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At resale store or vintage boutique, stash may yield holiday treasure

The Spokesman-Review

At Spokane Vintage Warehouse, 5-foot-tall light-up “industrial letters” are moving out the door.

Owner Jon Swanstrom helped carry out a giant white M just last weekend. Christmas shoppers, rest assured: A giant white letter A remained available, along with a less giant but still pretty big R, E and D from a recently remodeled Red Robin.

If you’re willing to spend time looking – and you’re confident you know the recipient well enough to choose from among a giant M, a paint-by-number lighthouse or a midcentury fur coat – gifts galore await at thrift, consignment and vintage stores.

From standbys such as Goodwill and Salvation Army stores to a new crop of boutiques specializing in vintage wear and ware, they offer gifts unlikely to appear on anyone’s Amazon wish list. But they will probably go further toward creating actual surprise on Christmas morning.

Is it OK to buy used for Christmas? Yes, say resale stores’ owners and the people who love to shop in them. Sometimes.

“Oh, yeah,” said Tonya Smith, a Central Valley High School graduate whose fashion blog incorporates thrift-store finds. “If you’re shopping for me, then that’s the perfect gift.”

“I do it all the time,” said Spokane resident Mika Maloney, who bought a gift recently for her wife at Fringe & Fray, a downtown boutique that resells clothing and home décor.

“I think it’s OK to give a used present if you know them very well,” said Grace Johnson, who owns Fringe & Fray with her husband, Ryan Johnson.

But how to choose?

She’s a sucker at Christmastime for bright, shiny things, Maloney admitted – new things, maybe in a big box, you’d be more likely to find at a big-box retailer.

But she strives year-round to purchase used items for environmental reasons, so it makes sense to shop at thrift and vintage stores at Christmas, too, she said.

Also, they don’t have mounted elk heads at big-box retailers like they have at the Vintage Warehouse, or ladies’ hats with real feathers from the ’50s, like those perched in a display case at Carousel, another vintage shop downtown.

Actually, the options can be a little dizzying.

“Sometimes I get overwhelmed when there’s too much clutter and it’s not very organized,” said Smith, whose blog, The Moptop, has readers around the world and recently got a mention in Spanish-language Elle. “But at the same time you can find a bunch of good stuff. You just have to dig through.”

Before discovering the value of thrift stores as a high school student, Smith cut pictures of clothes from magazines and made collages. The outfits she puts together for her blog reflect the same tendency to put found items together. About 40 percent of Smith’s wardrobe came from thrift stores, she said. She also runs an Etsy shop selling vintage items she buys in thrift stores.

The dress section is Smith’s go-to place, usually stocked with a range of styles and both vintage and newer items. If you’re shopping for a nondress person, shoes are a good bet, too, she said.

But because resale stores are less likely to accept returns, nonclothing might work better as gifts, said Grace Johnson, of Fringe & Fray. There’s no chance of getting the wrong size.

Old globes, vintage artwork, and, for some reason, well-used brass bookends have been selling as gifts, she said.

“In a resale setting you can always find a great piece of jewelry for someone,” Johnson said.

Also selling well as gifts, said Heather Swanstrom, who owns Spokane Vintage Warehouse with her husband: pictures and figurines representing big-eyed cats, dogs and children. Making those was something people did in the ’60s, she said, but still “really strikes a nerve, apparently.”

For “man caves” in the basement or garage: beer signs or gas station signs, antlers, sports paraphernalia. For crafts-as-gifts, people pick up old keys to add to gift collages and old jewelry to take apart and turn into something new. For party hosts, people buy old Pyrex dishes, fill them with dip, and leave them behind, post-fest.

While it can be more difficult to buy thrift-store clothing as a gift, some pieces do go, Heather Swanstrom said. They include plaid, hunting-style coats – she’s noticed mothers buying them for sons in their 20s – along with “fancy bowling shirts” and a few gas-station shirts for men.

Back at Carousel downtown (named for the movie, not Spokane’s famous and historic ride), shoppers tend to seek items with a little glamour that recipients wouldn’t buy for themselves, said Jenny Stabile, the store’s owner. That includes sparkly handbags and clutches from the ’50s and early ’60s, vintage jewelry and, especially this year, fur coats. Everything in her store is at least 25 years old, she said.

Some resellers don’t carry old furs, citing animal-welfare concerns, she said. Stabile said she thinks it’s better to reuse an old fur than throw it away: “For me, it’s a matter of recycling.”

“Mad Men” has helped renew interest in old items, Stabile said.

“It’s helped market the idea of vintage,” she said. “It’s very glamorous.”

Wait, how is seal fur thrifty?

The furs at Carousel run from around $100 to $250; a seal coat from the ’60s or ’70s is marked $225. While the clutches run about $30, that’s still more than you’d spend on most of what they’re selling at Goodwill.

If you wanted to be technical about it, you, or Webster’s, might define a thrift shop as one that sells secondhand articles, especially clothes, and is often run for charitable purposes. Goodwill Industries International, among the largest nonprofit social services agencies in the world, serves people with disabilities and provides job training, among other programs. Revenue from Salvation Army stores goes toward social service programs.

If you wanted to be really technical, you, or Adele Meyer, might call a thrift shop a “not-for-profit retail store.”

“We don’t really call them thrift stores anymore,” said Meyer, executive director of NARTS, a 1,200-member association based in St. Clair Shores, Mich. It used to be known as the National Association of Resale and Thrift Shops. Now it’s just NARTS.

Members also include for-profit resale shops and consignment stores – but not vintage stores. “Those kind of fall in with antique shops,” Meyer said. “It’s a whole separate industry.”

Among her group’s members, at least, both sales and inventory are up, according to the latest results of a survey the group conducts every five years. Resale shopping has drawn new shoppers, as people facing shrunken or disappeared paychecks hunt down deals, Meyer said. That’s coupled with an interest in reusing clothing, furniture and other goods to reduce waste in general, for environmental reasons.

“There are new shops opening around the country. It’s a very growing industry,” Meyer said.

Fringe & Fray opened in January 2010 and has seen close to a dozen small resale stores open nearby since then, Johnson said. She also partly credits the economy – customers are looking for deals.

From a Christmas shopper’s perspective, there’s not only a lot of used stuff to choose from, but a lot of stores selling it. It’s a variety bonanza.

Some secondhand clothing stores might invite customers to dig through 25-cent bins mounded with wrinkled onesies and pilled pajamas. Boutique-style vintage shops might be neatly organized with less to look at, or meticulously curated according to the owner’s aesthetic.

Toward the meticulous end of the spectrum, the digging through has been done for you. The prices tend to reflect that.

But treasures can be found at all kinds of stores, said Smith, the fashion blogger – and at steep discounts.

Many thrift stores hold color-tag sales, she noted, offering 50 percent off anything with a red tag on Wednesdays, for example. Others have punch cards that reward spending with discounts.

“My favorite thrift store ever – this is my hidden gem – is the Salvation Army in the Valley,” Smith said. It’s stocked frequently with quality vintage items (“vintage,” she said, applies to items from the 1990s or earlier), such as dresses and coats.

If you strike out in one section, keep looking, Smith advised. She’s taken home luggage, purses, old vinyl records and dishes.

“I definitely check all sections of thrift stores,” she said, “because you never know.”

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