Ahndraya Parlato on Thrifting

1. Tell us about thrifting.

Sometime in middle school, I began aligning my arrivals and departures from school to correspond to the limited open hours of a local church thrift store, where I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to shop. Luckily, I had escaped the adolescent phase of wanting to look like my peers, and this was one of the perks of being raised without boundaries and rules.

To this day, I am a frequent thrift store shopper. There’s nowhere I don’t travel to without looking up what local thrift stores are nearby. In 2001 I was living in Paris at a time when thrift stores (mind you, not vintage stores), were a thing solely for poor people run by religious organizations, and I would travel to the outskirts of the city to shop. I love how thrift store shopping tales me to and through areas I might otherwise never experience as a tourist.

The distinction between thrift and vintage stores is important; vintage stores provide what I refer to as ‘pre-sorted coolness.’ At a vintage store, someone with good taste, or who follows trends, has neatly arranged all of the western shirts, the 1930’s slips, the old Levi’s, the whatever’s, for your consideration, and even if they’re not what you’re looking for, you know that somewhere at this point in time, they’re considered cool and in-style. By contrast, at the Salvation Army, for instance, the most organization you’ll get is by color or size (which any thrift store shopper can tell you is irrelevant – as sizes have changed so much through the ages). You’re left to your own devices to decide the garment’s worth or coolness factor.

This is one of the main reasons I love thrift store shopping – the way it forces you to decide the desirability of something on your own, and to look at an item decontextualized. Not styled in a window, accompanied by a sleek campaign, or taking up real estate in a cool part of town. While I am usually looking for something unique/vintage, I’ve also had many moments being shocked by the coolness of a garment made by a name brand whose actual store I would never go inside of, or by a vintage item made by a brand who I had no idea used to make cool stuff, but is uninteresting to me now.

The hunting aspect to thrift store shopping is actually not unlike the way a lot of photographer’s work. You never know what you’re going to find and you have to be open to whatever you connect to on that day.

For me, there’s also an element of intuition at play. Some days I may be excited to go to a particular store, or know there’s a sale I want to check out, so I’ll go. But more interestingly, , every couple months or so, there might be a day where I get this nagging feeling that I really should go thrift store shopping that day. I might be super busy, or wasn’t planning on shopping, but the feeling will tug at me throughout the day, and if it tugs consistently enough, I know I have to go - even if it’s only a short, 20-minute stop. Call it divine intervention, but I have yet to be disappointed by shopping on one of these days.

2. What’s your favorite place to look? Why?

I don’t have a favorite place; there are many places in many cities I love. But one of the stores I get the most excited about, is the Goodwill Outlet store in Glendale, CA. This place is a real scene; I’ve literally seen fights break out. It’s an outlet store—a warehouse with piles of stuff lying in huge plastic bins. You take a shopping cart, fill it as you go and pay by the pound.

Everyone wants to get to the new, unseen bins first—you know they’re coming because the old ones get wheeled away. People start queuing up around the empty space, waiting. The guards won’t let you start looking at any of the bins until the turnover is complete. In fact, they yell at you if touch anything before they indicate it’s ok.

Because it’s LA, you see many people buying for their stores. A guy with a shopping cart filled only with jeans, or sneakers, a woman looking for vintage hippy or ethnic clothes, etc. People wear their head phones and stay for hours. I never knew why everyone draped blankets over their carts till my mine got stolen one day! It’s cut throat. The diehards make the rounds of the new bins super quickly; they grab for fabric and print and do not stop to actually look at the garments until they’ve gone around to all the new bins, then in the down time, they go off to a corner to actually look with more detail.

I don’t usually pay attention to the ‘new’ bins, though I have occasionally gotten competitive if I can tell there’s a buyer there with similar taste to me….

3. When you go to a thrift store are you looking for particular items, or are you just browsing for gems?

Sometimes I’ll have particular things in my mind, like, ‘I need a basket to put kid toys in.’ Other times, it might just be a color, like, ‘I wish I had more red clothes.’ Here are a few items I often look for: dresses, amateur ceramics (part of a current photo project), lavender clothes, vintage knits, small cups, weird paintings, vintage linens, children’s dress up clothes.

4. What’s your best thrift shop score?

I don’t qualify things like this. It’s totally subjective and contingent on what I need or want at the moment I’m looking. If there’s a specific item I’m hoping to find and I do, (rare!) that can be a great score, even if the thing itself is not. It’s a bit more esoteric than being able to say, for example, the vintage Guess boots I found at a Salvation Army 16 yearrs ago and still wear!

5. What’s one that got away?

Last week, I saw a well-priced, beautiful, large vintage rug at the Goodwill. Because my family and I are away from home for the year, it was hard to justify the purchase, so I told myself if its color tag went on sale the following week (it’d then be ½ off), I’d be allowed to buy it. I called and it was the right color! I was so excited, but the rug was gone. And then I felt stupid, like, duh, a ten-foot rug isn’t going to stay around at that price, and I should’ve known…