Monday, June 30, 2014

The art and science of thrift

I have been an avid thrift shopper for most of my life, but it really took my attention when I moved out on my own fourteen years ago; I remember having my parents help me drive my stuff two hours away to move into my first place, unloading my meagre belongings into my bachelor suite, eating supper, and then going to Value Village with them before they drove back home.  I owe much of the inventory of my current collections to my success at thrifting (both to my personal benefit and to the detriment of my wallet and storage space). I have closely logged my thrift purchases with photos for almost two years on Facebook, and I get a lot of comments and questions whenever I post them. The five I get most often are:

1. How often do you go thrift shopping?
2.  How do you have such great finds?
3.  How much money do you spend?
4. Where do you keep all of your stuff?
5. In what kind of palatial mansion do you live that can hold all of this stuff? (I recognize that it's a variation of question 4, but I get it enough to justify including it twice.)

In the process of thinking about these questions, I have realized that I am well on my way to becoming a Master Thrifter, using the definition of mastery as 10,000 hours devoted to a practice as shared by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers. I doubt that I’m there yet – that mark would have required 2 hours of thrifting every day over the past fourteen years – but I would assume that I’m somewhere between one-quarter and one-third of the way there (maybe more if you factor in my childhood thrifting). At any rate, I figure that my relative mastery (compared to much of the rest of the population) has earned me not only the right but also given me the responsibility to share some of my thrifting lessons with the masses so that you can have some of the same successes and avoid some of the pitfalls I have encountered over my many years of thrifting.

The physics of thrift

As I considered the basics of thrifting, I realized that there were a few factors that are always present in my process of thrifting. In my search to qualify them, I started to think in the terms of physics: states of matter, the laws of thermodynamics, the properties of light, kinetics, and so on. I came up with some slightly amusing punny titles – my favourite was “the five laws of thriftodynamics” – but the core idea was that there are invariably five factors that factor into any discussion of thrifting, whether it be in the form of purchasing, keeping, selling, giving, or evaluating. These five factors are all crucial in my process as a thrifter and a collector, so here are the physical properties of thrift (so to speak).

1.       Value. This might be as an addition to my collection, as a gift to someone, or even as a candidate for potential resale (more on that later), but there has to be some value to the item being thrifted or remaining in my collection. I do not purchase or keep things based on the possibility of value (“this could be worth something some day”), but on the reality of it.

2.       Usefulness. I refuse to own things just for the sake of owning them or having collections just to collect. If I will not play/watch/read/otherwise use the item, it needs to go. I do recognize that for some items that sentimental use could be considered valid, but you can always take a picture by which to remember it. Use is one of the most important factors for me.

3.       Scarcity. The relative scarcity of an item is significant to whether I will purchase or keep it. I will much more readily keep a board game that is out of print than one that I know I can get at any time.  Some collections are much more fluid in this nature than others, of course: my DVD collection is increasingly fluid thanks to Netflix, but my most fluid collection is my books, as there are very few books that are not easy to find online (seriously, Amazon has everything) or at the library.

4.       Price. At the same time, price matters. A scarce item at a high price still is not likely to be worth it, as price always factors in. It’s hard to judge the point at which the scarcity/price tips from one to the other – that is, when the scarcity of an item allows me to justify an increased price – but suffice to say that I cannot think of a time when I paid greater than full market value (FMV) for an item knowingly. Most of the time, price wins out over scarcity for me, and I have used a number of more scarce or sought-after items to fund new purchases.

5.       Space. I have to have space for whatever I bring in, and the rule that my wife and I have is that I only have the space that we have. That means that if something new comes in, something has to go out, and what you often do not see is how much I trade out of my collections compared to how much I bring in.

The philosophy of thrifting

Beyond the “physical” elements of thrifting and collecting come the metaphysical – the philosophical, if you will – the questions not about how, but why. What is the meaning of thrift? Why do we thrift? These are the questions that make us wonder about the thrifting condition, the questions that keep us up at night. Well, probably not; after all, the answers to those questions are fairly obvious (or they ought to be, at any rate). Here, then, are the equivalent of five meditations on various facets and aspects of thrifting and how they may be applied in different circumstances; I thrift, therefore I am.

1.       The art of collecting. Part of the reason I really enjoy thrifting is that I really enjoy collecting (more on that in a future post), and the two hobbies dovetail together really well. I get to enjoy building my collections cheaply (though not particularly efficiently), and I get to find new things to collect every so often. I find much more fun in perusing through thrift and secondhand stores in the hope of that great find than I do in just clicking the “buy now!” button online (though I have found more enjoyment in finding great deals in the bowels of Amazon and eBay of late). I think that, at heart, most thrifters are collectors in some manner or another, and so I think that thrifting and collecting are almost inextricably linked.

2.       Thrifting for a second space. One of the reasons I do thrift is because I benefit from it in my second space: the classroom(s) in which I teach. A decent portion of what I purchase and own is a direct result of my career as a teacher, and I would estimate that as much as 20% of the items I thrift are for my use in the classroom. I have, however, tried to minimize this tendency, as I have a way of collecting more items than I need, sometimes for subjects that I may never teach again or by buying resources I will never actually use. With that said, I think it is valuable to have a second space for which to thrift, whether it’s a classroom, office, or man cave; it’s great to have a place for all those things you would like to enjoy but not put in your primary space at home.

3.       Thrifting gifts. One of the things I love is being able to purchase gifts for others at thrift stores. I occasionally miss the mark, but I usually manage to give really good gifts as a result of my thrifting and collecting. When I am buying something as a gift, it either has to be for a specific person and/or purpose (ie. someone’s upcoming birthday), or it has to be something that I don’t mind keeping “in stock” for when I might need a gift to give. There are a number of books or CDs that I buy regularly when I find them for cheap for this express purpose. This allows me to give gifts that are often nicer than what I can spend, and it means that I am almost never without a gift when one is needed. I also am not averse to pillaging my collections for items that would make good gifts, and I regularly give items (especially books) directly out of my collections as gifts.

4.       Reselling items. Between gifting and reselling (or trading), I would estimate that as much as a fifth of items I pick up at thrift stores are not even intended to become a part of my collections.  My guideline with buying items to resell or to use for trade is that I have to be able to make a decent profit on the item with minimal effort. Most of the items that fall into this category are video games or board games that I find on the cheap and sell or trade either online or to some of my favourite vendors in exchange for other items. I’m not in it to make money or to be one of those guys who buys everything to sell on eBay, but I do enjoy passing good finds on to others at a price closer to market value (though still a good deal).

5.       Thrifting as a hobby. I also believe that it is important to enjoy thrifting as a hobby, rather than as a means to an end. And like any hobby, it is more likely that you will spend more money on it than you will gain back; that said, it is possible to get some return on thrifting, or for it to at least become self-sustaining, which is usually my goal. (Of course, thrifting is one of the only hobbies I can think of that actually can be somewhat sustainable that way – poker is the only other one that comes immediately to mind.) But don’t do it for the money. There are some people for whom thrifting/eBay provides a livelihood, and although I do applaud their entrepreneurial spirit, I find it unfortunate that they are taking away from the enjoyment that the rest of us. (Then again, if the free market dictates that people can actually make a living from capitalizing on the charity and lack of effort of those donating/selling at reduced cost, then who am I to disagree?) I know that there are ethical discussions to be had about buying things that were donated or sold cheaply without the understanding of the value of the items and reselling them, but my philosophy is that I seek to enjoy the entire thrifting process.

The Practice of Thrifting

It’s one thing, of course, to ruminate about the physics and philosophies of a subject; it’s another entirely to calculate, formulate, and activate those seemingly abstract concepts into something real, practical, and tangible. This is where the metaphorical rubber meets the road, where the concepts become formulas, where the theory is applied to the real world, and where the physics and philosophies become realities. Here are my top fifteen tips to help you thrift more efficiently, effortlessly, and effectively.

1.       Keep track of your collections.  I use various sites to log my collections – BGG, VG Collect, Goodreads – as well as documents and spreadsheets and my innate ability to remember what I have, so much so that I can only think of one time when I purchased something mistakenly when I already had it. But if you are going to get into thrifting (and collecting), take the time to know what you have and what are on your wishlists.

2.       Know what you’re looking for and what it’s worth. I mostly specialize in thrifting in my aforementioned areas of collection, so I do take some time to know what I should be looking for or at least how to determine worth quickly and easily. Smart phones have completely revolutionized thrifting for me in the past few years , and I use Amazon, eBay, Video Game Price Charting, Board Game Geek, Google and other sites all the time to determine whether something is worth buying for a future sale or trade even if I don’t necessarily want it myself; just make sure you grab the item off the shelf before punching it in.

3.       Get to know your local thrift stores well. This might include layout of the store, ways in which they shelve new merchandise, timing of new stock being put out, even when some of the friendlier employees might be working. If you get to know your stores well, it will save you time and hassle and allow you to go to more stores. In most of my regular stops, I can be in and out in 10 minutes with a quick circuit of the shelves. Visit your stops regularly and become known – you would be surprised at how the staff knowing you will make a difference.

4.       Look everywhere. I have had many instances in which I found an item that was out of place or otherwise misshelved. This happens often in thrift stores, as people often just put items back randomly when they decide they don’t want them; in some cases, however, there may be employees who are trying to save something for themselves by keeping it out of place (rare, but it happens). The most common areas that media items like video games, for example, are hidden in are in the VHS tapes and in the electronics/homeware/hardware sections, so if you have the chance, take a quick peek just to make sure.

5.       Don’t judge a thrift store by its appearance. Some of my best finds have come in the most disorganized, dingiest, grimiest places, or in stores that don’t even look like thrift stores. Maybe it’s a corner grocery with a random secondhand section or a furniture store that happens to have a small section of video games, but snoop around. My wife laughed at me when we were in Taipei when I found several thrift stores in our time there; she had lived in that neighbourhood for three years and not found any, and I found several within two weeks. I just knew what to look for and did not allow external appearances to deter me.

6.       Be honourable. There is an unwritten understanding among thrifters – a code of honour, if you will. It includes some basic courtesies – allowing others to look at the media shelves while you are, putting things back where you found them, not taking things out of other people’s carts – as well as a general expectation of community among thrifters. I’ve seen people be aggressive jerks in thrift stores (especially on a half-off day at Value Village, and it’s just not good for anyone. Don’t be a jerk about thrifting, and don’t make the experience unpleasant for others. Don’t push and shove and grab; if someone else gets that item just before you do, be happy for them (although asking them once if they are really going to take something is okay – just once). Even if it twists the knife in your thrifty heart, celebrate their good luck (even though it came at your expense) and enjoy their find with them. Honour the other thrifters, and you will find that not only will the entire experience be more enjoyable, but you will be far more likely to reap good karma from  your thrifting in the future.

7.       It never hurts to ask. The interpersonal aspect of thrifting is sometimes de-emphasized, but as I said earlier, it is always good to be familiar with the staff and to be friendly. It is also good to ask questions of those staff. “When do you usually put out new stock?” “Is this the only location in which I might find video games?” “Do you have anything more in the back?” This practice also works really well at garage sales, as you never know what someone might pull out that they didn’t think would sell as soon as they have a prospective buyer.

8.       Know your limit and thrift within it. One of the biggest mistakes I have made over the years is to not track my spending as carefully and to spend too much time (and therefore money) visiting thrift stores. I have had more success when I have set limits for myself so that I spend less money. Those limits almost always involve not going to stores, since I often anticipate finding something of value. Of course, I have also had to learn the dangers of independent Amazon sellers and eBay and how easy it can be to purchase an item cheaply. Set your budget and stick to it, because you will break it if you keep going – trust me.

9.       Don’t be a completionist. I write to you as a confessed completionist, knowing how difficult it can be to be missing that one item of a set – that obscure independent debut album with only 2000 copies printed or that mini-expansion that was only released in Germany. If you manage to stumble upon it for the right price, whether in person or online, go ahead, but don’t seek completion for completion’s sake. It’s a slippery slope to go down once you start down that path, and trust me, you don’t want to go too far down that road.

10.   Be ruthless. When you take up thrifting and collecting as a hobby itself, you have to become more ruthless; if you are not ruthless, you can easily become someone who hoards. If you have doubts about the value or usefulness of an item, whether in purchasing or keeping it, listen to yourself. Overcome loss aversion and get rid of those things, even if it might mean a slight loss on its value. It’s worth it for your sanity to add by subtracting, and you can only do it by being relentless and ruthless with yourself.

11.   Leave deals for your fellow thrifters. Don’t be “that guy” - you know, that guy who uses a barcode scanner to pick up items that he can sell on eBay for the best profit margin. There are many times that I have left items that I know are a good deal just because I want someone else to have that same experience I get. With that said, there are some deals that are just too good to leave behind, so don’t walk away if you know you’ll kick yourself; be courteous, but not ridiculous. It’s part of that unwritten honor code among true thrifters.

12.   Don’t thrift impulsively. I recognize that all thrifting is in some way impulsive, as the nature of the rotating stock in thrift stores mandates that you never know what you’re going to find, but there have been enough times when I just bought something and walked out wondering why I just did that to make me wary of impulsive buys. If you have the time at a store to walk around, just collect the item when you see it and think about it. It’s amazing what perspective you can gain with even ten or fifteen minutes of considering a purchase – especially if you find something better as you’re considering.

13.   Always be willing to walk away. It is much more likely that you will regret a purchase made than a purchase not made; in all of my years of thrifting, I only have one purchase (maybe two) I regret not making. Most of the time it is better to walk away when you have doubts, because it will allow you to actually pick up the items that are the jaw-dropping snatch-off-the-shelf must-have buys you get every so often. Just remember: if you do walk away, it might be gone, so it can be a delicate balance.

14.   Enjoy the hunt. I know I have written before about “the thrill of the hunt” and the sheer enjoyment of that moment that you make that find, but I still feel the need to emphasize the need to enjoy thrifting and collecting for what they are: a hobby that feeds other hobbies. It’s one thing to go on eBay or Amazon and to “buy it now”, but it’s another to find that item in the wild. With that said, I have increasingly resorted to those online sources, as I have resigned myself to being unable to find many of the items I seek in my local travels, but I still have not given up hope entirely. I look high and low all over the stores I frequent, and I enjoy the experience.

15.   Be persistent, persevere, and don’t be discouraged. Perhaps the best tip I can give is to keep at it even when it’s discouraging. For as many items as I find, I still probably take three or four times as many trips as I post finds, and I might have an amazing find one out of every three or four of those times; if you’re not inclined to do the math yourself, that means that I might have one great find for every ten to fifteen trips I make to a thrift store – and that might be a generous estimate. The reason I have so many good finds is that I keep at it and I don’t let a poor stop (or five) get me down. One of my rules is that I like to have a “find of the day” if I am going out thrifting, and I like to go until I have something worthy of that title. I don’t always get it, but I keep trying – and that’s what really matters.

So, there you have it: the physics, philosophies, and practices of thrifting. I hope this has been helpful for you, as it certainly has been helpful for me to crystallize my thoughts in one place. I’m going to continue refining my thrifting practices, and perhaps I will be able to return to this stream of thought at some point with even more clarity as to the art and science of the true thrift. In the meantime, happy hunting, and may the odds and ends be ever in your favor.


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