Sometimes a place can be much too neat

At an old thrift shop, the organization was marginal at best – and that was great for 'treasure hunters.'

I knew something was wrong as soon as I entered our local thrift shop one recent Saturday. There was a spaciousness and order about it that put me on edge. The piles of clothing were neat and square, the aisles were clear of clutter, and a couple of unfamiliar women moved about with an efficiency worthy of a Fortune 500 company.

This was not the thrift shop I had known – and loved – for so many years.

The clapboard building, once a school, had housed what amounted to a great ongoing rummage sale that saw a constant flow of goods in and out.Not only clothing, but a whole spectrum of understated wonders: pots and pans, kids' toys, eight-track tapes, books, linens, and backpacks, to name just a few items.

The thing about the old thrift shop was that whatever order existed was marginal. The categories were crude and general – a heap of men's jeans on the floor, a stack of sweaters on a wooden table. But there was always the element of surprise, the possibility of coming upon something that had migrated from one pile to another.

My favorite nook was a shelf all but hidden under a long rack of men's shirts. One had to crouch even to notice it. And then you had to stretch your arm in, through the shirts, and sort of feel for what might be in there. It was nothing short of a grab bag, and I always quivered with anticipation at what I might find.

Now and then I'd hit real pay dirt: a stack of vintage Christmas cards, neatly tied with a ribbon; a telescoping aluminum cup; an old fountain pen in its original case; a recipe for homemade doughnuts.

Beyond the gratifying clutter that made a visit to the thrift shop a treasure hunt, the real eye-opener was the prices.

For years the thrift shop had been administered by a local woman, Mae, who sat at her station surrounded by shopping bags of donations and baskets of slowly accumulating purchases.

Wedged into place between the women's clothing and a table of what can only be referred to as doodads, Mae was skilled at assigning values on the spot. I once found an almost-new denim jacket for my son. Knowing that those things cost $30 to $40, I brought it to Mae more out of curiosity than an intention to buy. But she studied it, bit her lip, and said, "Seventy-five cents?"

I was in cheapskate heaven.

The thrift shop as it used to be was the one true commons in my small Maine town. Whenever I climbed those creaky wooden steps, I looked forward to meeting friends and neighbors.

There's a human craving for bargains that is almost primal. No matter who you are or what you do or how much money you make, how can you resist a $5 bicycle in perfect working order, or a pair of cowboy boots for $1.50?

Because nobody knew exactly where everything was, there was a sort of electricity in the old thrift shop as folks swarmed about the aisles, hefting bundles of clothing to begin the winnowing process.

On one visit I arrived to see the place filled with women, all of them hoisting and lowering blouses, dresses, and skirts from long tables. The scene resembled nothing so much as farm wives threshing wheat in some lovely field.

And then came black Saturday, a day that will – I hope – live in infamy. There were no TVs to step over, the ever-present rack of men's ties was gone, and the big cardboard box of cassette tapes had been replaced by a shelf on which they stood in neat rows. And all the books had been rearranged in – gulp – alphabetical order.

I immediately looked to Mae's little cockpit, where she had perched all those years. It was vacant now. Not only this, but it had been decluttered, revealing a little desk which I'm sure no one had ever known existed.

Beyond this desk, new women worked away, cheerfully squaring the piles and segregating the goods into discrete, clearly labeled spaces of their own.

This, I concluded, could bode only ill. "What happened to Mae?" I managed to say.

One of the ladies threw me a welcoming smile. "She retired," she said. "She said it was time."

I was speechless. But in a well-intentioned effort to give the new managers a chance, I wandered over to the boys' clothing table to shop for my son.

I immediately noticed that the sizes were now in rigid order, and the long pants were separated from the shorts. I picked up one of each and took them to the front desk. One of the women took my purchase and said, "Four dollars."

"Four dollars!" I echoed, knowing that under Mae such a price would have been inconceivable, an outrage. But I was too embarrassed to take my items back to the table, so I anted up.

I left the thrift shop with a heavy heart, passing an acquaintance on the way out.

She smiled and remarked, "Isn't it great? Everything is in order now, and you don't have to dig through piles to find what you're looking for."

Ach, why did she have to rub it in like that?

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