The lives my clothes have led

Shopping in a thrift store merely to save a buck is like traveling to Florida simply because it’s warm. There is so much more to the experience.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP/File
A clerk sorts clothing at a Los Angeles thrift shop. Supply chain woes and the allure of vintage duds have boosted such stores.

I am, unabashedly, a denizen of thrift stores. My perfectly presentable jeans cost me $2; my braided-leather casual dress belt, a buck fifty; my New York Yankees ball cap a mere 75 cents. But it’s not just the bargains that have enamored me of these eclectic emporiums: as I roam among the shirts, shoes, slacks, and jackets, I often pause and wonder, Who wore these before, and what were they like? That’s when I give my imagination free rein.

What I’m trying to say is that I am the Sherlock Holmes of secondhand clothing, deducing from available clues the personality of previous owners. 

Take my Dunham walking shoes with brown leather uppers, precisely my size and in tip-top condition. I am tall (6 feet, 3 inches), so I picture a man of similar height. The shoes are intact and unsoiled, so I believe the owner was tidy in his way, but not stuffy, because the Dunham walking shoe, when new, is reasonably priced. The owner, then, was not wealthy. Nor was he, I conclude, a lawyer or physician or even a politician who worked in a setting where appearances count. Rather, he was, like me, a teacher with his head in the clouds and his feet – comfortably clad in a respectable proletarian shoe – firmly on the ground. (Price: $3.50.)

And then there is my blue hooded ski parka. Make: Karbon. Logo: Sugarloaf. This is a quality item, with heavy-duty stitching, YKK zipper, and Velcro-closure compartments both inside and out. I do not ski, but it’s clear that the previous owner must have been a creature of the slopes because this is a serious garment – rugged, windproof and waterproof, and warm to boot. The person who surrendered this parka was the epitome of cool. He was daring and competent, cutting a dynamic, James Bond-esque figure as he sliced his way downhill through the deep, fresh snow. Onlookers must have gasped in admiration, the children turning their eyes to their parents and declaring, “When I grow up, I want to be like him.” I am happy to say that I proudly wear the hero’s parka. (Price: $8.)

When I saw a blue L.L. Bean two-layer river driver’s shirt (traditional fit), I seized it with the glee of a man who had stumbled upon the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Who might have owned it before me? This one was easy. A $60 shirt in like-new condition, lightly laundered, all stitching intact. The man who parted with this gem was someone for whom money is no object and who bought shirts with the same frequency with which the rest of us buy facial tissues. And yet he wanted to strike a rustic pose, to show that, despite his great wealth, he was part of the crowd, a commoner at heart in the style of William Jennings Bryan. Whoever you were, I thank you for this shirt. I promise to take good care of it. (Price: $3.)

I could go on, telling similar stories about my sweater, sweatshirt, walking shorts, scarf, and winter gloves, but I believe I have made my point. Shopping in a thrift store merely to save a buck is like traveling to Florida simply because it’s warm. There is so much more to the experience, and I have to believe that I am not alone in this. On a recent visit to our local secondhand store I came shoulder to shoulder with an older, venerable-looking man who was holding up a red-and-black checked wool lumberjack shirt with worn elbows. “Nice shirt,” I commented, to which he replied, “Can you imagine the stories it could tell?”

Well, yes, I could. But I only smiled. When it comes to thrift stores, each of us must indulge his own imagination.

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