Joyful one minute, sad the next, I drive out of the thrift store parking lot a final time. After all these months, what have I learned working as a sales associate here?
While navigating my ride home, I reminisce.
At the store’s back doors, I go through countless articles people have just donated. Immense amount of junk, I think, even for when it was new! Get a load of this crappy little ceramic house. And what about that – the world’s ugliest candlestick holder? And now a plastic cutting board with a zillion cuts in it. No wonder they got rid of these things. Hey – don’t be so judgmental. Your job is to sort the donations, not roll your eyes. Just chalk it up to a “beauty’s in the eye of the beholder” kind of thing.
But then, many of the donors turn right around, enter the front of the store, and buy more stuff. What am I supposed to think? Stuff, stuff, stuff. Buy, buy, buy. There’s nothing wrong with buying, per se, it’s just that I’ve noticed how much people play such a value on consuming, far more than I realized before I started working here.
While cashiering, I basically serve two groups of regulars. The first are dealers here in Santa Fe, buying bargains for their own thrift stores or online outlets. The other group, a far larger one, is women over sixty. They love to shop. And shop. And shop. God love ’em – they make the store go round.
Then there are all the other sub-groups of shoppers. One such group is the needy, people who can’t afford to shop anywhere but a thrift store, especially for clothes. Another group consists of the noticeably ill, disabled, or those challenged in some way, perhaps so strapped by health care costs that thrift stores like this are their only opportunity to buy clothes, furniture and whatnot. And another group – I’ve finally deduced – are here for something quite personal: the comfort they receive from the thrift store experience. Maybe they like the people who work here – regular faces and fixtures in their lives. Maybe they’re lonely. Or maybe it’s as simple as understanding a day just doesn’t feel centered without a visit to the thrift store, a little home away from home.
A thrift store, however, is made up of a wide collection of individuals, many who carry an unfortunate situation around with them. I’ve seen customers walk up to the counter and pay with change, the only currency they have. I’ve consoled donors who’ve broken down at the back door, unable to watch me unload from the car a lifetime of personal items that belonged to their just-departed spouse. I’ve picked up furniture from people who’ve just lost their job.
I’ve watched our manager ask shoplifters to leave the store. I’ve caught people ripping price tags off items hoping to get a better price at the checkout stand. I’ve dealt with hagglers who, with every visit to the store, want to wiggle the price down. Are these people con artist types, or just desperate and down on their luck?
Add to these folks the customers who wait by the front door ten minutes before we open, staring at me through the large glass windows, hoping I might open early for them. There’s those who walk in two minutes before closing, then linger ten minutes before heading to the checkout stand. And there’s those who donate large bags of goods, knowing inside that big black sack is also a lot of trash they’re happy to get off their hands.
To my surprise, many customers speak with thick, foreign accents – not just Spanish – making it crucial we take the time to help them understand the money transaction they’re about to make. There’s the time it takes us to finally understand certain customers really aren’t a threat to the store, only that they want to spend most of the day here to shop, relax and intermittently lie on a couch to read while occasionally nibbling on a snack. And there’s always the time we take to listen to customers talk about how much they know about gold, silver and jewelry – but don’t.
But what customers share most in their thrift shop experience is joy. Yes, joy. When people find what they want, they often bring it to the counter like a kid who’s just opened the Cracker Jack box to find the best prize ever inside. I sense many customers see this store as a house of healing, another home for them within our beautiful city, one that can be humbling to live in. And I am humbled by the joyous smiles I see at the counter, especially from those who’ve fallen on hard times.
In hindsight, I realize being part of these little customer joys was the perk to help me and other sales associates get through long days. Every day was long. Perhaps sorting through thousands of donations made us feel tired (imagine opening up your own garage doors to accept all the neighborhood’s yard sale items that didn’t sell over the weekend). Perhaps cashiering all day did it. Or, maybe it was just trying to make every customer a little happier than when they first shuffled in through the doors.
Anything to see joy.
Anything to have a job.
Anything to live in Santa Fe.