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I broke a promise to myself today, and I don’t do that very often. I told my husband just yesterday after hearing that a friend from his volleyball team had gone to the Goodwill Outlet that I would never set foot in that insane place again. Talk about weirdness! He added that his friend happened to find a beautiful wood chest in great condition for $30. Hmmm. I didn’t see any furniture when I was there, and I do need a storage unit for my craft room. But, no, never again. Once was enough. It was the most unsettling bargain-hunting experience I had ever had.

I walked in the door of the Goodwill Outlet feeling just a little sheepish. Yep, I came back. Well, I was right in the neighborhood when returning from the rec center, where I had just finished my 45-minute walk around the indoor track. It was a Friday just before noon. How bad could it be? Everything, like everyone, deserves a second chance, right? I’m here now to report it wasn’t much better, but I left with some purchases and remain impressed by the oddness of this place. What did I learn?

Approach this as an adventure in anthropology. If every item has a story–as I’m sure each does–there is some juicy material here. Are these the rejects from the Goodwill retail stores? The stuff that didn’t sell? Or, do donors bring things straight here after cleaning out a dead relative’s house? There was a donation center around back. Is there a different method of processing materials before they get on the floor (eg, cleaning, selective sorting, the smell test)? Didn’t seem like there was. One of my prize purchases (read on!) smelled a little funky, unlike the stuff I buy in the Goodwill retail stores. Into the washer it went as soon as I got home. In most circumstances, the outlet is less expensive than the retail stores, though books cost more since customers pay by the pound, and books are heavy. Most everything in the store, in fact, is priced by the pound except collectibles, neckties (more later), furniture and computers.

Observations and lessons from the Goodwill Outlet 2013:

  1. Stay out of the way. People in gloves, face masks and sturdy shoes move purposefully throughout the environment. These are the customers, not staff. Novices (moi!) are advised to stay clear of the large, rolling bins overflowing with shoes, which can provoke an orderly stampede when rolled through the large warehouse doors into the sales area (see photo). This observer speculates these peoole are “scrappers” or flea-market vendors, who will resell these used athletic shoes. One man’s shopping cart was loaded with at least 20 pairs of shoes in all sizes. These are not likely intended for the feet of family members. The table of unsorted toys is also an area to avoid.

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    Stay out of the way of the shoe bins.

  2. Staff are amazingly cheerful and friendly despite an undercurrent of watchfulness. Those working the floors, but especially those in charge of rolling out top-heavy carts of merchandise were mostly large people; sturdy, muscular types who could handle the stampede that met every cart, even before the cart came to a complete stop. Do not stand by the warehouse doors. There is no warning before a human-powered train of carts bursts through. They neither stop nor slow down for shoppers in the way.
  3. Pretend you’re a 5-year-old.This is an adventure! Look at all the broken things that can be turned into something special. Why would someone throw away a Mousetrap game with no board or a truck with three wheels!? Everything has potential and all the people are nice. Go with the flow, have an open mind and resurrect your sense of fun. If you don’t, you could be horribly depressed by the dirt, disorder and, yes, some desperation. If you’re still wearing your anthropologist hat, think about why places like this are doing so well at this moment in time. On one hand it’s the best form of recycling I can think of. Why buy new when there are perfectly good things that have already left their carbon footprint. On the other hand, many people need to pinch pennies tighter than ever before to keep food on the table, pay for prescriptions and utilities, and provide some nice things for the kids.

Did I buy anything? Of course!

  1. I was happily told neckties are 50 cents each (no need to weigh them). I picked out three “so ugly they’re cool” ties, 1980s vintage (see picture). They are proudly 100 percent polyester; so blatantly polyester, you have to smile. The full-faced checkout woman thought they were pretty. I intend to use these as hat bands on some felted fedoras, but also thought they are just kind of cool as a “voice” connecting today with a much different time 30+ years ago.. If these ties could talk! The 80s were kind of a fun time for me (don’t laugh), and I bet these ties saw plenty of action.

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    80s ties. If only they could talk!

  2. A twin-sized granny-square afghan; old. Paid by the pound for this beauty: $2.57. (See at top.) This is really lovely, but needed to go straight to the washer. Judging by the metal hooks tucked in it, it last served as a curtain. Smelled a little funky, but the person who crocheted this was skilled and had an eye for color. The washer fixed the odor, and I enjoy the colors and the comforting weight of crochet stitches resting across the foot of the bed.
  3. A beautiful art deco-ish dressing table, stool and twin bed headboard//footboard; all for $80.  The photo does not do this piece justice. A steal (I thought) at $80, but I had to walk away. I don’t need it and have no place to put it, even if it is gorgeous.

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    Hated to walk away from this deal.

So, it was worth the broken promise. For under $5, I left with a bag full of creative inspiration. And, after my second outlet outing, I’m feeling much more assured in that chaotic environment. Don’t expect to see me in the group stampeding the shoe carts though. And I probably won’t be wearing a face mask and gloves when I go back.  I’ll just rummage through the little basket of ties and wander in the safety of steady and solid bookshelves, dressers, tables and chairs.

Do you have a place like this where you live? What have your scavenging experiences entailed? I’d also love to hear from regular auction goers. I find those a little intimidating. Tips are appreciated!

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