Thrift Store Gentry

When I lived in Arizona, I spent an inordinate amount of time in thrift stores buying a great deal of clothes for theoretical occasions that never actually materialized. Part of this was because I had too much free time, and part of this was the camaraderie that such shopping fostered with friends who were as eager as I was to earn “scoreboard” on the world by getting perfectly useful things for virtually nothing. “Scoreboard” is a term we borrowed from sports-talk radio that denotes the respect earned simply by virtue of winning, regardless of method or mitigating circumstances. It constitutes an ethical Occam’s razor, a pitiless pragmatism that relentlessly transforms all situations into zero-sum clashes with clear winners and losers.

When we began using the term to recount our various clashes in the world — cutting someone off in traffic, getting out of jury duty or parking tickets, deceiving a boyfriend or girlfriend — a sense of irony was intended, a rueful recognition of how American society and its alleged “meritocracy” encourages us to see competition everywhere. But unfortunately, having a term for the phenomenon heightened our awareness, and led us to use the term to enact scoreboard rather than merely describe it. We in fact began to keep score.

Hence, the thrift store gentry: a phrase a friend coined to describe we bourgeois slummers parading our superior sense in proletarian strip malls, our pseudo-aristocratic class of inveterate bargain finders racking up an ersatz prestige by “beating the system”, satisfied in our by and large unnecessary acquisitions. What inevitably happens is that you begin buying things you don’t need because of the amount of scoreboard involved in buying them. Maybe you don’t play golf, but how could you pass up a perfectly good set of clubs at $1 a piece? Maybe that’s as good a reason as any to start playing golf, thinks the thrift store gentry. Name-brand suits for under $10, a perfectly good reason to start wearing suits everyday. Another good reason is to thumb one’s nose at the bogus business casual favored out West, which means to disguise the formally rationalized office-place exploitation, the ability to dress informally being a one of the phony benefits corporations like to tout when detailing their “friendly work environments”. Wear a suit in such an environment and it’s amazing how much fear and respect you’ll suddenly command.

When one is always shopping at thrift stores, one begins to feel a definite sense of self-righteous superiority. The ads that Savers, a west-coast thrift store chain, would air in their stores over the Public Announcement system between songs by the likes of America and James Taylor, played on this feeling, never failing to explain how the stores organized things for smart shoppers like ourselves, those who know a real bargain when we see one, and how we are helping to save the planet by recycling things rather than playing the destructive game of always trying to keep up with the trends. “Good taste never goes out of style”, we were reminded while feeling comfortable in our own. Still, it’s hard not to feel that these complimentary broadcasts offer a consolation prize to those too poor, too arrant, or too marginalized to play on the same field with the conspicuous consumers, the real champions, who preoccupy the mainstream media, whether they are celebrity consumers whose choices of the moment are dignified in tabloid weeklies or whether they are ordinary bedrock middle-class suburbanites, the rectitude of whose lifestyles are repeatedly reinforced everywhere from car commercials to presidential stump speeches (are these ultimately any different?). The thrift store shopper needs to turn a misfortune (an inability to keep up with the consumer lifestyle prescribed everywhere) into a virtue — I’m a conscientious non-conformist! — to find some precious, albeit illusory, scoreboard.

The strongest psychological appeal of thrift store shopping, if you are not a destitute mother trying to clothe her children on a minimum-wage paycheck, is just this: that you have the taste to find the good stuff in the midst of piles of garbage, without the aid of salespeople or contemporary fashion, you are able to see what’s good without referring to the current trend cycle for criteria. You can generate your own criteria for what’s worth owning and displaying as some crucial element of your personality. Of course, you are still shopping as your primary means of self-expression, but you can pretend that it’s an evolved, elitist kind of shopping with a herd-defying dignity to it (instead of lamenting how you’re shut out from the real elite shopping arenas, the boutiques of Fifth Avenue, and the Neiman Marcuses and Bergdorf Goodmans of the world). All and all, its like most things in America; an ambiguous practice, half thwarting hegemonic consumerism, half validating it.

But what thrift store shopping does is much like what’s so detestable in these Mötley Crüe facsimile shirts now being manufactured. I remember the originals from high school; Theatre of Pain and Shout at the Devil tour shirts. But now replicas of these shirts are being newly manufactured. I wondered at first who in their right mind would wear something so inauthentic? How could they justify the many levels of phoniness involved in donning such a shirt: not being into the Crüe; not having been at the concert where the shirt was sold; not spending the time to hunt down an authentic old tour shirt in a thrift store or vintage shop; not even actually wearing the shirt enough times to give it the worn-out patina? But then I realized that these questions of authenticity simply don’t cross the fashionista’s mind. Fashion revels in a kind of anti-experience, effacing the possible signs one might use to show that one has actually lived through something by systematically making them available to everyone.

Fashion, of course, supplants experience with appearances, thereby destroying history and replacing it with a treadmill of trends. A colleague of mine opined that fashionistas revel in the destruction of integrity. They delight in seeing a specific symbol, a signified (in linguistic jargon) that actually means a great deal to a select group of people, become detached from its signifier and deprived of its original significance in becoming an all-purpose signifier of youth or trendy up-to-dateness. Such appropriations make integrity impossible: With no particular integrity of their own, fashionistas don’t hesitate to destroy the symbols other’s use to try to advertise their integrity for others. (Sure, maybe people with real integrity feel no need to advertise their identity, but we all know that realistically people need to have their self-concept validated by others). Imagine you’re a 35-year-old, unrepentant metal head, and you walk out in your Armored Saint tour T-shirt and suddenly the world sees you as a fashion-victim wannabe. (Except the fashion world, who has seen you as ripe to be cannibalized). Your identity has been co-opted. Think of the ubiquitous Che Guevara T; the people wearing these are gleefully destroying a once potent symbol of revolutionary power, happily doing the establishment’s work while thinking there is something neat and rebellious in what they are wearing.

I always thought the phonies who buy the fake t-shirts would be full of a secret sense of shame, but the thought they might actually be gloating in their ignorance, and thriving on the way they are denaturing signs, chills me to the bone. They flaunt their power of emptiness and make our world progressively, cyclically, emptier and emptier. This is my theater of pain.

But as one of the thrift store gentry, I was no better. Thrift store shopping removes the commodity from its original context and replaces it with one that’s a bit more contrived. What the facsimile Crüe shirt is trying to replicate and over for sale is not so much the aesthetic of the tour shirt but the satisfyingly kitschy experience of coming across one at the thrift store, and thinking it neat and unlikely. And then you buy the shirt, seeking to wear it to shift yourself out of context the same way, to be as neat and surprising and unlikely yourself when people come across you. Unless you are driven to the Salvation Army by necessity, every purchase you make there will be colored by the “I’m a clever shopper” context, or perhaps the “I’m a spelunker in the detritus of pop culture” context. You don’t avoid that dimension of personal ego-boosting and achieve pure shopping for utility by heading to Goodwill. Sometimes this is what we pretended; our maximizing utility was the basis for our perceived scoreboard.

In our ironic majesty, my friends and I thought we were getting scoreboard on the world by refusing to play the status game, by rejecting a self fashioned out of invidious comparison with others, by seeing things for what they truly are, not what they are relative to what others think. But in thrift store shopping, the agonistic zero-sum scoreboard component inherent in all shopping is maximized, but not in terms of utility, which is only incidental to the competition. At the thrift store we were still doing what all shoppers do: looking for the commodity that will communicate who we think we are for us and save us the trouble of actually having to do anything unpleasant like getting to know strangers or participating earnestly in a group activity.

So shopping’s not the open playing field that anyone can access and in which all can please themselves by participating. In other words, it’s not necessarily the foolproof social palliative post-war economists and politicians have claimed consumerism is, where everyone can find goods in the market to self-actualize themselves. In fact, some will get these goods, and others will be late in coming and will suffer humiliation or deprivation as a consequence. In the case of thrift stores, latecomers are literally beaten to the object made unique and more precious by its random return to the marketplace. In retail stores, they are late to the trend and their adoption only affirms their status as a conformist, which, as Thomas Frank argued in The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism (University of Chicago Press, December 1998), is the worst sort of insult you can hurl at someone.

The shirt I’m wearing as I write is a linen shirt I must have bought at Savers for $5. I might have even got it for $2 using the $3-off coupons the company inserted in the University of Arizona schedule of classes and which we would hoard. My thoughts buying it were probably something along the lines of: “Hmmmm. Linen. I can spend five bucks for a linen shirt. If I don’t feel like ironing it afterward I’ll just chuck it.” This must have been a much different consumer-decision process than the one that the original purchaser underwent. What I’m wondering is this: did that original person stake more of his dreams on this shirt when he bought it for $80 than I did when I bought it for $5? Am I wearing the relic of a disillusioned dream, someone else’s fantasy gone awry, with all the complementary delight of schadenfreude mixed in? Or have I given that failed dream new life and somehow redeemed it?

That’s what I think when I haul the bags of clothes back to the Salvation Army, mostly stuff I originally purchased at thrift stores, in more optimistic times, or at least in times when my concept of myself was more flexible, more open-ended, and I could dream up for myself more occasions for things like overcoats and three-piece suits and French-cuffed shirts. Maybe by affording someone else the chance to adopt my moribund dreams, I’m keeping that hope alive. And at the same time, I’m surrendering that kind of hope, the hope that I’ll be somehow more than what I actually am, and I’m betting instead that a new sort of hope can animate me, based on what I can accomplish rather than what I can amass.

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For more Rob Horning, visit the Marginal Utility blog.