Ethan de Seife: "Hey, Ethan, you wanna go buy some rectangles?" So my friend Tom would periodically ask, back in grad school. "Rectangles," in our nerdy secret code, was a catchall term that referred to books, DVDs, CDs, LPs — the media objects that both of us loved to accumulate (yes, some of them are square). We got to know where to find the best rectangles at the best prices, and spent many hours and dollars acquiring them.
The internet handily makes available (legally or illegally) all manner of previously hard-to-find albums, movies and other media artifacts. But downloading or streaming an artwork is a fundamentally different experience from procuring a physical copy of it, which is why I continue my endless quest for the niftiest rectangles at the lowest prices.
This means getting to know an area's thrift stores.
Most people seem to use the word "thrifting" to refer to the search for low-cost, used clothing or home furnishings, the better to rejuvenate a wardrobe or a home on a budget. For me, it's all about the aforementioned objects.
My friend and colleague Xian, though, is far more stylish and apparel-savvy than I am. So, in tag-teaming this modest survey of thrift stores in Chittenden and Addison counties, we decided that she would look for high-quality, low-cost clothing, while I would look for media that fit the same criteria.
We also both decided to seek our individual Holy Grails. Mine was country albums on vinyl (a personal weakness), and Xian's, since she just moved to a new apartment, was a housewarming gift for herself.
Blessed with light traffic and the first genuinely springlike day of 2014, we headed south, ready to loosen our tight wallets — just a little — in the name of clothing, housewares and honky-tonk music.
EdS: We hit the jackpot, rectangle-wise, on our very first stop. Retroworks' media collection is assuredly the best organized I've ever seen in a thrift store. The books (25 cents for paperbacks; $1 for hardcovers) are divided by categories; the shelf of audiocassettes (!) includes more than a dozen blank tapes; and the DVD collection is so orderly that duplicates are grouped together. Plus, this place has $5 LaserDiscs! I don't buy them anymore, but I like knowing they're still around.
Sniffing my way into the backroom, I detected the music-to-my-nose aroma of musty cardboard and vinyl: records, and a good bunch of 'em. I had to pass up a copy of The Hits of T. Texas Tyler, since it was too scratched up, but I scored with a $1 copy of Travelin' with Dave Dudley. Dudley is most famous for his 1963 version of "Six Days on the Road," which I regard as one of the very best country songs.
I found a couple of somewhat obscure DVDs here, too: Fritz Lang's fantastic 1941 film about Nazi hunters, Man Hunt; and the star-studded, oddball semi-comedy Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood, directed by the ever-bizarre Michael Winner.
Those are some high-quality, unusual rectangles, and they were all mine for less than eight bucks.
Xian Chiang-Waren: When it comes to buying clothes at Retroworks, it's best to leave any ideas about labels at the door. Aside from the occasional J. Crew cardigan, you're likely to be disappointed if you're looking for contemporary basics from commercial name brands. But who goes to thrift stores for contemporary?
The racks at Retroworks are bursting with mostly '80s-era garments in funky patterns: bold stripes, big floral designs, lots of paisley. The selection of dresses and skirts is on the long side (and, yes, equipped with the occasional shoulder pad), but, at $3 to $8 a pop, even an amateur seamstress like yours truly can experiment with bringing up a hemline.
You might want to skip the pilling sweaters and the used underwear rack. Ditto the shoes, unless you're looking for a five-foot-tall pair of waders. The coat rack is much more appealing: I spotted a cropped brown leather jacket for $10, and, if the weather hadn't been solidly in mud-season range, I would've found the selection of wool peacoats quite tempting.
A brief visit to the furniture section revealed a hardwood kitchen table for $15 — a steal, considering I'd recently purchased a smaller and less attractive table for $30 atReStore in Burlington. I walked into the home section (which is always stocked with $1 vases and $3 pots and pans) at Ethan's urging and came across my big find of the day: a $3 orange fondue pot, which I nabbed as soon as the woman in front of me passed on it. She nodded approvingly when I picked it up. "Seems like everyone used to have one of those," she told me. "We'll make it happen again," I assured her.
EdS: A charming store, where I tried on a handsome fur chapeau, but this is not a place for the media seeker. When we visited, there was a single bookshelf stocked with trade paperbacks, exactly a dozen CDs and five DVDs. Here, I mostly observed Xian swooning over shoes.
XCW: Until quite recently, I never spent much time at Round Robin, even though its pleasant storefront in Middlebury's Marble Works area is bright and sunny, and its clothing racks are always clean and well stocked. Two years ago, I would have said that the store had great finds for an Ann Taylor- or Eileen Fisher-loving woman a generation or two older than me, and left it at that — though a male friend used to swear by its killer vest selection.
Times have changed. Round Robin now has an absolute gem of a backroom to highlight the store's best finds. Make an immediate right upon entering to find the best used-shoe rack I've ever seen in a Vermont secondhand store, plus a fur coat and vintage section that would make "Mad Men"'s Joan Holloway drool. Ethan's eyes glazed over during my explanation of flats and Ferragamo bow shoes, but we both had fun with the fur coats and old hats.
EdS: I very rarely buy new books; with a little work, you can find a used copy of just about any book, in perfect shape, for much less money.
Otter Creek fulfills what is, for me, the most important criterion for a used-book store: Its shelves are so overloaded that many volumes have to be stacked horizontally. That's when you know true bibliophiles run the place.
For a small store, it has a nice selection of titles, especially fiction. Nonfiction is a bit more of a grab bag. Prices here were perhaps slightly higher than I had hoped, but not unreasonable.
XCW: If you can't always have quality, you might as well have quantity. Middlebury's Neat Repeats offers a classic hit-or-miss thrifting experience. The stuffy, windowless basement store is always overflowing with clothes, including some I wouldn't touch with a 10-foot pole.
Yet hidden among the used fleece jackets and rhinestone-encrusted tops are some good finds: well-priced basics, such as merino wool sweaters and cotton tees in excellent condition; a decent jeans selection in the $10 range, heavy on the Levis; and some seriously eclectic coats. If you have the stamina to withstand the claustrophobic atmosphere, you can make out like a bandit.
EdS: The fellow behind the counter insisted that this store was no less than "the largest used book store in Vermont," and I can't imagine any other place coming close. Not only are many books stacked horizontally, but the shelves are skyscrapers, extending so high that most of the aisles are equipped with ladders.
The place is overwhelming, and I mean that in the best possible way. I'm going to have to return there some other time, as browsing the film section alone would take me the better part of an afternoon.
And the comics! My lands, the comics. The shelves sagged under the weight of more than one out-of-print hardback compendium of old "Dick Tracy" strips — pricey but droolworthy.
Twenty percent discounts for students and the tables of bargain books make this shop a must-visit for book lovers on a budget.
XCW: I am no expert on rectangles, but wandering through Monroe Street Books inspires awe. Its shelves stretch nearly to the ceiling, and every aisle has something that catches the eye. I spent a happy 20 minutes in the Vermont aisle, flipping through recent works by local authors, checking out the geography of Moosalamoo National Recreation Area in a book of maps and carefully leafing through books that dated back to the early 20th century. I could have lingered far longer in the nonfiction section, where my hand drifted toward a $7 collection of Joan Didion short stories. Ethan wisely pointed out that we should scram or else commit to an entire afternoon. With deadlines looming, we scrammed — but we'll both be back.
EdS: Certainly the most charming of all the places we visited, Recycled Reading offers reasonably priced used books, CDs and DVDs, as well as maps, toys and musical instruments. The selection was not enormous, but that impression was inevitable given that this was our first stop after Monroe Street Books, which surely stocks in book form the equivalent of several medium-size forests.
I dug the vibe here. Free coffee and a large children's section welcome patrons of all kinds, and the store hosts music events every week. Trade-ins of your gently used rectangles are accepted here, too, which is another point in favor of this small, friendly community bookstore.
XCW: As a former Five Town Area resident, I remember being over the moon when the area's first consignment store, the Enchanted Closet, opened last year on Bristol's downtown drag. The Enchanted Closet is big on L.L. Bean, wooly sweaters and down jackets (what else are people living on the Lincoln Gap going to consign?). But its unusually large selection of children's clothing seems to be a major source of the store's appeal.
A rack of prom and costume dresses spices things up, as does a charming selection of vintage and locally made jewelry. Unfortunately, the store was inexplicably closed at lunchtime on a Tuesday.
XCW: The Richmond Food Shelf's dowdy storefront on Bridge Street turned out to hide the biggest surprise of the day. The front room of the store is stocked with racks of donated clothing, while the backroom is home to the food shelf, lined with cans of food and nonperishable goods for folks in need.
I didn't expect much, but the clothing was well made, functional and seemingly barely worn. I noticed a Kenneth Cole blazer and a women's tops rack dominated by Banana Republic and J. Crew pieces averaging $5 each, not to mention a row of crisp button-downs. Community members (and Chittenden County consignment stores getting rid of back stock) donate the clothing, and all the proceeds go to stocking the food shelf.
EdS: Disappointed by the closed thrift store in Bristol, and unsurprised not to find used media at the Richmond Food Shelf & Thrift Store, we headed back to Burlington to hit a few shops along the Pine Street corridor.
Vintage Inspired's booths fairly burst with curios and antique oddities. But, aside from a few old 78s (which I do sometimes buy), there wasn't much in the way of media here. (One booth did have a whole lot of old cookbooks, charmingly sorted by historical era and labeled "These Are Your Cookbooks," "These Are Your Mother's Cookbooks" and "These Are Your Grandmother's Cookbooks.")
XCW: I could write pages about the quality of the antique and craft items at Vintage Inspired, the "lifestyle marketplace" on Flynn Avenue. It's a unique arrangement: Local antiques lovers and artisans rent out sections of the store's floor space and fill it with antique furniture, handmade crafts and a variety of whimsical ephemera. Everywhere you turn, something pretty and original catches your eye. I could spend hours in there.
The items at Vintage Inspired are sold at fair prices, and it's certainly a bargain compared with most antique stores. However, since the quality is quite good, Vintage Inspired arguably takes us outside the realm of thrifting. I didn't find much within my budget, save for some delightfully original jewelry made from vintage beads. Still, the place is filled with tasteful treasures — and your budget is probably bigger than mine.
EdS: It's surely Pine Street's King of All Media, but Speaking Volumes is more for the connoisseur than for the bargain hunter. Lovely handmade wooden bins hold thousands of records of all kinds, in all genres, and the selection of books is large and catholic, but this place does not really cater to the exceedingly thrifty. This is where you go when you need that hard-to-find Wizzard album on vinyl.
EdS: Recycling-devoted nonprofit ReSOURCE has two stores on Pine Street. One sells household items and building materials; it's a great place for light fixtures and windows. The other is more like a traditional thrift store, offering everything from couches to TVs to, yes, media of all kinds.
A huge shelf of books covers an entire wall and then some, but the titles on offer were mostly genre fiction and self-help titles. Not one interested me enough to merit parting with even a dollar. Same with the DVDs: A ragged collection, priced from $1 to $5 apiece, didn't offer much for the cinephile.
Music lovers will fare better here, as the cheap CDs are of somewhat higher quality, and the place gets retro points for selling not only cassettes but eight-track tapes. But the real action is on the record shelves.
The vinyl collection at ReSOURCE is quite varied and, except for the "not yet sorted" section, is helpfully broken down by genre. I quickly surveyed all the sections (including the 78s), and then dug into the "Country" shelves. There, amid a mass of Eddy Arnold records (seriously, what was going on there?), I unearthed my final find of the day: Carl Smith's 1958 album Let's Live a Little.
For this pure-D gem of honky-tonk music, I paid, tax included, 54 cents. That amounts to 4.5 cents per song, exactly 1/22 of iTunes' per-song price. That is some serious thrifting.
XCW: I'll just state the obvious: If you're looking for clothing at ReSOURCE — don't. The store's apparel and accessory offerings are limited to a motley collection of luggage and mostly synthetic handbags. I've also seen some outerwear thrown near that display on past occasions. Do yourself a favor and walk a block down Pine to Battery Street Jeans.
ReSOURCE is still the secondhand furniture hub for the Burlington area. It has a reasonably priced selection that changes on a daily basis, and everyone from moms to college kids to out-of-town antiquers combs the place for furniture finds. The store's selection of wooden chairs is particularly good. On the day we visited, a soft leather couch for a cool $80 was attracting a lot of attention.
Ethan and I ended our tour of Vermont thrifting right where we'd started: on Pine Street, just around the corner from Seven Days. We evaluated our spoils and found our bags surprisingly light. I had a fantastic orange fondue pot; Ethan had a seriously groovy-looking stack of rectangles that he assured me qualified as "jackpot" finds. I also had several articles of clothing lurking in the back of my mind. I was hard-pressed to come up with reasons why I hadn't bought that great leather jacket at Retroworks, or those kind-of-too-small espadrilles at Round Robin.
Vermont may be better known for its pricier antiques circuit, but if we learned anything from our brief road trip, it's that the area's nondescript thrift stores sell surprisingly high-quality stuff for a song. And yes, we know we didn't hit them all.
Wherever you live in Vermont, you have to drive to find the good thrift stores. Long stretches of road separate them, and few towns besides Burlington have more than one. But who doesn't love an excuse to take a Vermont road trip? Once you arrive, plan on digging through a few layers of items you wouldn't want to take home, no matter how cheaply priced — but that comes with the hunt.
To help with your own excursions, we've updated our thrifting directory (see below). May you find lots of leather bomber jackets and rectangles.
Tags: Culture, Bristol, thrift stores, vintage, Middlebury, Richmond, Burlington, Otter Creek Used Books, Vintage Inspired Lifestyle Marketplace, RetroWorks, Recycled Reading of Vermont, Speaking Volumes, ReSOURCE, Money Issue, ReSOURCE (Burlington)