October 9, 2012

Chicago Manual of Style: The thrill of the thrift

At first glance, a common thrift shop is nothing more than a chaotic assortment of junk whose collective odor stems from a combination of mothballs, boxes of crayons, and ’80s lipstick. However, a keen eye, a bit of persistence, and a flexible fashion sense reveal something else entirely: A thrift shop is the Narnia of style. Walk inside, and you’ve suddenly stumbled into a world where wolf blankets, wooden carvings of Abraham Lincoln, floor-length alpaca sweaters, and denim onesies exist together in a wonderfully dissonant balance. I know, your mind is swirling with images of comically ironic sweaters and the comically ironic people who don them, but in fact, a good thrift shop can provide you with some stuff you actually want. Chicago is crawling with these cheap treasures, so here’s a quick introduction to the best used fashion the city has to offer.

Pilsen might be the Mecca of fashion-conscious thrifting. Numerous stores throughout the neighborhood offer solid vintage selections, but those on 18th Street, just near the Pink Line stop, are where you’re most likely to strike gold. Pilsen Vintage & Thrift, small but well-organized and comfortable, has great women’s clothing. The dominant style here runs more along the lines of ’50s housewife than ’80s rocker. If you need something high-waisted and romantic, this is your place. For a more eclectic selection, head down the street to Knee Deep Vintage, which boasts an impressive collection for both men and women. This store is more geared toward vintage-seekers than bargain-hunters, and prices are noticeably higher. Vibrant button-downs and crazy jackets are the norm here. Make sure you go in with some time to dig—the tiny store is so jam-packed that it feels like a polyester explosion waiting to happen. If you’re looking for a cheaper fix, the Salvation Army right next to the Western-Cermak station sells extremely affordable clothes (and a seemingly endless supply of other random objects). What’s better than a two-dollar windbreaker? A two-dollar windbreaker and a cow lamp. And a holiday vest, and a misshapen vase.

Wicker Park, Chicago’s most established hipster paradise, has more than a few thrift stores of its own. Ranging from gently-used to over-worn, from “yeah, I guess can afford this” to “I don’t even want this but it’s 99 cents so I have to buy it,” this neighborhood easily satisfies the new thrifter, as well as the seasoned pro. The accessory and footwear selection is especially notable. The Village Discount Outlet on Milwaukee is known for its regular sales (sales on sales!), but some thrifters accuse them of selling poor-quality goods. Don’t let that scare you off, though—the place has a great selection of weird T-shirts, and I’ve heard more than one story about surprise designer finds here. Just down the street, Buffalo Exchange has a great selection of more casual clothing and jewelry, as well as the friendliest staff you’ll ever meet (seriously—one mustachioed dressing room attendant made my heart sing). Ragstock, a chain thrift store that also has an outlet in Belmont, offers similarly-priced finds (Five dollars for pants? Yes, please), and if you’re looking for vintage jewelry, walk down North Avenue to Vintage Underground for a selection that sale-seekers rave about.

Of course, these are only a few potential stops in your thrifting journey. There aren’t many thrift stores densely clustered up North, but the ones you do come across are well worth the trip. The Brown Elephant in Lakeview operates with an overwhelming “you dream it, we sell it” approach. You’re sure to find some interesting digs there for insanely cheap prices. The Salvation Army near DePaul also promises some great finds, and Very Best Vintage in the Ukrainian Village has an amazing selection of clothing and accessories (more vintage than thrift), but at slightly higher prices.

Go out and explore, find your own favorites, and buy some cool stuff along the way. Thrift shops are magical because they allow you to experiment with fashion without spending your rent money in the process. So bid goodbye to your stubborn department store ways and take a turn for the awesome. Buy that tie-dye jumper, that pair of green leather pants, that ridiculously small hat—come on, you can afford it.