Thrift Store Questions Answered

So you're ready to head to a thrift shop in Columbus, Ohio and you've got some questions? Here's real answers from the thrift community.

Heading to the thrift store at any age can be a thrill. For a kid on the hunt for a new toy, book or pair of soccer cleats, the thrift store represents the time for new stuff. For a budget-conscious parent in Columbus, a trip to the thrift store is the perfect solution for finding the items that the family needs, without having to pay and arm and a leg for them.

Sometimes, though, you've got questions. What can you expect at a thrift store? Are all thrift stores the same? Why do thrift stores smell the way they do? Luckily for you, we've collected the best questions and most helpful answers from the thrift community of shoppers from across the whole country.

The following questions and answers originally appeared on Quora and have been hand-selected for the benefit of Columbus, Ohio thrift store shoppers.

How do you get the most out of a thrift store visit?

Answer 1:

I am a thrift shop habitué. It has taken me years to develop my TSS (thrift shop skills), but now I am an expert passing along my knowledge to my children.

Many of my tricks are idiosyncratic and based on my size (small), my budget (low), my aesthetic tastes (picky), and the shops I frequent. I'll try to make my tips as generic as possible.

  • Shop regularly. This is the only way you'll know what's a good deal at any particular venue and what's just an average purchase.
  • Know the store's specialty. Find the area with the most turnover. Is it baby clothes? Tools? Ladies shoes? Toys? Know where to look to find the best deals.
  • Thrift stores are a wonderful source for toys and bicycles. Today I saw a brand new, handmade Raggedy Ann and Andy ($7) and a like-new boy's mountain bike ($38).
  • Closely examine racks of coats and piles of shoes. Today I found a perfect pair of size 7 Clarks mules for $3. They are hardly worn, but because they'd been sitting in the back of someone's closet, they looked sort of smooshed. On my feet they're lovely.
  • Be ruthless about furniture. Let's be real, you're probably not going to refinish or recover it. Make sure the item should be sturdy, with no cracks. The cheaper the piece, the closer examination it needs. One of my best purchases last year was a fantastic solid oak computer desk (Lycoming, circa 1950) for $175. I use it every single day.

I have such excellent luck junk store shopping that there are some items I only purchase at thrift stores: glassware sets, including wine glasses, pots and skillets, down outerwear, tools for kids, cookbooks, and Barbie clothes.

Answer by Marti LaChance

Answer 2:

My answer will focus on buying clothes, since that's all I've ever bought at thrift stores.

Before getting to the store:

  • Enter the store with an open mind. Thrifting is a great way to find unique articles of clothing, so don't immediately write off clothes that look like things you wouldn't normally wear. You may be pleasantly surprised. Some of my favorite thrifted clothes have been pieces that I never would have expected to like.
  • Don't buy things for the sake of buying things. It's easy to get carried away because of the low prices. Try to go in with an idea of what you need and what specific gaps you're trying to fill in your wardrobe.

From here on out, my process usually involves several rounds of elimination. In the store:

  • Initially, judge the clothes visually. Grab whatever catches your eye or strikes you as interesting. Cast a wide net. Personally, I like to look for unusual patterns, reputable brands, and/or nice cuts. Again, keep an open mind and don't be afraid to experiment.
  • As you try on your selections, judge them by look, fit, comfort, and gut reaction. That last part means that you need to love the thing you're trying on. My litmus test is always, "Will I be excited to wear this once I own it?" If the answer is no, then don't bother. You'll probably never end up wearing it and it'll just be a waste of money.
  • Once you've determined which of your selections suit you, judge each one by quality. Is it well built? Does it look old? Are there stains? Missing buttons? Will it shrink in the wash? Is the fabric covered with pills? Do your best, but at least it's comforting to know that even if something you bought doesn't last long, it only cost a few bucks...

Whatever survives the above 3 rounds of judgement is probably a good buy. Yay!

Answer by Diane Yang

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What's the coolest thing you've ever found in a thrift shop?

I love thrift shopping, but my mom was the one who has had the coolest find to-date.

One day she came home with some old, tattered pages that had been crammed into an aging manila envelope. I think she paid five cents total for the packet.

Reading the content of it, she noticed pretty quickly that it seemed to be a film script of Gone With the Wind.

Having a vague feeling that there was something more to the story, she brought it to be examined just to find out it was an authentic screenplay, probably used by support characters.

I think she auctioned it for $6,000 at the time. We were short on cash and anything helped. She does say she regrets not holding onto it as it was certainly worth loads more.

$5,999.95 profit isn't bad, though.

Answer by Katie Mason

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What are the best vintage shopping secrets?

The key to finding vintage luxury items (let's be honest, you're not going out there just to come back with a secondhand old navy sweater) is TIME.

You need to have a good network of thrift stores that you frequent constantly. The never worn Gucci Horsebit Loafers that somebody brings in aren't going to sit there for weeks, so when they do show up, you need to be there to purchase them.

This goes for everything. There are people who stalk these thrift stores for goods, which is why you often never see anything good in these shops!

In the end, it's a good network of thrift shops (small, luxe oriented ones, if possible), the time to visit them all multiple times a week, and the knowledge of brands that you should keep an eye out for.

Answer by Nathan Sheusi

Why do thrift stores smell the way they do?

My guess is that you are smelling the "oldness" of the inventory (including must/dust) which is unique compared to any other shopping where you only encounter new, sanitary, factory fresh merchandise.

If you think about it, most of the inventory of thrift stores comes from donations that consist of a lot of things that people finally are getting rid of that they no longer need. This includes clothes, books, furniture, and housewares. In many cases, this stuff has been sitting for years, sometimes decades in a closet or a basement. When things sit for years, they accumulate dust, dirt, residue, or even mold. While Goodwill/Savers and other thrift stores do their best to put clean merchandise on the shelves, they can only do so much and the musty/dusty smell is going to persist.

Answer by Sarah Smith

Is it wrong for someone to shop at a thrift store if they can afford not to?

In short, no, it is not wrong in the slightest to shop at thrift store if you can afford to shop elsewhere. I'll explain the ethical conundrum I think you were getting at using two examples.

  • A thrift store, by definition, is used to raise funds for a charity through the sale of second-hand goods. The more goods the thrift store sells, no matter how wealthy the buyer, the more funds it will raise for its charity. Although the buyer may be getting a good deal on something, the funds earned through the sale ultimately help the charity and do not harm anyone whom the charity is aimed at.
  • If someone (who could afford not to) were to attend a charitable give-away for the needy, however, this would be unethical because they would be taking away from people who are really in need. Attending a soup kitchen for a free meal, when you can afford your own food in reality, is taking away a meal away from someone who otherwise can't afford it.

The first case helps a charity and the second case harms those who the charity is intended for.

Answer by Greg Linster

Have you ever bought something from a thrift store or a charity shop and found out it's worth a lot more than you paid for it?

Just about half of the stuff I buy from thrift stores is probably worth more than I paid for, even on the used/resale market. Yeah, I am serious.

My Louis Vuitton items, my Versace items, my velvet hooded cloak, brand new converse sneakers, etc.

It's really not hard to do with practice, an eye, and patience.

Answer by Lara I Lord

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Find your local Columbus thrift store now to start shopping

If you're ready to get out there and start making the most out of your local thrift stores, here's the full list of all Volunteers of America thrift locations around Ohio.

On the other hand, you might be ready to donate. If you're ready to purge your wardrobe, donate your clothes or declutter the house, you can request a pickup and we'll come straight to you and haul away your goods to donate. We also have clothing donation locations all over, at our thrift stores and in drop boxes.

If you have any other questions about thrifting our about what you can expect in our Volunteers of America thrift stores in Columbus or around Ohio, please feel free to call us at (614) 253-6100 or email us at