Tuesday, April 4, 2006

The Art of Thrifting with a Toddler

The Art of Thrifting with a Toddler
Shiloh Barnat

Lately I’ve been wondering just what my baby girl learns during our weekly thrifting excursions. She’s getting quite good at it. She brings me things saying, “Look, mama – it’s cute! Can we buy it?” And I bring her things and she says, “Nah, put it back!” She throws fewer fits and knows our shopping pattern (quick pass through toys, then slower through clothes and other big people things, over to books / videos / music and back to toys before checkout). And she stays close by me and seldom grabs for breakable or dangerous things (well, except that time she took a liking to a used chainsaw).

There are bad days when she bolts for the toys, grabs the biggest, ugliest, dirtiest, ookiest babydoll in sight and refuses to budge or let go, then throws a hell-raising doosy of a fit when we leave buying nothing. Luckily the good days outnumber the bad.

Thrifting is an addiction for me. Within 5 miles of any thrift store, a magnetic field beckons me closer while I repeat my “I will not thrift today; I have other things to do and we have too much stuff already” mantra. An inner bargain compass guides me to new Salvation Armies in new cities without maps or directions. And, even though I’m quite near-sighted, I can spot a Goodwill sign from several miles away.

The obsession extends to yard sales, dollar stores (less so) and eBay (with extreme caution), but not to antique or vintage stores (which are really just over-priced thrift stores with attitude). And we struggle perpetually against pack-rat clutter in our house. We have to host several yard sales each year and drop off truckloads of donations to keep the deck clear for the next haul.

It’s not so much about having stuff as it is about the hunt. When I enter a junk store or approach a yard sale, my heart skips a beat, my tummy flutters and my palms sweat with anticipation of finding a golden score. My favorite scores used to be (and occasionally still are) from the ladies department – those brand new $5 hiking boots, that $3 oh-so-soft suede jacket that fits just right, and my Nancy Sinatra record collection. But lately they’re more from the kiddie aisles – that $6 wooden train table, $5 full Brio train set, 50-cent Melissa & Doug latch puzzle, jumbo sealed box of toddler sized Legos or those brand new size 6 yellow hand-painted clogs from Amsterdam.

Many mamas have marveled at our house full of funky finds, so I offer the following tips on how to thrift with a toddler in tow:

Frequency: We thrift every week and hit our favorites at least every other week. Most thrift stores rotate their inventory, or at least bring out a few new things, weekly. If you go right after rotation day, you’re more likely to catch the best new stuff before anyone else does – first come, first serve! And the more often you visit a thrift store, the faster you can make it through ‘cause you know the layout and you can pass by all the items you’ve already seen before. Also, watch for sales and discounts. Most stores have a discount system – green tags half price, everything half price on Sundays, spend $20 and get 50% off next time, etc. And don’t worry if you leave with nothing—there’s always another day.

Sanitation: Be prepared to get dirty! Thrifting is messy business. You can’t be a germaphobe. Stock up on antibacterial soap gel to wash your hands and your tot’s periodically and nontoxic citrus wipes for quick wash of the items they’ll inevitably want to hold on the ride home before you can disinfect them properly. Always wash everything! If you can’t wash it, don’t buy it.

Temptation: Sling your little one as long as you’re able or they’re willing ‘cause those grabby paws are much easier to train that way (mine won’t tolerate sling shopping anymore ‘cause she’s just as excited as I am to look through stuff). Never go when tot is tired, hungry or otherwise out of sorts. Establish the ground-rules early and repeat them often – stay where you can see mommy, no touching breakables, no mouthing, no trying on clothes (especially hats) ‘cause we have to wash them first. Delay spending much time in the toy section as long as you can ‘cause it can be the reward for being agreeable while you look through adult stuff first. But do pass quickly through to pick out a pacifier / busy toy to occupy them while you’re browsing. Establish a “Maybe Shelf” where you can set aside the many items your tot requests, or you are considering yourself, and decide on just one or a couple of them when you’re ready to go.

Creativity: Be open-minded. Look for multi-purpose things like newborn clothes for dolly-wear or Halloween costumes for the dress-up box or random cheap art supplies (that box of pipe cleaners for a quarter). Buy off-season (when it’s cheaper) and a size up (they’ll grow into it). Save things for holidays, birthdays and re-gifting. Just because you go home with a trunk full of new toys doesn’t mean they all have to go into rotation immediately.

Discernment: Look for cotton and wood rather than plastic or poly-anything. Watch for things with resale value – new, still in the original box, with the original tag, of reliable brands. Know what things cost new and don’t pay more than half of that for it used (i.e. would I be willing to pay twice this much if it were new?). Don’t judge anything by its cover. Look inside before you buy. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve bought videos or cassettes without looking inside, then got home to find I’d bought something else entirely (a Ginsu knife demo inside a Schoolhouse Rocks cover, a Tiffany CD inside a Raffi case, etc.). And it really sucks when the climax pages of your new bedtime story are torn out or covered in scribbles. But sometimes a crinkled cover holds contents in otherwise perfect condition. Beware of defects (there must be some reason someone got rid of this thing, though maybe they were just done with it) and know your DIY/fix-it threshold.

I’m willing to apply a little glue or replace a missing wheel, but I do not sew! Set yourself a budget before you walk in. Just like casino gambling, allow yourself to spend a specific amount and then get out before you break the bank. Right before checkout, weed through your cart and only keep the gems. Remember, don’t worry if you leave with nothing—there’s always another day.

And for local readers, here are a few of our favorite haunts:

MIFA(Memphis Interfaith Association): We don’t expect a miraculous score here, but we love to support MIFA because of the fabulous work they do in the local community. When we donate stuff, we always give it to MIFA. Plus their store is clean, their prices are dirt cheap and they are really nice. (Vance at Danny Thomas)

Park Avenue Thrift: We go here a lot ‘cause they entice us back with their vicious cycle of discounts (spend $30, get 50% that Sunday, etc.). It’s grimy, but they often have decent kids books or clothes and occasionally have a really cheap deal on a good something cool in the toy area (but usually their toys are just junk). Oh, and they have a maternity section! (Park at Getwell, behind RiteAid)

Goodwill: The one near the University of Memphis (574 S Highland) often has quality toys and books. Their clothes are organized by color and are all half price on Sundays. And you’ll be hard-pressed NOT to find SOMEthing at the ginormous warehouse Goodwill megastore out in Cordova (1790 N Germantown Pkwy) which is worth the drive just for the sheer enormity. They even sell cars there! I go for the great toddler clothes.

Salvation Army: We like the dingy little store tucked away near downtown near the medical complex (130 N Danny Thomas Blvd) just ‘cause it’s out of the way and thus less picked over. There’s also a new megastore where they seem to take all the good stuff way out east, but the prices are not as good. Beware, Salvation Army stores are not open on Sundays; it’s a religious thing.

AmVets (American Veterans): The huge store out by Graceland (Elvis Presley Blvd, just before Disfunction Junction) used to be a favorite of a lot of people but they’ve gotten lax about rotating inventory and done away with their half price days. The one out by Winchester is better (3680 S. Mendenhall). Even though it’s smaller, it’s seldom picked over. Look in their household aisles rather than the toy cage for the better quality toys though.

Summer Thrift Alley: We don’t do this area much any more ‘cause it’s so crowded, but there are about a million and one thrift stores all grouped together in a three block radius on Summer Street (at Graham to Highland), so this is an ideal place to start if you’re just getting your feet wet.

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