Salvation Army Family Thrift Stores are dirty, cluttered, and somewhat disgusting places – especially if you like your thrift clean, classy, and tidy. At least the stores in metro Chicago – I cannot speak to other regions of the country. If you identify with the characters played by Dale Dickey in My Name is Earl and Breaking Bad, or any of Jesse Pinkman’s skanky friends for that matter, then you will dig these stores. While the clothes are sorted with some semblance of order, the knick knacks and housewares tend to be scattered around and in pretty decrepit shape. The shoes are abysmal for the most part – so beat up and gross that I would be embarrassed to donate them to charity, much less resell them!There have been a few notable exceptions – I found new Christian Louboutin sandals a few months ago as well as Prada boots and MBT shoes, but I consider this an anomaly.
Since losing my job, I have patronized resale and thrift shops with more frequency – not for clothes for myself but for new housewares or vintage items to resell on eBay. I have also been on a mission to purge our house of unworn clothing and bric-a-brac purchased on a whim or left over from my days as an antique mall merchant. If we ever want to move, this activity is essential. Goodwill has been my thrift store charity of choice over the last six months. Goodwill has a good mission and their prices are generally reasonable, although some of their Chicagoland stores suffer from the same illogical pricing as other thrift stores we have blogged about. The store in Carpentersville near Woodman’s has deteriorated – both in cleanliness and prices, while the two stores in Arlington Heights and the West Loop are for the most part reasonable.
There are things about Valli Produce in Arlington Heights that I really like, but this store is fraught with some of the same perils as the other produce stores I have blogged about. They recently remodeled this location and the sleek new look is a vast improvement. Their prices, selection, and quality are generally quite good, although some items are high compared to Joe Caputo & Sons. For instance, during the same sale period, Rapini was $1.79 a pound at Valli and only .89 cents a pound at Joe Caputo & Sons. My primary complaints relate to the clientele and parking lot, but I have also experienced behavior on the part of workers that borders on downright rude. On my last visit, I found an open cashier and she was chomping on an apple. Instead of putting it down, she made me wait until she had devoured the entire thing. It would be understandable if she was on a break, but she was not and really should have rung up my order instead of making me wait. On a positive note, she did apologize. The week before, we encountered a cashier who was yapping on her cell phone while ringing us up – she never disengaged from the call and was still talking as we left. Needless to say, this slowed things down – maybe there should be a law about distracted cashiering. While these behaviors are a bit irksome, the stockers are completely oblivious to the existence of customers. They will not budge an inch if you are trying to select produce where they are stocking and they barrel their hand trucks through aisles with reckless glee – nearly knocking you over. These things, however, pale in comparison to the customers.
I knew I wanted to be an artist at the ripe old age of 4. My mom had to wrestle crayons and pencils from my hand at the dinner table. I devoured reams of cheap yellow paper bought at Order From Horder with my renderings of The Beatles, my family, movie stars, and Indians. It was in the 4th grade that I developed a profound interest in erasers. As eccentric as it sounds, it is true – my friend Myra and I started collecting shavings from our Artgum erasers and kept the shavings in little boxes in our school desks. These erasers have a very distinct smell, which I think was part of the appeal. We had a competition to see who could grind down their eraser the quickest and collect the most shavings. From just the two of us, our little group of eraser fanatics grew to half the class – an early, successful foray into social media and peer marketing.
It may be a bit of a stretch to declare that Community Thrift Store in East Dundee, Ill. is the worst thrift store in America – I haven’t shopped at all of them! But I have patronized no less than 200 thrift/resale stores in states including Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Missouri, New York, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin. This place epitomizes the worst in thrift – grossly inflated prices, dingy old clothes, chipped dishes and figurines, filthy displays, screaming kids – all to benefit the avarice of a grungy for-profit business. I suspect that the location in Gurnee is owned by the same person given the reviews on Yelp. This place really brought out my inner grouch. Every time I spotted a rip-off, which pretty much applied to everything in the store, I grumbled so loudly to Jeff that I am surprised one of the clerks didn’t kick us out. This thrift store does NOT benefit any charitable cause, making it even more deplorable. Most of the patrons looked like people who have to shop at thrift stores. I hate when people less fortunate are ripped off.
Stanley’s Fruit & Vegetables on Elston and North Avenues in Chicago specializes in spectacular over-the-hill produce. Yet this place is a Mecca of sorts with overflowing crowds of fervent shoppers. The only answer I have to this quandary is that when you live in Chicago, there aren’t an abundance of inexpensive produce stores. Stanley’s certainly has good prices for a city store, with a few exceptions. For example, when every other store was selling butternut squash for 49 cents a pound, Stanley’s was still charging $1.49 a pound. They finally got wise and reduced their price to 69 cents a pound. City dwellers would really salivate over Valli, Joe Caputo & Sons, Fresh Farms, Garden Fresh, and EuroFresh – all of which have far better and often just as inexpensive produce – but alas, Stanley’s has a lock on this geographic demographic. In fairness, I do have to say that all of these suburban stores have their perils as well … in the form of rude shoppers, but at least their fruit and veggies aren’t rotting.
Every Wednesday, I make the trek to visit my daughter in downtown Chicago. I always stop first at Joe Caputo & Sons in Des Plaines to buy her portabello mushrooms, rapini, and a few other veggies. This location is ridiculous in that everything is squeezed into too tight a space and their parking lot is treacherous. Their stores in Palatine and Algonquin are huge, clean, well laid out, and offer up a mind-boggling array of choices. I can understand that they have loyal shoppers in Des Plaines and so don’t want to close this location, but this shopping experience is less than ideal and they should really consider finding a new building. I am usually the youngest patron by 20+ years and end up feeling like I am in the Mr. Bean episode where he gets stuck behind retirees on the staircase while on holiday. Before I could even get a foot in the door, I encountered an older woman spouting off trivial nonsense to one of the stockers – totally blocking the very narrow entrance. I finally entered the store and she was still blocking the aisle with her cart. I grabbed a few orange peppers and suddenly heard her exclaim loudly, “This is totally outrageous, I cannot believe it.” At first I thought I had knocked one of the peppers on the ground and she was reacting to my lack of produce etiquette. It is nearly impossible the way they pile up produce here to not knock a veggie or two onto the ground. No, that was not it at all – whew. She tapped me on the shoulder and pointed at the artichokes. “This is an absolute crime – these were 2 for $1.00 just yesterday and now they are 98 cents each.” I just shook my head and agreed with her, although I was thinking to myself – hey, laaaaady, that is how it goes with weekly sales.
Every fall, just after Halloween, I begged my mom to order the Sears Wish Book. I spent hours poring over the book, making a list of the toys I wanted most. My parents always let me pick out one really impressive toy for the first night of Hanukkah and a few small “stocking stuffer” gifts for the other seven nights. My kid sister Janet and I would fight over the book and had to take turns, until my mom realized she should order two copies. Yet even with eight nights of celebration, I suffered from Christian envy and was a bit jealous of my best friend Joan’s beautiful large Christmas tree with colorfully wrapped gifts underneath. I fondly recall when her parents graciously invited me over for a few hours before their Christmas eve celebration. Thus, via a scaled-down version, I experienced the joy of Christmas along with my potato latkes, chocolate gelt, picking hardened dripped wax off the menorah, and my eight gifts. The best of both worlds, you might say.
I blame my dad – but all of my dentists can thank him. My lifelong love affair with candy began when I was just a youngin, thanks to my dad’s unique love for sweets. I say unique because back in the 1960s when there were no gourmet candy shops in Chicago, my dad would order bountiful amounts of gourmet candy from Russ and Daughters on his annual December business trip to New York City. Among his favorite candies were pastel-colored chocolate lentils and dark chocolate covered raspberry jelly rings . I visited Russ and Daughters the last time I was in NYC and they carry very little candy now. My personal choice for an awesome array of candy in the Big Apple is Economy Candy. I must say we had the best candy in our house when I was growing up. One year my dad ordered a gingerbread house kit complete with gumdrops from B. Shackman Company. Before my sisters and I finished making this wonder, it became infested with ants and my mom had to toss it. My dad told us stories about growing up dirt poor in Brooklyn and saving money so he could buy a broken candy bar for 2 cents at the corner store – he couldn’t afford the whole bars. He certainly made up for this over the years, buying high-end gourmet chocolate from near and far at candy makers/shops including Bendick’s, Fortnum and Mason, Bissinger’s, and a now defunct Ma and Pa candy shop in Chicago called Martha’s Candies. He really didn’t care much for Frango Mints or Fanny May, but would reluctantly eat them if bought as a gift.
Revisiting my earliest memories, I have always loved antiques – but it is the hunt for that elusive piece that really rocks my boat. Actually, it is finding a treasure at a bargain price that keeps me hunting, although that has become increasingly challenging with the advent of the Antiques Road Show and American Pickers. My parents allowed me to gallivant alone at an enormous antique show at the Conrad Hilton Hotel in downtown Chicago at the age of 6 or 7. I was transported to a magical place, imagining how people lived in the past surrounded by these beautiful objects. I only had pocket change and bought a small piece of natural turquoise. That following summer, I cannot remember where we went on our family vacation, but I do remember a cool coin and collectibles show at the motel where we were staying. Once again, my parents allowed me to roam alone at this show. I was drawn to the antique coins, but didn’t have money to buy anything. By the time I was 12, my mom would take me every summer to the Park West Antique Fair in Chicago. This venerable fair was an institution in Chicago for as long as I can remember, with dealers setting up shop in alley garages near Orchard Street. What I liked most about this fair was the European-like set-up – an upscale flea market where you could browse outside at leisure. We didn’t buy a lot, but this fair impacted me so greatly that I do remember exactly what my mom bought me over the years – a gorgeous ornate doll from Yugoslavia with a composition face and red leather boots; a Chartreuse Art Deco plastic department store butterfly display; a delicate Victorian gold ring with tiny opal; and a sterling silver brooch with a green art glass centerpiece.