The spirit of charity is rekindled in a thrift shop

These days, you never know who it is you'll bump into at your local thrift shop. But you probably don't expect to hear the flutter of angel wings amid the racks of used clothing.

Known as one of "the regulars," I frequent thrift stores in search of vintage treasures - the Chanel business suit in mint condition; the Ralph Lauren evening jacket worn only once. Admittedly, I haunt these places not because I need to - though I covet a terrific bargain - but because I'm intrigued by beautiful old clothes. And I love the thrill of the hunt.

More often than not, I also rub elbows with serious shoppers who don't care about couture labels or vintage fashion. They are the careful spenders who can't afford to pay top dollar for the latest trends at the malls. They're looking for warm, practical clothing that won't break the grocery budget - especially during Michigan's frigid winters.

Several weeks ago, I visited one of my favorite thrift haunts in search of the perfect pair of broken-in jeans. Perusing the rows of faded denim, I overheard another customer at the sales register.

"Is this sweater on sale this week?" the shopper asked, holding up a gently used cashmere sweater. "I'd like this for my daughter, but $20 is more than I can spend."

The saleswoman behind the counter looked at the price tag, and shook her head kindly but firmly. No, the sweater wasn't on sale that week.

Without missing a beat, another customer near the counter spoke up.

"Please - let me buy that sweater for you," she said. "I woke up today feeling blessed and I want to pass it on."

For a moment, the shop grew quiet, as if everyone in it was momentarily stunned.

It was, after all, a very brave and uncommon thing to do - asking a stranger in need if she'd let you buy her a sweater to give her daughter.

During the season of giving, most of us gladly donate what we can to local charities or worthy mission projects overseas. It's so much easier to scribble a big check to a faceless organization whose needy we will never see. Likewise, we clean out our closets, bundle up our old coats, and drop them in boxes outside the church social hall. It's all so anonymous, really, but we mean well.

Somewhat reluctantly, the woman who wanted the cashmere sweater agreed to let the stranger purchase it for her. Her gratitude was palpable, and the whole store seemed to breathe again.

A heartwarming conversation about real-life goodness followed, and before long, the saleswoman and every customer within earshot were in tears. I dried my eyes on the pair of vintage Calvins I'd uncovered.

Finally composing myself, I walked up to the counter, hoping for a closer look at the benevolent soul who'd just bought a cashmere sweater for someone she'd never met. I wanted to thank her, too, for rekindling the spirit of charity I thought I'd lost.

But like most angels, she'd flitted out the door as quietly as she'd arrived - most likely, on her way to another random act of kindness.

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