Thrift Store Etiquette

Thrift Store Sign

Thrift Store Sign


Steering my wobbly wheeled shopping cart down an overcrowded aisle one Saturday morning, I abruptly came upon a thrift shop employee putting items onto a shelf.

Maneuvering around her, barely avoided beheading a chicken kitchen decoration, she barked, “No picking off the cart!”

I turned around to offer a wan smile to the clearly frazzled woman who guarded her wares as jealously as a miser oversees his gold. I wasn’t sure whether the remark was aimed at me in particular but muttered some halfhearted apology anyway. I hurried off down the aisle towards a display of Halloween costumes, but not before I noticed a small hand had snaked its way towards the battered green plastic container, a dinosaur toy jutting just beyond reach in the cart.

Just as the T-Rex was about emerge from the mass of merchandise, a voice bellowed, “Luis! Leave the cart alone until she’s done!” The little boy snatched his hand back as if from a hot stove, stung by the rebuke, eyes brimming with tears. Luis had learned the painful Rule Number One of thrift store shopping: Etiquette is Everything.

As Luis learned, there are rules to this thrift shop business. First and foremost of them is the often unwritten but widely understood “Rule for Picking Off the New Stuff Cart.” Some thrift shops post this rule, others don’t, but it doesn’t take long for a shopper in one of these establishments to learn it hard and fast.

Even with the great social leveling that thrift shops provide, some basic niceties and rules apply to those perusing secondhand stuff. Lessons that Emily Post herself could have written loom over the shoppers, young and old alike and the sooner the lessons are learned, the better.

One cardinal rule is this: If you don’t want to aggravate the nice thrift shop employees, don’t under any circumstances pick stuff from the cart of things they have wheeled out From “The Back.”

The Back is the Aladdin’s cave of thrift shops, usually a large room designated for sorting and pricing new donations. Several times a day, employees will bring out new items from this mysterious place and put them in their proper areas in the store.

At most thrift stores, you’ll find the Regulars situating themselves at the swinging doors of The Back. They wait like lions at the Colosseum for their next great find. Whatever is in The Back compels the Regulars in a way that vastly overshadows anything already on the shelves. The emerging stuff on the rolling carts appeals to the hard core Regulars as a jackpot in a casino.

Most stores have discovered that this enthusiasm for stuff emerging from The Back can translate into a feeding frenzy, with the poor employees practically diving for cover as the Regulars descend upon the new stuff on the carts like a pack of wolves.

Apparently in an attempt to protect the employees, not to mention the new cache from the lair in The Back, the rule has been established that nothing is to be pinched off the cart until it has been put on its proper shelf. The Goodwill I most frequent has this rule, and it is clearly posted on signs on the shelves, walls, and even on the rolling carts themselves. Woe to the soul who dares touch anything prior to it leaving the cart!

Instead, the Regulars and not-so-regulars must patiently linger until each and every last commemorative coffee mug, dinged telephone, or half-filled package of tennis balls makes it onto the shelves. Then it’s fair game, and it’s often not unusual for a shopper, Regular or not, to follow the hapless thrift shop employee about the store, stalking the cart like a famished cheetah.

I’ve seen people scurry off, clutching the new merchandise close to their chests, victorious smiles upon their faces, as they finally catch their prey. Their patience paid off, they skulk to a side area away from the cart and savor their victory. They’ve learned the hard way: Picking off the cart prematurely leads to nothing but reproach and oftentimes an invitation to leave the store from a frazzled employee. But to the victor goes the thrift store spoils.

This is the tip of the iceberg with regards to Thrift Store Etiquette. Other rules, expressed or implied, include:

No taking other people’s stuff out of their shopping carts while they are indisposed in the restroom or otherwise not smart enough to guard their things at all times. This will lead to consternation on the part of the hapless person returning to their cart only to discover that their copy of the Best of Bread is now in somebody else’s possession.

While this would probably never occur in a “normal” store, I have seen people gazing longingly at someone else’s items piled high in their carts and more than once the temptation has been too great to bear. Before the unsuspecting shopper returns, his cache has been raided and someone else has stashed his or her ill-gotten gain below a pile of other junk. This probably stems from the one-of-a-kind nature of thrift stores. Each item is unique and there are not 10 more copies of it in The Back.

This leads to another cardinal rule of thrifting. If the ticket for a large item has been removed, then that thing has been sold, and even though you may really really want that 1972 Schwinn Breeze with the awesome green handlebar covers, if that ticket is missing, you cannot claim it.

This ties in with another hard and fast rule of thrift stores. If you do buy that 1972 Schwinn Breeze with the awesome green handlebar covers, you’d better bring it Up Front and remove it immediately from the store or it is fair game to be sold again.

I recall one day practically frothing at the mouth, gazing at a lovely, albeit battered, dresser complete with dovetail joints, sad to discover that Mrs. Johnson has not answered her page that “the lower half of the yellow ticket for the $10 dresser is missing and if the owner of that ticket does not appear at lane #2 in the next five minutes, it will be sold.” So close and yet so far.

I have waited for what seems like an eternity for Mrs. Johnson to return to pick up her dresser, (or perhaps a burly young thrift store gentleman with a hand truck), only to then learn that she’s left the store with the lower half of the yellow ticket and now the item can’t be sold until they take the dresser to The Back to be reticketed. In most stores, this usually means a long wait; the Back is a solemn place not to be messed with.

(For what it’s worth, in retrospect, I am glad that nice Mrs. Johnson remembered her dresser ticket and ran back in all a flutter, as I noticed while patiently leaning on said dresser, that there was a quite pungent cat pee smell and I had considered myself lucky to have lost the opportunity).
This leads to another Rule of Thrifting. I call it the Rule of Transient Ownership. It goes like this: If somebody with much quicker reflexes has just grabbed that incredibly low priced and barely chipped Corningware set and chooses to stand in the too-narrow aisle, blocking your way, turning the item over and over in their hands while you silently curse them to eternal thrift store darkness, you MUST wait until they are absolutely, positively, unquestionably not going to buy that item and return said item to the shelf.

Then and only then can you be at liberty to snatch it up yourself for your own inspection and possible purchase, most likely aggravating the next potential buyer not two steps behind you, who has most likely cursed you for your incredible luck in grabbing that Corningware set. There are no double grabbings allowed of things. You can’t ask somebody, “Hey, do you REALLY want that?” That’s just not done. Here it’s all about patience and reserve.

Thrifting is a complicated process. It doesn’t involve just showing up one day and taking anything willy-nilly off a shelf and thinking you can just buy whatever you want whenever you feel like it. It’s a delicate dance of give and take, steadfastness, perseverance, and restraint.

These same rules apply to garage sales, flea markets, estate sales, and rummage sales. Those nice church ladies expect and deserve respect. The Rules apply to the rich and poor, old and young, seasoned shoppers or newbies. Luis learned them; you’d best learn them too.

 Rules of the Road for Thrift Stores:  Don’t assume it’s yours until you’ve got it home.


From Second Hand Roses: Lessons From the Junktiquing Road, copyright 2009 Dawn Edwards