A good thrift store is a museum of discarded, forgotten memories, wedding gifts, and randomly bizarre T-shirts. If you look at them anthropologically, these secondhand shops are some of the most accurate templates of modern humanity's taste, both through what we give each other and what we grow out of or have no use for in the first place. Most of these items can be outright boring. It's through patience and perseverance that one finds the treasures buried in the stale air of dead possessions, but the key is to know where to go; you could end up sifting through racks of black acid-washed jeans and vinyl copies of Billy Joel's The Stranger (somehow that record is always at thrift stores, next to Neil Diamond's Jonathon Livingston Seagull).
For sheer affordable volume, Thrift World in Durham's Lakewood Shopping Center should be your first stop. Silkscreened family reunion shirts, home-brewing kits, green velour armchairs--there's plenty to sift through. And with the constant influx of donations, new items show up every day. Stop by on Mondays, when all clothes and shoes are half-price, at least for the time being.
The PTA Thrift Store in Carrboro pulls in at a close second in the literal "thrift" category; almost all pants, shirts, sweaters, and dresses are $4, and suits run $6. The large "miscellaneous" room is full of dish sets, old stereo equipment, and luggage. Slip downstairs to peruse the large selection of books and records, and if you're looking for a PC monitor or a printer, there's a full-time (Monday-Thursday) computer guy who maintains the roomful of computer parts, most of which are under $30.
Raleigh's Goodwill Industries location has the usual bargain-priced clothing and household appliances, but it's their record collection, tucked away in the corner, that holds appeal for the aspiring DJ Shadows. Tons of old jazz and lounge records are mixed in with some of the more obscure (read: cheesy back then but chock-full of sampling material now) '80s hip-hop and R&B 12"s, all for $1. Billy Joel makes no appearances here, at least not yet.
Onto the next economic rung in the secondhand ladder--the "vintage" stores. It's well-known that bargains are much less prevalent in these environs; you come here to find the more fashionable fashions of yesteryear or adorable '60s kitchen chairs, and this stuff ain't cheap.
The Taj Mahal of the Triangle's vintage furniture scene is Father & Son in downtown Raleigh--here be home accessories to drool over, but they'll make a dent in your wallet if you're used to thrifty prices. Tiki bars (from $325 to $850), kidney-shaped glass tables ($250), and some of North Carolina's wackiest lamps ($30 and up) sit in this spacious trove of goodies. There are plenty of odds and ends as well, like an Atari 2600 system ($40; games for $4), a portable fold-out 8-track with speakers ($15), and tons of mod-looking TVs. The clothing section is small but substantial--I found (but resisted the urge to buy) a full-length gold silk coat from 1960 that had "belonged to a pimp" written on the $150 price tag. The owners obtain their wares from estate sales and auctions, so there won't be any shortage of fabulous stock anytime soon.
After breakfast on a Saturday morning, take a drive out to Pittsboro and dive into the curious world of Beggars & Choosers, three stories and an adjacent building full of vintage clothes, furniture, magazines, jewelry, and prom dresses. Owned and operated for 26 years by Pam Smith (one of the Triangle's icons of Southern hospitality), this voluminous store boasts a great collection of men's and women's winter coats, quirky wigs, decades-old LIFE magazines, and old pump organs. Set aside several hours and get lost, for there's always enough to keep your attention.
Over the past three years, Durham's Untidy Museum has provided customers with a seemingly endless selection of vintage goods, from a coffee table with a handwoven cowboy scene on its top to a satin Jackson 5 world tour jacket. Owner Michelle Lee admittedly has an entire warehouse full of clothes and furniture that she doesn't have room for in the current location, a cozy little house on Chapel Hill Street, but she's getting ready to move the Untidy into a larger space downtown, where she hopes to establish Durham's first rock Laundromat--folks can get their washin' done while local bands play. In the meantime, rummage through Durham's most stylish collection of polyester suits, furry shoes, and modular end tables--there's always a surprise sitting in the front yard of the building, and Michelle loves hanging out with her customers, making the experience more than just a financial transaction.
The area's lesser-known secondhand shops are closely guarded secrets, held onto tightly by serious local thrift hunters. To give these tips away could be seen as a breach of the Thrifter's Code, so don't take them for granted. See where else you can scare up some bizarre bargains below.
American Way Thrift Store, 2409 Crabtree Blvd., 832-3199
Bargain Box, 401 Woodburn Rd., 833-7587
Run by Junior League of Raleigh, a nonprofit women's organization. One can find everything here--furniture, clothes, household items, and those randomly bizarre things found in every secondhand store.
Disabled American Veterans Thrift Store, 2418 Crabtree Blvd., 833-7939
Father & Son Antiques, 107 W. Hargett St., 832-3030
Goodwill Industries (two locations), 9005 Baileywick Rd., 518-2878; 321 W. Hargett St., 834-0504
Old Habits Vintage Boutique, 3012 Hillsborough St., 833-2747
Hidden away up a set of iron stairs above Curious Goods, Old Habits is the place to find fine vintage clothes in Raleigh. Old bomber jackets, outlandish button-down shirts, silky pants--they search the state's estate sales and auctions for their goods. It's an easy location to miss, but it's well worth the climb up the steps.
Salvation Army, 205 Tryon Rd., 773-3004 or 779-8867
Affordable Treasures, 1117 Broad St., 286-3171
Decades, 2811 Hillsborough Rd., 416-9000
Very strange/random hours. On the rare occasion that they are open, it's only for a few days at a time, so be vigilant. Once inside, there's some of the coolest household knick-knacks in town--modular ashtrays, '70s shot glasses, intricately designed hutches and other furniture. Highly recommended.
Everything But Grannie's Panties, 2926 Guess Rd., 471-0996
Large old house full of old hats, dresses, furniture, books, kitchen supplies, odds and ends. Occasional grab-bag days--pay $5 and fill a bag with as much as you can.
Finders Keepers, 2917 Guess Rd., 479-1723
Habitat Hand Me-Ups, 3215 Old Chapel Hill Rd., 403-8668
Used furniture: beds, couches, armchairs, dressers, mirrors, all in great condition.
Nearly New Shoppe, 615 Douglas St., 286-4597
Odd hours (they close early, even on weekends), but usually some randomly fantastic items--fur Kangols, brand new dress shoes, hilarious selection of gaudy belts.
Pennies For Change, 1826 Chapel Hill Rd., 489-2681
Benefits Rape Crisis Center of Durham; tons of in-style women's clothes, usually sold the previous semester by Duke students. Great dresses, jeans, skirts, shoes. Not much men's stuff here.
Salvation Army, 124 Latta Rd., 477-5457
Thrift World, 2000 Chapel Hill Rd., 490-1556
Untidy Museum, 2007 Chapel Hill Rd., 419-8841
Chapel Hill/Carrboro area
Beggars & Choosers Antiques, 38 Hillsboro St., Pittsboro, 542-5884
Chatham PTA, 11500 U.S. 15-501 (Pittsboro), 969-9457
A 15-minute drive from Chapel Hill, this little shop has the usual suspects--sweaters, jackets, dresses, pants--along with a steady supply of electric odds and ends: cool old fans, 8-track players, odd lamps.
Club Nova Thrift Shop, 103 W. Main St., Carrboro, 967-6985
Non-profit store benefiting the Club Nova program. Tons of books, records, and tapes for $1. Small but stylish selection of clothes and shoes.
PTA Thrift Shops (two locations), 103 Jones Ferry Rd., Carrboro, 967-1272; Village Plaza, Elliot Rd., Chapel Hill, 942-6101
Swell, 118 E. Main St., Carrboro, 923-6735
Buy, sell, trade; not as "thriftish" as these other listings, but there are some great deals on nice secondhand clothes here.
Time After Time, 414 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill, 942-2304
Quirky little store full of hip vintage goods: $10 cords, $10 mod one-piece dresses, velour shirts for $7, leather/pleather jackets for $25. Great place to find a Halloween costume--there is tons of gaudy jewelry and outlandish belt buckles.