So really it’s the semi-disposable and staple items that I’m missing most this Year Without Target. I am at a loss for gym socks and wifebeaters, Kleenex and Charmin. I just about drove myself crazy trying to think of where to get some little white T-shirts for my daughter to customize for her school project. I didn’t want to go to a more expensive but equally evil chain store like the Gap. I didn’t want to go to a high-end boutique. I thought maybe if I were less of an asshole I would have been buying domestic organic cotton shirts my whole life and know where to get them already. But then, I knew this was bullshit. Really, when it comes to clothes, I am a Not Always Organic Asshole. And Sam is the Kindergarten Bear.
Each child in my daughter’s class takes a turn hosting Sam the Bear. Photos are taken documenting Sam’s adventures with each family, and a journal is compiled detailing Sam’s experiences throughout the school year. My daughter had received a set of fabric markers for Christmas and was keen to make custom T-shirts with Sam the Bear when her turn came around in January. We needed some shirts she could draw on, add to a stuffed bear’s wardrobe, maybe wear a couple times and then move on. Without the kids’ section of Target at my disposal, I felt stumped for awhile. I really didn’t want to spend much on Sam, who is sort of a germ factory of a bear and is usually dressed in hand-me-downs. Then it occurred to me that it would be fine if the shirts were already a little bit gross when we got them. We went to Goodwill.
Back in the proverbial Day, I used to spend hours shopping in Goodwill. There was a particularly fabulous one near the intersection of Baum and Liberty in Pittsburgh. It seemed always to be freshly stocked with beautiful vintage sweaters and coats, as though the wardrobes of stylish midcentury grandmas were being donated almost daily, which probably they were. I still have most of the stuff I bought there, and I’m still amazed by the quality fibers and fine tailoring I was able to find on the $3 rack. I love the tailors’ labels embroidered in metallic thread, many of them representing local artisans of a bygone era, when ordinary clothes were made really well and the people who wore them took great care of them. Of course, since it was Goodwill and not a vintage shop, there was also an endless supply of ridiculous 1980s wear and sloganed t-shirts, as well as secondhand craft supplies, housewares, and cassette tapes.
The Liberty Avenue Goodwill closed some years ago, but before it did I noticed a shift the in merchandise there. I could page through rack after rack and never see anything I wanted. The clothes were all new…ish. Contemporary, though perhaps vintage-styled, and maybe a couple of seasons past trend, with labels like Old Navy and Rue 21. It was sad to think that all the classy grandmas were gone, their closets emptied forever… but that was the only explanation I could come up with. I was told by friends a little crustier than me that the good stuff was still there, but that instead of being put out for sale it was being put out for the trash. Evidently the Dumpster behind the Goodwill store had developed a great deal of hipster cred. I never checked it out for myself, I just didn’t really go to Goodwill anymore. When my friend Frank died in 2004, his funeral march meandered accross town from the place where he was killed to the home that was his destination at the time of his murder. The procession attempted to follow a path Frank might have walked on his way home, and the Goodwill Dumpster was on that route.
When Sam showed up I hadn’t been to Goodwill in a long time, but I had just started going to a new gym on the Southside whose windows gave me a panoramic view of a neighboring Goodwill superstore, and I had started daydreaming about its contents as a way to relieve boredom during my morning workouts. But this had done little to prepare me for the experience of thrift shopping with a six-year-old who is used to Target.
As we approached, I explained to my daughter the function of thrift stores in our community, how sometimes things that aren’t useful anymore to the person who bought them can be repurposed by people who can use them now for a discounted price. She wanted to know why the floor was dusty. She wanted to know why the shirts in Sam’s size were on a single rack with the clothes her own size and all the sizes in between. I wanted to know why so much of the stuff in the thrift store was from Target, not only on the clothing racks but also on strategically placed endcap displays of seasonal cling-on window decorating kits, as though the $1 section in the front of Target had been purged and donated in bulk. I also wanted to know why pre-stained baby t-shirts were selling for $3.99, but some questions are not meant to be answered.
Gradually, my child and I began to relax and enjoy the Zen experience of Goodwill shopping together. We paged through rack after rack of things that were wrong and found things that were right on the wrong rack. We took our time. We sang along to oldies Muzak. We laughed together at the contents of my favorite Goodwill department, Miscellaneous Housewares. We were there for an hour and a half and spent $17.99, hardly a bargain for our time or for a bunch of shirts that were already gross. But in terms of intangibles, we got more than we came for, because it was fun and helped us think about how to shop outside our usual box.