erickson suggests making lists to keep you focused so that you’re not buying things for the sake of the cheap price tag.

Balance style and substance

Merkle and Erickson say there is much more to a piece of second-hand clothing than the style, and that it’s important to see the forest through the trees when shopping for vintage items.

thrift store

Emerencz Merkle says an allure of thrift shopping is that every item is an original that can’t be found anywhere else.
Photo by: Jodi Egan

Often, looking at the stitching or tags inside the item can give you insight into its original value or its quality, Merkle says.

For example, Merkle recently discovered that if there’s red stitching in the inside of Levis 501 jeans, they’re worth about $200.

“These are good things to know,” she says.

Because of situations like this, Merkle says, thrift doesn’t necessarily mean cheap. Expect to pay a little more for items that are 100 per cent wool, or have a prominent brand name.

“Some people look at a Pendleton flannel shirt for $29 and scoff, but they don’t know it’s $400 at the Pendleton store,” Erickson adds.

Before you bring your items up to the cash register, McCuaig says, make sure to inspect them thoroughly for holes, stains, or even a pungent smell. Thrift stores rarely allow returns, so what you see is what you get.

Be a regular

Most of the shoppers at Divine are there regularly, Erickson says. And these routine shoppers often get the best deals because they get to know the staff, and in turn get some inside information they wouldn’t have otherwise received.

Merkle says that thrift store staff can be valuable when it comes to saving time looking through the racks. They can point out the new arrivals, let you know when sales are happening, and — depending on the store — they can order in items for you.

Have basic sewing skills

Erickson says that a number of thrifters buy second-hand clothes less for the actual item than for the material.

“A lot of time people come in and buy dresses and things to rework the crap out of them,” Erickson says.

Alternations, McCuaig says, can include anything from changing buttons, to patching holes to cutting chunks of fabric. If you know how to work a needle and thread, hope is not lost for that item you love that may need some extra work that you’re not willing to pay a professional seamstress to do.


Correction: Megan Erickson’s name was incorrectly spelled Mega Erickson. We apologize for the error.

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