If you follow my Instagram feed, you’ve probably noticed that I love to shop, specifically at thrift stores. In fact, this summer it’s been a particular sickness because I’ve been volunteering twice a week at a shop run by a local ministry. I also dabble in consignment and bargain stores, such as Ross or Marshall’s, and I get a thrill out of finding a deal on something that meets my fairly high quality standards. At this point, I’d say the majority of my closet has some from secondhand shopping, and I almost always remember exactly where, when, and with whom I found each item, because I take such pleasure in it.

Given all of that, it’s been really interesting, via my most recent job and my current volunteer gig, to see the other side of the equation, to be involved in the behind-the-scenes operation of a thrift store. I’ve noticed some things that I think could help all of us as we purge clutter and do the good deed of donating our used goods.

First of all, donating to a thrift store is obviously good. It’s even better if you find a thrift store that supports an organization whose mission you’re particularly fond of. Both of the thrift stores I’ve worked with provide a large chunk of revenue for Christian non-profits who do great community work. Others support large national organizations, such as Goodwill or the Salvation Army. It’s not bad to give to one without knowing the mission, or to one that is simply self-serving (re-purposing items is still great for other reasons), but I think it adds a level of depth to your donation if you’re doing it to further a cause.

However, when you give, put some thought into it. Know the clientele that might be shopping your donated goods. The thrift store I volunteer for provides a lot of free clothing to people in dire financial straits due to an emergency. They often need clothing for job interviews or for work. So, this means that the stained, ragged t-shirt you’ve deemed too ugly to wear won’t help them at all either. If something is too worn for you to wear, it’s often too worn for a thrift store to sell. Most thrift stores are frequented by both people who are in need of free or inexpensive clothing AS WELL AS people like me who enjoy finding a bargain. It’s great if you can provide items that are in good shape but that you simply no longer like anymore, that no longer fit you, or that are no longer precisely “in style.” (Some of us are neither aware of nor interested in trends.)

But please don’t hear me telling you to simply throw overly used items away. One of the great things about thrift stores is that they participate in the Reduce-Reuse-Recycle cycle that is so good for our environment! Many thrift stores (or, in my opinion, any thrift store that is worth its salt) participates in some sort of baling or bundling program through which it can get rid of items deemed unfit to sell. These items are purchased from the thrift store by a rag company, so they still provide revenue for the cause. The companies do different things with them, but they are often sent to developing countries to be worn by people who might have nothing else, or they are sent to overseas factories that employ low-income populations in making rags out of them. These rags are then sold by the bundle at places like Lowe’s and Home Depot. So, even your nasty old t-shirts can live a great second life. My suggestion is that you check with your thrift store of choice about how they handle this,  and then bring your donation of these items in a separate bag from your “good clothes.” Label it as such, so that it can be thrown directly in the rag, bale, or mission pile (depending on what your store calls it). That way, it saves the sorting crew in the back some time.

Another thing I’ve been surprised to learn is how un-useful out of season items are for thrift stores. As a donor, it seems obvious that in the summer, you’ll take the opportunity to go through your winter clothes and get rid of a lot of them. But on the other end, while a thrift store will never turn away your donation, they probably can’t sell a parka when it’s 90 degrees outside, no matter how nice it is. Check with your store: some of them have room to store items to be brought out to the floor at a later time and are happy to have your items. If not, maybe you could set your bags and boxes aside to bring when the temperature is right. A small hassle for you could be a big help to a small store. (And for what it’s worth, consignment stores, at which the donor makes money on items sold, always ask you to do this. They have certain dates at which they begin taking seasonal items, because they know neither party will make money from an item that doesn’t sell because it’s too hot or cold outside for it to be worn.)

Finally, check on the policies of the store you want to donate to. Are they located in a small storefront that doesn’t have room to display big furniture? If so, don’t act surprised when they can’t accept your used couch. Do they re-hang everything on matching hangers in keeping with their boutique feel? Then bring your items folded neatly, rather than hung on a mish-mash of wire dry cleaners’ hangers. These aren’t requirements, but they’re nice gestures that can make the thrift store staff’s lives easier and make them feel appreciated.

The store where I volunteer is in an interesting quandary right now. Most stores are in constant need of donations and have trouble keeping enough inventory around to stock their racks. But we recently put out the call for donations to the ministry’s supporting churches and have been utterly snowed under with all the items we’ve received! Yesterday we got two car loads worth of stuff from a single family. This is ultimately a good problem for a charity organization to have, but it sure makes for busy days on the sorting room floor.

What’s your experience with thrift stores been like? Do you enjoy shopping for used items? What’s your method of choice for purging extra items from your household?

Laura Lindeman

Laura Lindeman