Goodwill to all
Saturday, January 20th, 2024 Alive 19,261 days
Goodwill today is not Goodwill of the past.
Itʼs not a good thing, or a bad thing. Itʼs just changed. Or, more accurately, its customer base has changed, and from altitude you can see how the thrift shop of first resort reflects the evolution of society.
Iʼve been to dozens of Goodwill second-hand-a-terias across the country, and contrary to suppositions, there are no good Goodwills, or bad Goodwills. Theyʼre all pretty much the same. The only way they differ is in the frequency at which they are picked over.
People are mobile. Motivated people doubly so. It goes triple for motivated people who have the time to continually scour the thrift shops of a given region in search of lightly used treasures. They donʼt shop close to home, they go where the good stuff is, and they will invariably get there before you. So even a Goodwill in what is ostensibly a “good” neighborhood will have pretty much the same dross as one in a bad neighborhood.
In decades past, you could score some pretty good loot at Goodwill, if you recognized something that other people didnʼt grok. In a dusty pile of dead VCRs in Las Vegas, I found an AM radio transmitter. Itʼs a rectangle of black plastic with an electrical cord, so naturally it would be misunderstood. What drew me to it was that it had no slot in which to shove a video tape, so I knew it was not like its shelf-mates. Five dollars, five hours, and a surplus iPhone 5 later, KDRC “Darcie Radio” went on the air in Summerlin.
Today in Houston, peeking out from under a pile of half-chewed Fisher Price toys, Food Network cookbooks, and distended bras I saw a Boos cutting board. I looked it up online, and itʼs still a current product. About $220 at your favorite online food service supply outlet. I paid $1.19 for the honey-colored slab of perfect maple.
But the days of scoring big are mostly gone. Not only do you have to compete with the other scroungers, you have to compete with Goodwill, itself. Anything that plugs in, turns on, or looks like it might be worth more than a fiver gets plucked out of the blue rolling bins by the employees before it ever hits the showroom floor. They go on the Goodwill auction web site, where an entirely different group of professional trash pickers operate from the comfort of their bargain basement pajamas.
More than the products, itʼs the shoppers who really reflect the changes at Goodwill.
Previously, diving into Goodwill was feeding time at the aquarium, with schools of Central American ladies placidly grazing through the sargassum, nibbling here and there. Occasionally a college student poverty tourist would flit through, eyeing everything, but maintaining a fear-tinged hygienic distance from everyone. Then, suddenly appears the Elderly Asian Lady Shark. Quick of eye, and singular of purpose, she darts up and down of the aisles, focused on her prey. And if you get between her and a choice morsel, youʼre chum, chum.
Lately, itʼs different. To over-use an over-used word, itʼs more diverse.
Into the fish fry have come the suburban brosephs, with luxury pick-up trucks or rented U-Haul trailers they hoover up furniture to resell exurban yoga moms who fall hard for anything labeled vintage or antique.
Thereʼs older women who used to be one of the “ladies who lunch,” now staring the reality of an impoverished retirement in the face and defending their imagined territory among the plastic barges of castoffs. “This is mine! And this is mine! This is all mine from here to over here! Itʼs mine!” I hope she enjoys her nylon CD wallet and assorted remote controls.
If youʼve ever wondered what happened to hipsters, check Goodwill. Theyʼre the baleen whales sieving the coworker-desperation-gift books, scanning barcodes with their iPhones to see if the unwanted reading material is worth anything on fleaBay. Theyʼve lost their dignity, but kept their beards.
And then thereʼs the downwardly mobile. People who used to be middle, or upper-middle class who now find themselves at Goodwill not for curiosity, but as a matter of course. A 30-something dad in what used to be a $500 cardigan -- now somewhat threadbare -- telling his six-year-old daughter that they can only take one book home today. Iʼd happily buy her every book in the bin. Theyʼre 69¢ each, or two for a dollar.
As the social strata of America have become increasingly compressed under the weight of the new class of hyper-rich, where the common civic thread of aspiration has turned into fantasy, and where what we used to call the middle classes become an endangered species, we see an increased mixing of people who wouldnʼt have entered each otherʼs vision in the past. Weekend warrior dads forsaking Whole Foods for neighborhood ethnic meat markets. Women clad in Tori Burch learning enough broken Chinese to fill their prescriptions at no-name pharmacies on the other side of the tracks. Dinner at a food truck serving as a special treat for an elementary school teacher living out of her Subaru. And everyone elbow-to-elbow, leaning over the bins of Goodwill, searching for hope.
Goodwill today is not the Goodwill of the past.