When I was ten, I stood in line at the Village Discount Outlet behind a girl my age who was scratching and scratching her long, greasy black hair. She scratched and scratched so much, I thought she was going to pull it out. When I stepped closer, I saw fully grown lice scamper on her scalp like little black race cars. I ran to my mom in the aisle over and clung to her fat thigh, disturbed. She shooed me away, encouraged me to go rummage through the books and broken parts.
At the thrift store, loud girls and big mamas pushed their squeaky metal carts down narrow aisles through the stench and stink of mothballs, detergent, French fries, and muted farts. Fat boys and their tired, shadowed Papas tested out broken electronics. Here, a man with an enormous red beard and open sores on his arms tried on snow suits in the corner amidst a pile of broken televisions, radios, and standing fans. Here, a hive of Orthodox Jewish women, wearing long, navy blue skirts and white, button-down blouses, bickered in Yiddish while pushing a cart full of sneakers. I gawked when gangs of punks or goths or hip hoppers took over an aisle, searching for their uniforms. When I grew into an aspiring hippie Deadhead in high school, I labored tirelessly in search of calico, Indian print, wrap-around skirts and light, flowy cream-colored peasant blouses to match my inner patchouli-infused soul.
I first pierced thrift consciousness in the aisles of Village Thrift on Clark Avenue, just north of Lawrence Avenue in Chicago, where my mother used to take me and my sisters. We had rituals. We’d drive from Skokie to Reza’s on Clark—an old shoebox-sized Persian restaurant with small tables smashed side-by-side as if we were all sitting together—for baba ganoush and shish kabob. Handsome Reza with his thick dark mustache and black wavy hair used to wave aggressively when we walked in, pushing through chatty brunchers to greet us and patting my mom’s back with clear affection, before snaking his way back to the kitchen to shout at his wait staff. We ate until our bellies burst and then cruised south to the Village, where loudspeakers promised, “You’ll like it here,” and we did.
We got lost in the ramshackle aisles, stepping over broken glass and plastic hangers to sift and sort through rows of clothes and bric-a-brac. This was the late eighties when clothing from the sixties and seventies still emerged with regularity—to my delight. As soon as we entered the store, we’d scatter: tunics and towels, velour and vinyl, Pyrex and plaid, books, boots, belts.
Thrifting demanded laser focus—together but alone. In those early days, my mother taught us her thrifting commandments: check for rips, holes and tears, zippers, snaps and elastic; make sure stripes and plaids match sides and seams; abandon “tired” garments; and always buy 100% pure wool, silk, cotton, the best that money can buy. We shopped with wild abandon. Our parents made very little money. Our father was an English teacher for Chicago Public Schools and our mother worked as a part-time travel agent, among other hustles. But, at the thrift store, our possibilities were endless.
We’d pile everything we wanted into the cart and walked around until it was full. Then, we’d hunker down by a cracked or faded mirror and try on everything, slipping layer upon layer, to get a feel for each piece. Under the glare of fluorescent lights, we stuffed our feet into shoes too small but priced just right. We’d tug vintage silk dresses over her heads, only to see them rip at the seams after years of staying together. We tried on everything. Faces flushed, we impatiently excused shoppers passing-by with a hawk-eye on our yes pile. We paraded our maybes with pride, making sure no one touched them until we decided yes or no. Hours later, we’d exit with bags of jeans, shirts, dresses, army fatigues, wigs, puzzles, card decks, and, at least once, a Ouija board.
Our mother was most alive when leaning against a thrift-shop jewelry case, tap-tap-tapping the glass with her car keys, directing the salesperson to the exact piece she wanted to examine with her portable magnifying glass. Most of the time, she was deeply depressed and watched reruns of MASH while eating turkey clubs half-naked in bed. But, when she thrifted, she lit up. I was her eager apprentice. She was a junker who had an eye for treasures within others’ trash. Our mother came from a legacy of junk; Her father traded scrap metal at flea markets in rural Michigan. When we thrifted, her tone and tenor transformed from rage to adventure, and my sisters and I soaked up every ray of happiness she shined upon us. Anything was possible.
I started trekking to thrift stores on my own in high school, sometimes with girlfriends. With every visit to the Village, “Salvie,” or Goodwill, my record collection grew and so did my stockpile of vintage dresses, silk scarves, studded sunglasses, and Guatemalan woven purses. Thrifting became an addiction, spiritual quest, and antidote to idleness and boredom. By high school, I looked after myself and paid for clothes by babysitting and working a part-time, minimum wage job at Uncle Dan’s Army & Navy Surplus. I counted my money carefully, never stepping foot into the Gap or Express. I didn’t understand how others could pay retail prices. Money was a mystery and scarce in our family. Our parents “borrowed” our bat mitzvah cash to pay for the parties. The family fridge offered sad portraits of iceberg lettuce, American cheese, and Wonder Bread.
Thrift was our ethos and anthem: a philosophy, a promise, a prayer. It demanded a firm belief in the spirit of things. We hunted for gold in the garbage heaps, hidden calligraphies, lost notes from the other side. Silk and saris, ancient bathrobes, Holgas and holograms, that perfect pair of tall worn out Levi’s. We believed wholeheartedly that what we found (and what found us) was ours all along. Our mother grew up in flea markets. She would eventually run estate sales for the recently deceased. She learned at an early age to pick obsessions for her collections and she passed this wisdom down to us.
Beware of knock-offs, she used to tell us. You’re looking for originals, girls.
You’re looking for the real thing.
It took me years to accept that I, too, come from a legacy of junk, that junking is in my bones. From flea markets to thrift stores to vintage shops to our own basement, where my mother hoarded decades of thrift and resale finds, I was most at home when swimming in a sea of thrifting possibility. At home with migrants and vagrants, artists and writers, junkers — all of us, looking for revival.
AMANDA LEIGH LICHTENSTEIN is a writer, poet, and editor from Chicago, Illinois, with a heart tilted toward East Africa’s Swahili Coast. Her poetry and essays have appeared in Explore Parts Unknown (CNN), Fortunate Traveller, The Forward, and Hypertext, among others. A MacArthur Foundation Connections Grantee and Vermont Studio Center Poetry Fellow, Amanda has an Arts in Education Masters from Harvard and a B.A. in English Literature from Kalamazoo College in Michigan. She currently edits for Global Voices Online and is working on a collection of essays set in Zanzibar about faith, identity, and belonging. (@travelfarnow)