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The Thrill of Thrift Hunting

An antidote to silly, feckless fashion?

Dorothy Woodend 31 Mar

Dorothy Woodend is the culture editor for The Tyee.

She has worked in many different cultural disciplines, including producing contemporary dance and new music concerts, running a small press, programming film festivals, and writing for newspapers and magazines across Canada and the U.S. She holds degrees in English from Simon Fraser University and film animation from Emily Carr University.

In 2020, she was awarded the Max Wyman Award for Critical Writing. She won the Silver Medal for Best Column at the Digital Publishing Awards in 2019 and 2020; and her work was nominated for a National Magazine Award for Best Column in 2020 and 2021.

Woodend is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and the Vancouver Film Critics Circle. She was raised on the East Shore of Kootenay Lake and lives in Vancouver. Find her on Twitter @DorothyWoodend.

[Editor's note: This is the second in our 'Ethical Gladrags' series, which in turn is part of The Tyee's Guilt-Free Hedonist series.]

An elderly lady once told me that in days of old when you got married, you got a new suit and all your teeth knocked out. The suit and the dentures were supposed to last you a lifetime. But these days, unless you're willing to take a baseball bat to your smile and order up a bespoke wardrobe, you will have to buy some clothes somewhere at some point in your life.

It is pointless to blame silly, feckless fashion for all the world's ills, but it can share some of the blame for the rampant wildfire waste of consumerism that is fundamental to so much of popular culture. If desire is suffering, then we're all in the throes of agony, it would seem. But even if you're writhing around in spiritual despair, you still need to get dressed everyday. So what to do? If you're not Bianca Jagger, (you're not, are you?) the age of a custom-tailored wardrobe doesn't much exist any more, thanks in part to a culture that is built on planned obsolescence. What are some other viable solutions for people wishing to leave the smallest, least consumer frenzied footprints possible?

The first is the most obvious and the least fun: buy as little as possible. It's in keeping with the Buddhist concepts of freeing yourself from your possessions, but, of course, it's much easier said than done.

'Separating need from want'

The second is to buy only what you need. Here is where things immediately get tricky. Separating need from want is a complicated business, and I do mean business, since there is a multi-billion dollar industry at work with the fundamental aim of confusing the two. An entire advertising culture exists to prey on the young and easily swayed, and is invested in keeping people, women especially, in a state of perpetual adolescence, deeply insecure and, hence, highly suggestible. It is only when you get older, and more cynical, that you begin to realize that the notion of want is kept aloft by our belief, however fragile, in the inherent value of things. But before this becomes a half-assed Marxist lecture on the nature of reification and the alienation from the products of our labour, let me get to the point. Once you free your mind, and your ass invariably follows, what to put on it becomes the question.

I have one word for you: thrift! It's as close to free as you can possibly get without the threat of arrest or the happy accident of finding clothing in the street, which happens more often than you would think. If the revolution will be accessorized, then think of yourself as a guerilla clotheshorse and venture into the trenches of extreme cheapness.

Buying second-hand is a world unto itself, sometimes thrilling, sometimes disheartening, but always surprising. In the hinterland, they still have places called Gleaners, stores where you can literally buy clothing by the pound, one dollar per bag. This treasure trove isn't what it used to be. Blame the Quebecois fruit pickers, and legions of tree planters who swarm into small towns, every spring and summer, and clean out everything. Smaller pockets exist, but those are like King Solomon's mines; no one will tell you exactly where they are. Even if you don't have any locally made and designed clothing in your town, you probably have a thrift store. Vancouver has them all over the damn place, but sorting one from the other is a time consuming and occasionally dirty business.

Luckily, we here at The Tyee have gleaned for you. In keeping with the locally made notion, many of the now defunct brands (such as Marjorie Hamilton or Bernard Casuals) that once populated local fashion are still available in vintage and thrift stores. An added incentive is that these clothes were made to stand the test of time and they often look as good now as they did fifty years ago. Whenever I see a little old lady walking down in the street in a good coat and good shoes, I am always struck by the innate style of her ensemble. I am also tempted to roll her for her outfit, but so far I've resisted this impulse.

Value Village

Shopping in thrift stores as a child was a mortifying and somewhat shameful thing. It is one thing to dress cheap because you can; it is quite another because you have to. Having survived early immersion in the Village, I now embrace it fully. Like the ocean, finding something good can be akin to diving down deep into the murky depths. Give yourself plenty of time and don't forget to come up for air every now and then.

The Victoria and 49th location is really the only one worth bothering with in Central Vancouver. The East Hastings location, in addition to being on East Hastings, is small, picked over and not much fun. Locations outside of Vancouver (Kelowna and Kamloops, in particular) are excellent hunting grounds. The Village is also where you can begin to practice a catch-and-release type program. If you buy it, and it simply doesn't work, just set it free. There are always more fish in the sea.

YWCA Thrift Store

The Main Street store in Vancouver (4339 Main Street) is a truly great thrift store and one that the entire fashion corridor seems to flock to regularly (but ones around the province are equally good). Staffed by volunteers, it is cheerful, sweet and you can buy pants for a dollar. What more could you possibly ask for? Well, there is more; the store offers auctions on more interesting finds in its windows. It also has a play area for kids, so that parents can shop while keeping an eye on their offspring. The biggest draw is that this store consistently has interesting items. Recent purchases have included a vintage Pendleton coat, so exquisitely made that it probably looks exactly the same as it did when it was first made. I have had more comments on that coat than any other thing I wear. The love and care that someone obviously lavished on it has soaked into its very fibres. It got soul, baby.

Salvation Army Thrift Stores

The only ones in Vancouver worth visiting are on West 41st Avenue and 8384 South Granville. Both addresses have rich repositories of elderly ladies in the nearby vicinity, which, although mined deeply, still turn up the occasional vintage gem. Just when you're about to give up, some glimmering thing might catch your eye. This is what happened to me recently, just as I was thinking "Why am I doing this?" I found a suit that looked as if it had been constructed from tiny bits of chain mail, like something an especially fabulous mermaid might wear. You can't help but immediately begin to envision the previous life of such a garment, images of parties, cocktails, trilling laughter, glamour so thickly glorious one could get drunk on lingering traces alone, like a faint but still beautiful perfume.

St. Vincent de Paul Value Shoppe

This is for serious thrifters only, and may incur a little guilt since you might be competing, not with silly hipsters, but with genuine hobos. Although prices elsewhere seem to have gone stratospheric lately, at St. Vincent's (2743 Main Street, Vancouver) everything is usually between three and five dollars. Silk scarves are only a quarter, and a recent black boxy purse in perfect condition, something that Marc Jacobs might covet, was one dollar.

But the best feeling is the thrill of finding something so utterly surprising, you feel your eyes bug out from the sheer fact of its existence. Surprise is cleaner than heroin, but just as addictive. Try going back to regular mall shopping after you have stumbled upon a beautifully cut, in perfect condition, 1940s suit for five bucks. The latter is almost a criminal thrill. You will never be the same after that; the retail world simply won't hold the same allure. The rarity of these finds only adds to the need to have them repeated.

Other sites of note are the Mennonite Central Committee Thrift Store (5914 Fraser Street), staffed by elderly ladies, with a vintage selection and fine assortment of furniture.

Unfortunately, thrift is becoming a shadow of its former self, especially with the entrance of "vintage" stores like Front & Co (3772 Main Street, Vancouver) which, if visited upon a Saturday afternoon, is so crowded you need a crowbar to muscle through the skinny girls. Vintage stores tend to suffer also from the mark up phenomena. Why should I pay $50 for something I can find at Value Village, if I only applied myself?

But true cheapness lingers in isolated pockets such as church thrift sales. The Ryerson Thrift Sale (2195 West 41st Avenue, Vancouver), which has been going strong since 1946, is usually held on the last weekend of April, and comprises a large portion of the church's annual fundraising, so spend big with a clean conscience. Other yearly events such as the York House Market (held at the York House School in October) are also great fun. If you go later in the day, the nice lady will tell you "It's ten items for one dollar, dear," which is akin to throwing a bleeding haunch of meat into the shark tank. You must be prepared to attack in these kinds of situations, which doesn't make for the most peaceful of shopping experience. But then thrifting ain't pretty, it's where we separate the girls from the women. The women are the ones who bite.

Virtual thrift

Craigslist provides listings not only of yard sales, but clothing as well and of course, there is always eBay, which has fundamentally altered the thrifting world, turning everyone into buyers and sellers. A veritable global village square where everyone spreads out their wares, which although very democratic on some level, still requires the transport of goods, and is therefore outside of the purview of this series. But it's still worth a look, especially if you have something very specific in mind -- a Pucci this or a Lily Pulitzer that.

But there is a snake in the garden of thriftiness; and that is shoes. Ever the deal breaker, it is extremely difficult to buy shoes second hand, and seeing as they're so fraught with social ills, and the sweat of small children from foreign lands, it is also difficult to buy them in regular stores. Thankfully, Canada has a fine tradition of ethical shoemakers, from the Bata family to Fluevogs in Vancouver (Fluevog shoes are made in ethically operated factories in Portugal).

If you simply need to have something new, and you've saved all your pennies, can you buy something that is seemingly beyond the changeable dictates of fashion? Yes, but you will have to invest, like a French woman. There are certain iconic styles, everything that Audrey Hepburn ever wore, basically and ballet flats are one such item.

If the shoe fits

With this in mind, and shoes in hand, pay a visit to Ken Rice Shoe Studio on Granville Island. You can take your desires for the perfect pair of shoes and have them made for you. Depending on the complication level of your feet, this can be fairly expensive (in the $600-700 range, even before the shoemaking itself begins) but once you have a last (the form on which the shoe is made) you can go back ever more for custom made shoes.

Dayton Boots are utterly homegrown also, so if you're prepared to lay out some amount of cash (they're not cheap, these boots), you can buy locally-made footwear that may last you many years. For other things for feet, such as ethically made running shoes, I am entirely open to suggestions.

Recycling, not buying from a giant corporation, supporting your favorite charity -- it's all good. But…is buying second hand only delaying the inevitable? It might stave off the guilt of buying stuff, because some long-ago person absolved you from the initial sin of consumption, but we'd all be better off without the endless need for more things. With total environmental collapse looming on the horizon, talking hemlines and heels seems, if not insane, at the least, willfully oblivious, but here we are doing just that. That said, and it must be said, we will keep on each in our tiny ways to do the right thing -- buy cheap, buy locally and fight the good fight. All the while looking like a million bucks. Or a little less than that.

Dorothy Woodend is a Vancouver-based writer, who writes a weekly film column for The Tyee.

What are your second hand hunting grounds? Post a comment below mentioning favourite shops in your town.  [Tyee]

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