Go Green, Save Green: Thrift Stores in NYC

There’s an old saying that when something is outdated and improper for use it is called ‘old hat.’ Who said that old hats were something to complain about? In American society, ‘old’ has a negative connotation.  Old implies that something has passed its peak, lost its luster and is worn. In other societies, age is valued; people aspire to be wise like an elder sage and believe that with age comes class.

It’s not only senior citizens who fall into the negative American stereotype; old clothes are also often looked upon negatively. While many are quickly repelled by the idea of wearing a stranger’s old clothes, in recent years there has been a rising interest in reviving old garb. Those who are already shopping in their grandma’s closets understand how much fun it can when you can ‘pull off’ that oversized old lady sweater and feel like you are the coolest person in the world. Vintage and thrift apparel can indeed lift one’s spirits but they can also do a lot of other good things.

For starters, buying pre-owned clothing can be lot more wallet-friendly than your average shopping spree down 34th Street at Macy’s. Many stores that carry vintage clothing will have many of the same name brands as your favorite department store; they just might be a few seasons behind. But hey, isn’t your favorite skirt that one you bought at the mall two years ago anyway?

With Recyclemania in the air, I pose the question: if you recycle your paper and plastic, why should clothing be any different? Instead of carelessly letting clothing be disposed of, why not buy a cute top and prevent it from polluting landfills? The processed fabrics in clothing are treated with dyes and chemicals that can be harmful to the environment. By wearing the clothing of yesteryear you help keep earth clean. Going green can be as easy as shopping.

While thrifting and vintage shopping are often used interchangeably, they are not the same. Vintage shops generally employ buyers who provide merchandise to the store by purchasing items that are especially eye-catching, or made by lucrative labels.  While vintage shops may sometimes have a more attractive variety than thrift shops, the markup on the clothing is usually significant, making the cost of the items rather pricey and sometimes even pricier than contemporary clothing.

Thrift shops on the other hand receive their clothing through donations and while the clothing is sorted, they tend to allow in lower-end products along with brand names. Thrift shops traditionally also give a fraction of their proceeds to a charity so that when you buy a new beautiful outfit, you can be confident your money is going to a good cause.

Aside from easy access to H&M, Gap and Macy’s, there are several great vintage and thrift shops in walking distance from Stern.  The ones that I thought were worthy of mention are:

“Housing Works”- located at 157 East 23rd St. between Lexington and 3rd Ave, Housing Works is all donation based. The proceeds of the store go to the store’s own organization which provides housing, healthcare, and job training to people with HIV and AIDS. As part of fulfilling its mission, some of the store’s employees are themselves the recipients of the generosity of the organization and were given their jobs in order to rehabilitate their ways back into the workforce. With a donation counter at the entrance, all are welcome to just walk in and hand over whatever household items they wish to rid themselves of. The store therefore sells everything from clothing, to furniture, to old posters, dishes, shoes bags and accessories. The store’s clothes are in especially good condition, many with price tags still on them.  Many of the brands carried by the large store are high quality which made me feel like I had just walked into a Soho boutique on steroids. There were names like “Alice + Olivia,” “Free People,” “Theory,” and “Brooks Brothers;” the store was filled with great finds but not especially cheap. The cheapest clothing item I did find cost $10; most things were priced similarly to stores like H&M and GAP with prices ranging from $25-$45. Walking in was a bit overwhelming as the  store does have a particularly wide variety and most items on the racks were definitely worthy of being worn.  Many of the pieces carried by the store were only a few years old, so for those who really desire to dress ‘grandma chique,’ Housing Works might not the place to start.

City Opera- 222 E23rd St. between 2nd and 3rd avenues, City Opera is a quaint two level thrift shop whose selection is smaller but older. Items were sorted by color and type of clothing, and they too carried shoes, bags, books and furniture.  The City Opera Thrift Shop carried current brands like Anne Klein but also had plenty of dated get ups. This store is also donation based, and all proceeds go to help with the cost of costume and production making at the New York City Opera. Items here too, were not dirt cheap and were priced similarly to those at “Housing Works” with many items in the $20-$50 range.

Cauz for Pawz- 212 E 23rd St. between 2nd and 3rd, Cauz is another great thrift shop nearby.  Much smaller than both aforementioned stores, here the prices were lower. The only thrift store of its kind in the country, Cauz For Pawz is a nonprofit organization that donates its proceeds to help provide care and shelter to animals. Here they did not sell furniture but in addition to CDs and books they did have an eclectic selection of accessories. While the prices at the store ran the gamut, there were earrings priced at $10 and bracelets for $80, there was a sizable selection of the clothing at more moderate prices; some shirts were only $6. There was also a mix of ‘labels’ and the store carried more low-end brands or unheard of labels than the other two. The clothing was also a mix of the decades and anyone daring enough could uncover some really unique styles there.

Vintage Thrift- 286 3rd Ave (between 22bd and 23rd), Vintage Thrift has been Zagat’s highest rated thrift shop for four years running, and walking in made it clear why. Many of their items were true vintage, with clothing dating back to WWII, their merchandise including pill-box hats, antique cat-eye glasses, and even an Yves St. Laurent coat from the 70’s. There were not many dirt cheap items here but it was fun to be inside what looked like anyone’s great aunt’s basement, full of random, really old stuff. They sold books, furniture, dishes, hats, shoes, bags, broaches, scarves, and home décor; much of which had been donated by senior citizens. “Vintage Thrift” is run by the United Jewish Council (UJC) of the Lower East Side which provides transportation to aid senior citizens in running errands, gives hot kosher meals to those homebound or otherwise in need, distributes ‘seder’ packages for Passover and runs Torah learning programs in shuls. All of there great services are funded by the purchase of some clothing or a ‘tchotchke’ from their store.

Goodwill- 220 E23rd St Between 2nd and 3rd, Goodwill was like a supermarket for clothing. The store was large and every item was sorted by color as well as type of clothing. With whole racks designated to just pants, or just dresses, there were standard prices posted atop the racks. Many of the items were not particularly outdated nor were they necessarily the biggest name brands but sill many cute things were to be discovered at Goodwill for extremely low prices. This store is also donation based with a donation counter at the front. The proceeds go to help those with disabilities or who struggle financially by providing them with job training and other financial support. Not a fancy store, it took patience to sort through the aisles and aisles worth of clothing. There is always something worthwhile at Goodwill, though, especially because the prices are so low.

Now that it’s sunny out, take a walk and go on a treasure hunt in a nearby thrift shop. You never know what you’ll find or who in turn will benefit from your purchases.  You can save green, go green and donate green, just by getting inspired, being creative and playing dress-up! With just a little confidence, there is nothing that you can’t make look good, even an old hat.