Thrift Shop Shopping

Category:  Fashion
Wednesday, May 15th, 2013 at 7:00 AM
Thrift Shop Shopping by Matt Flowers

Here it comes, another fresh batch of graduates, sent out into the world to find a job – one their freshly-printed diplomas promised them. Some will strike gold in a cushy office job, while others will struggle to make ends meet. In recent years, the economic spectrum has tipped towards the latter – not to mention the average student loan balance for all age groups is $24,301.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t dress like you’re on the lighter side of the fulcrum.

While you may never look Don Draper dapper, you can achieve the debonair charm of the ‘60s, or the boisterous, neon color palette of the ‘80s in one place – without Banana Republic and Urban Outfitter’s adding credit card debt to your student loans.

“Thrift stores used to be for people without [a lot of money] to go shopping,” Patty Rutkowski, manager of Erie’s Thrifty Shopper [2064 W. 16th St.] says, sitting back on a white, Midwestern-style sofa, spotted with stucco-colored diamonds. “It’s still for somebody who doesn’t have a big budget, you know? But, it’s really like this Mecca for the eclectic personality.”

Whether we like it or not, our big luminescent box dictates what is in and what is out. It governs the look of the time, and it looks like we’re taking a step back as the retro look of the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s are zooming back into today’s style like telescopes searching for the shine of Sputnik.

“Fashion - being a pendulum - swings back and forth,” Patty says, pointing to a polished iron lamp, its base topped by an over-sized shade – a large, round, natural skinned, cylinder. “Look at mid-century modern, it’s gigantic anymore,” she continues. To get an idea of what this style looks like, it’s bold yet sleek, clean but unbalanced, yet with perhaps a touch too much orange, all mixed with both the insanity and optimism of the atomic age, and the baby boomer’s disenchantment with technology. It’s as if the men of the time countered their streamlined wardrobes full of fitted suits, cuff links, and skinny ties, as the women opposed their brooches, day dresses, and Pill Box hats with loud colored, unusually shaped, post-modern furniture.

But if you’re trying to move past the Atomic Era and find your personality in a different generation, then you’ll still be searching in the right place. The Thrifty Shopper is loaded with pre-1920 antiques, vintage ‘40s garb, of course the retro ‘50s and ‘60s and onward.

“What I love about [current fashion], is styles aren’t so definite… When I was growing up, this would go out of style, that would go out of style, and young people today – everything about their personality is three generations: their generation, their parent’s generation, and their grandparent’s generation – can pick out the best from all those and put them together.”

There is history behind every coat, hat, couch, and vinyl. Working that into the layout of the store makes it a different kind of shopping experience. When you walk in, past the registers and the white marker board announcing sales, there is a cozy library area complete with books, records, tables, chairs, and even a fireplace, almost all of which is for sale – and with a distressed look that comes for free.

“We want people to get a vision when they come here,” Patty confirms. Without dividing the store with parcels, the Thrifty Shopper is sectioned into themes, identifiable vignettes that speak to the customer. “We try to tell a story with everything,” she says gazing at a white rattan porch set.

Taking a walk through the men’s clothing section, you’ll also notice an olden day, traditional theme. Surrounding the area are old-fashioned whiskey glasses, golf clubs, suitcases, antique chests, and fedoras.

In contrast, the women’s section has a counter island of jewelry, Vogue posters, purses, handbags, and scarves. What’s better is you can find your personal style without sacrificing your entire pay check, as the Thrifty Shopper sells brand-new, $140-price-tag-still-on-them kinds of shirts, usually for about five bucks.

If you’re going old-school, you can find your "Mad Men"-style Florsheim wing tips, Harris tweeds, and a matching set of tumblers. On the flip side, women can find a pair of Audrey Hepburn ballet flats, high-waisted skirts, and jewelry with a warm patina.

But at this point, it’s hard to tell what came first: Erie’s unemployment rate scraping clouds at 9.1 percent, or the popularity of shopping at thrift stores. Either way, fashion is retrogressing, but in a whole new way.

“Young people are more ‘green’ today than any other generation before them,” Patty says. “They believe in recycling and repurposing.”

Aside from the blatant materialism of Generation X and Y, there is an undercurrent of environmental consciousness that shines through today’s television, Facebook, fast food addictions. Moreover, Erie’s generosity keeps Erie City Mission’s Thrifty Shopper running by donating shoes, clothes, furniture, and volunteering. Money  raised in these stores helps provide for those in need. From shelters, to free meals, to treatment programs and family care, this money is staying local, and benefiting this area.

“It’s such a win-win situation here,” Patty says. “We’re feeding over 2,000 people a week.”

The stories told through a thrift store’s merchandise are much like history lessons with racks and shelves packed full of artifacts. But at the Thrifty Shopper, these relics aren’t just reflections of the past, they’re helping Erie’s future.

Matthew Flowers can be reached at, and you can follow him on Twitter @MFlowersER. 

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