Conscience, consumerism and cephalomugs.

‘Tis the season, my friends, when it is your patriotic duty to shovel your ever-diminishing dollars into the great big gaping maw of the capitalist imperialist white supremacist Christianist heteropatriarchy. Well, it is if we are to believe Wal-Mart and Target and Macy’s and storefront purveyors of conflict diamonds, anyway. But fret not! Iris is here to show you a better way: thrift shops.

New York’s thrift shops are legendary, and Housing Works is among my favorites. Its mission is “to end the dual crises of homelessness and AIDS through relentless advocacy, the provision of lifesaving services, and entrepreneurial businesses that sustain our efforts.” Housing Works advocates for marginalized people in particular, including active drug users, homeless people and sexual minorities: they’re like the anti-Salvation Army*. (Full disclosure: I regularly donate goods and funds to Housing Works, and I shop there. Like, a lot. More on that in a minute.) Across the nation there are thrift shops that benefit veterans, domestic violence shelters and programs, animal rescue and many other causes that are not right-wing churches like the Starvation Army. But even beyond the laudable charitable aspects of shopping at thrifts, there are other considerable benefits as well.


If you are cost-conscious, you will rarely find better deals than you will at a thrift shop. Sometimes those doing the pricing know exactly what they have, and they will upcharge accordingly. For example, a valuable antique, an item with high-end branding, or something that’s obviously beautifully crafted from quality materials won’t be super cheap. But the pricing will still be nowhere near what you would pay for the same item at retail, even on sale. Want to save more money? Your donations of goods and funds are also tax deductible (although your purchases are not, at least not in New York). And sometimes a price is so low you just know it has to be a mistake. And yet it isn’t. :)

At retail stores you can generally find something cheap, but all too often you will get what you pay for. Thrift stores provide an opportunity to find really nice stuff cheap.

Labor and the environment.

If you’re environmentally conscious, this is the ultimate in recycling. A lamp or table for which one no longer has any use—or more likely in NYC, any space—would normally end up in a landfill. Instead it takes on a second life, filling a niche for someone who can really use it. If you’re sweat-shop conscious, the clothing and accessories (handbags, ties, scarfs, shoes, belts, etc.) come with a lot less guilt: by purchasing an item here you’re supporting a good cause, and not so much a system of labor exploitation in, say, China, or your local mall. Many thrift shop clothing items have never been worn and still sport the original tags; if that seems odd to you, consider how many times you received a gift of clothing you know you will never, ever wear.

Uh-huh. I thought so.

Bonus: if you’re the imaginative sort and handy with paint or a needle and thread, your furniture and clothing options at a thrift shop are considerably more vast.



I bought this platter for $40 as a gift for someone I don’t even like. 
Turns out it’s worth a couple grand. Whoops.

Housewares are probably my favorite stuff to peruse. I collect eclectic cutlery—no two pieces the same—so I’m always on the lookout for a single place setting to add to my mix. Ditto: coffee mugs, serving platters and table linens. (Dishes and glassware, however, must be strictly matched and neutral-toned. Because I am really weird.) Many times I’ve come across enormous troves of gorgeous silverware, serving pieces, plate settings and tabletop accoutrements, donated by restaurants that are switching theirs out or going out of business. I’ve also found Candlewick pieces, which my mom collects, in addition to scented soy candles, amazing coffee table books, candle holders and picture frames, all of which have made really nice gifts.


Butter knives from my collection.

And then there is the jewelry**. I don’t wear much of it myself, and I tend to rotate a few pieces pulled from the same small collection every day. (Until, that is, unbeknownst to me, I lose one of the earrings, or a stone pops out, or the catch on a necklace breaks. This is why I can’t have nice things.) Although I rarely indulge, I do frequently buy gifts of jewelry for friends and family. And d00d, I have scored.


L: sterling silver fleur-de-lis earrings. R: pink & amber studded post earrings.


Finally, I want to talk about the magic. Yes I know, that’s quite the word for a godless heathen to be flinging around willy-nilly, but hear me out. I am not talking about anything supernatural here; what I mean is something more like “a fortuitous confluence of matter and spacetime events in the natural universe.” Life in New York City generally meets that definition for me; so does fall color, and being in love. On a smaller scale, if I don’t feel like drying my (plain and perfectly matched) dishes right after I wash them, I might wander off and quip that “the faeries can dry them.” And when I return from my errands, lo and behold the faeries have done my bidding, and the dishes are all perfectly dry! It’s a Christmas miracle, is what that is.

L: glass-beaded tealight lamp; R: silver cake plate and server with mother-of-pearl inlays.

And so it is with scoring a find when thrift shopping. The trick to the magic is this: be open-minded, shop early and shop often. It is generally not a good idea to have a particular item in mind when you go; there is a constant churning of merchandise and thus the selection can vary wildly from week to week or even day to day. My fellow New Yorkers tend to have keen eyes and impeccable taste, so if I don’t grab that really cool thing when I see it, it will almost certainly be gone in an hour. Tragically, there are not one but two thrones that I do not possess because I dallied:

I needed these thrones, people, and now they are gone. FOREVER.

But the point is that if I went to a thrift shop looking for a throne, the odds that I would find one are virtually zero. The same holds true for finding the perfect gift for someone on the exact day you need it. By far, the most important thing to take with you to a thrift shop is an open mind, and again, go early and go often. That is how I crossed a few items off of my holiday gift list before August.

It is true that for some things I will have to resort to retail. It turns out that some people, especially kids, have no appreciation whatsoever for vintage martini shakers or embroidered eyeglass cases. But Wal-Mart and Target and Macy’s and conflict diamonds can still be avoided as much as possible: I’ll be doing most of my holiday shopping at places like Housing Works this season. And if for some reason I have not yet convinced you to do the same, behold my latest find:

Hand-painted Cephalomugs, $2 (each).

^This is what winning looks like, my friends. Happy holiday thrift shopping. And don’t forget to bring with you that sweater someone gave you last year, and donate it. You know the one: it still has the tags on it.


*To be clear: I do not repudiate anyone who relies on Salvation Army’s services. I do, however, repudiate donors and patrons who have the opportunity to make a better choice but don’t. And I really repudiate a government and economic system that requires charities to ensure the barest survival of its most vulnerable citizens, including disabled vets, abuse victims and uninsured AIDS patients. Such a system is not only morally grotesque, a charity approach to these issues is itself a terrible idea.

**Iris’s trusty sparkly sanitized jewelry trick:

  • place jewelry in an aluminum vessel of some sort. I use aluminum cupcake pans, or you can rig something up with foil yourself. It just has to be aluminum because SCIENCE.
  • sprinkle baking soda on the jewelry.
  • pour boiling water onto the baking soda and jewelry.
  • let cool, rinse and dry.

Do this to clean and brighten any metal jewelry when it begins to tarnish. I don’t know how it works. Probably magic.

[A version of this post appeared at perry street palace.]