A Thrift Affair

Shopping is supposed to be about getting stuff and the resultant happy glow of ownership. Yet how did it come to be that retail, as we know it today, is based around wanting but not necessarily getting? While it’s counterintuitive, it does explain the stacks of miserable, desperate-looking people at the mall. Jeans, perfume, boobs—there are always better yet unattainable models.

Let us observe a different shopping paradigm—that of Savers, the world’s largest for-profit thrift-store chain. Savers is about getting stuff. This explains its stores’ universally buoyant ambience despite their rawboned appearance and their clientele, many of whom have every reason to be miserable or desperate: seniors who forgot to contribute to their 401(k)s, madonnas with children at their feet, college students living on thirty-seven dollars per semester, roofers, writers, people who got laid off in 1995, people who live with a lot of cats.

A recent trip to the Savers on East Lake Street in Minneapolis got off to a glad start as a woman flowing with robes and children exited. One cub was skipping and energetically pulling the cord on his new (to him) See ’n Say. Another walked in awe as the sun glinted like a million rubies off her red sparkly shoes, the ones with the tag still stuck to the bottom. Inside, Shakira was on the sound system as a middle-aged guy inspected a pair of size-nine women’s knickers. It was Steve Miller time when a chick with impressively architectural hair and I both reached for some six-inch, clear-acrylic platforms. When she saw they were size eight, she said, “Uh-uh, I need size nine-and-a-half.” But she watched as I tried them on, and kindly said I could really carry them off. Go on, take the money and run. A bouncing, shiny-red, hundred-percent-rubber dress turned up for $4.99. The Hansons mmmm-bopped, and a large woman sang along as she flipped through miles of jackets representing the design inspirations of everyone from Jaclyn Smith to Balenciaga.

Outside the dressing room, two generations of a Hmong family waited restlessly until the narrow door opened and tiny grandma stepped out, looking positively transcendent in a floral dress, plaid men’s sport coat, stocking cap, and black Chuck Taylors. It might have taken her three days to quit smiling as her family gathered around, approving. Rock my body …

Family-friendly and family-run, Savers is firmly grounded in reality shopping—the type of shopping in which thirty dollars can net a decent, even hip, wardrobe, or maybe a couch. The seeds of this enterprise were planted by Ben and Orlo Ellison, who worked with the Salvation Army in the 1930s. The next generation, Bill Ellison, opened the first Savers in 1954 in San Francisco and is succeeded at the helm by his son, Tom Ellison. Savers now runs more than two hundred stores in twenty-five states, Canada, and Australia. There are five here in the metro area, including the newly opened Maplewood location. A business that expands into Canada and Australia instead of, say, Japan and Switzerland cannot be accused of grandeur.

Kaycie is a suitably pragmatic supervisor for a place that calls Miami-divorcée-goes-bad a dress. She started out pricing at the Eau Claire, Wisconsin, store and did a stint at the Bloomington location before transferring to St. Paul. Willingness to relocate is one of the things Savers looks for in an employee. “That, and a good work history,” she said. “They like to know you’re a hard worker.” In-store announcements are broadcast in English and Spanish, and the checkout staff, in particular, makes frequent use of second languages, though that is not required. In fact, diversity of customers, staff, and merchandise is what Kaycie likes most about her job. “Every day is different,” she said, expecting a wild day, as always, on the upcoming fifty-percent-off storewide sale. But lately, Tuesdays have been especially busy. Tuesday is seniors’ day, with forty-percent off Savers’ already modest prices for those fifty-five and older.

Along came a wizened optimist, sporting an eclectic ensemble, who paid for a silk tie in coins. Noting the butter-soft, hand-stitched Donald J Pliner boots clutched to my chest, he smiled and said, “Blue tag. Good deal.” Blue price stickers were fifty-percent off that day, making these boots, which once cost someone hundreds of dollars, $6.49.