Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Flânerie at the Bins

I went to the Goodwill Outlet, aka the bins, on 6th Street today. I wanted to find piles and piles of old wool sweaters to do some sewing experiments for winter bike wear, but I ended up with just a few accessories. (You can read about my projects using recycled materials on my other blog, Fashionrubble). I did get lots of flânerie (observing urban space) done though.

I've been to Goodwill outlets in Santa Ana and Los Angeles, California, in Portland, Oregon, and this one here in Seattle. You enter a big, sometimes open-sided warehouse, and see many people digging through big plastic tubs of items lined up along aisles. You walk over and start pulling items out, tossing them aside if they don't look promising, or holding onto them as you move down the aisle. The items come from Goodwill stores where they failed to find a buyer. Lots of times you find old tags on things as a reminder of this, and you think, good thing I'm not going to pay $6.95 for this! At the bins, you pay for most items by the pound. Today I bought a bunch of accessories and paid $1.63.

The bins mostly contain good surprises, but sometimes they can be gross, which is why some people wear gloves. The items get rumpled and broken by being tossed back and forth, and I don't know what happens during processing behind the scenes, but I've seen things in the bins that shouldn't be there. Things can smell weird, or people leave odd things around, like today I saw a plastic bottle half full of some brown liquid sitting in a sea of toys. Later I saw a women reaching into a pile of housewares, heard an explosion, and saw her pull her hand away quickly. An exploding cap? For people who work there, the ambient dust can cause health problems. My very friendly cashier today wore a face mask to preserve his lungs.

It's a pretty social experience shopping at the bins. You're working your way down an aisle, another person slowly makes it to your section, and you negotiate who is going to stay there and who is going to move, usually without exchanging words or even glances. Some people make money off of finding valuable things they can resell, so competition can be fierce when fresh bins get rotated in. The regulars pick up on some signal to which I'm oblivious and they position themselves to grab as many items as they can from the new assortment. Today I witnessed a slight altercation between a scruffy looking white hipster and an African man with a heavy accent. The African man would call out to his friend, and the white man would mimic him. Eventually the African man told him to cut it out, saying, "I don't like you." I couldn't tell if these people spent time together here regularly, but it seemed like they might.

People have fun there for sure. I see little kids dragging around exciting new toys they've found, and it's always satisfying when you see some promising thing poking out from under a pile, you tug, and it's even more amazing than you thought. I'm pretty sure I'm not the only person who feels this way, based on the glee streaming across the faces of the pickers dividing up the newest spoils.

I have this sense that somehow I'm supposed to grow out of thrift shopping, or at least out of shopping at places like the bins. As a professional, I should be buying clothes at Banana Republic and J.Crew. Guess what, I buy a lot of their clothes; I just wait till someone else has broken them in first.