The Stigma of Thrift

CBC Books recently announced the winner of their 2020 Nonfiction Prize. Writer, editor, and communications specialist from Burnaby, Jonathan Poh, won for his piece titled ValueVillage. Naturally, the title piqued my interest!

What begins as a story about his distaste for the smell of thrift shops evolves into a brilliantly written story about stigma, racism, and status. Much of his story is similar to mine: an immigrant family struggling to get established in their newly adopted homeland discovers thrift shopping as a way to live frugally. Unlike Jonathan, I was born in Canada, but my parents were immigrants like his and, out of necessity, lived a very frugal lifestyle. I too wore second-hand clothing and sometimes wished that I could just have something new, something with a brand-name. I too wanted to be like everyone else.

But the great difference between Jonathan’s experience and mine, is that I did not have to live with the racism that was heaped upon Jonathan. I have the privilege of being white, so I didn’t live with the same kind of shame and stigma that Jonathan experienced. He tells the story of finding a Puma jacket in Value Village that he snapped up for $10, finally finding something with a coveted brand-name that he could wear to school with pride. But the bullies saw right away that the jacket wasn’t new. They teased him mercilessly and nick-named him “Value Village.”

me and my sister and our 76 VWBug… pretty sure all clothes and the car in this image were second hand!

My mom also shopped at thrift shops and my sister and I wore hand-me-downs from cousins. Mostly we didn’t mind – and often loved getting the clothes we’d admired on our older cousins. But I distinctly remember one year when I had to wear a jacket that made me ashamed.

My grandfather worked in the janitorial department at Sears. This job brought with it the unique opportunity to bring home items that were returned, damaged, or discarded for other reasons. We still sit on solid oak chairs that my “Opa” brought home over 40 years ago from “the garbage.” That’s how we always talked about it: “Look what Opa brought home from the garbage at Sears.” It took me years to realize that he didn’t actually work in a department store landfill.

One of 8 solid oak chairs that have been in our family for decades.

One winter, he brought home a sky blue ski jacket that looked as if someone had spilled acid all along the bottom of it. My Aunt Erna, who is a wizard with a sewing machine, had some matching fabric that she used to sew a border around the bottom of the jacket, skillfully covering the damage. Then, the jacket was given to me. I was mortified. Wear a jacket from “the garbage”?! No way!

Thing was, I needed a winter jacket. So, mom gave me the ultimatum: wear this one until you can save your allowance to buy your own new one. Or freeze to death.

So I wore it. The kids made fun of me. I survived. I wish I had a photo of it to show you because I bet it wasn’t nearly as horrible as I remember it!

And somehow, the experience of living frugally didn’t turn me off of thrift shopping. Instead, I discovered the value of saving money and finding unique items that others coveted and couldn’t get because I had the only one, found in the treasure trove of a thrift shop. Today, it’s still the first place I go to get something I need.

My first thrift purchase with my own money – a sweater bought in the late 70s, that i still own!

I wonder if things are changing. Is there still stigma around thrift shopping? Have stores like Value Village actually made thrift shopping sexy? Is there actually a thrift shop smell? I sure don’t relate to that part of his tale.

Jonathan’s story is well worth a read. It is a well-crafted piece of writing and gives you lots to think about it. In so many ways, it’s not about thrift shopping at all – it’s about the impact of growing up as the child of immigrants, of living with the stigma of perceived poverty, of ‘otherness.” Check it out and then tell me your story!

About thriftshopperforpeace

i live a thrift lifestyle
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