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TODAY

Monday, February 18

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Airbags

I love to thrift and I love a good garage sale. Chicago certainly has a lot of garage sales. I'm not talking about the kind photographed in Martha Stewart where everything has its own paper and string label, where sparkling costume brooches are piled in a casual heap inside of Aunt Bunny's hat box that she took to Bryn Mawr, and where beaming children serve fresh lemonade out of a giant glass embalming jug. I'm talking about seven wobbly card tables covered with childrens clothes in varying sizes, none of them 100% cotton, and a play pen where baby Mickey and baby Scooby duke it out with footless Bratz dolls and broken nintendo controllers. Unless it's an estate sale, or in an upscale neighborhood, every garage sale in the city of Chicago is pretty much exactly like the one I just described, and frankly, given that we live in the Thrift Store Capital of the World, they're hardly worth the bother.

I grew up going to garage sales, flea markets, outlets (before there were outlet malls, thank you very much) and come from a long, strong lineage of thrifty women who didn't want to, or have the cash to, shell out for a brand new round of clothes at the turn of every season. My mom had a brief but prolific interest in hand sewn t-shirts the summer I was 10, and yes, I find myself thinking about buying some jersey knit from time to time and cranking up the Singer, so I'm not above that. But the question remains: Why in gods name would I bother to lift a finger sewing a batch of t-shirts when I can toddle on down to the Unique and find a rainbow assortment of them, in all sizes, genders and styles?

Thrifting with kids can be tricky. A pleasurable jaunt, or trip to hell... it can easily go either way. For the first few years it's really easy. Babies in a sling, usually asleep or content to look around peacefully, are the easiest of thrifting companions. A little bit older and they will ride in the cart if you hand them an unending series of toys that you might not have at home, like light-up crap and books that talk. Then they develop an interest in walking. Maybe not so much "interest" as "obsession". In my world, when they are big enough to run around and act crazy, they stay home with Dad for a few years. Once my kids can again enjoy thrifting sensibly and calmly, they are brought back into the fold and given some money.

I should clarify: the boys around here aren't really part of this equation, mainly because they could care less about what goes on their backs in the morning, and shopping falls into the same category as getting haircuts, which is Yuck. A good Iowa garage sale might be OK, but only if there are toys.

Girls are different, though, and I'm raising my daughter right; to know the gospel of the Unique, and to worship there frequently. Some people are born with the magic. My mother is one of those people, and I hoped beyond hope that my daughter would be born with the gift of the thrift, and she has been, many times over. With her natural born talent — and lifelong mentorship with the thrifting royalty that are my girlfriends — my daughter (like other daughters I know) is turning out to be a thrifting-savant. She decides on a whim that she wants to be Pippi Longstocking for Halloween? No problem. She steps into the thrift store and beelines it for the orange wig with two braids. Cruella Deville? How about the kid sized coat with fake ermine trim? Yes please, and on half-price Monday no less. So she comes with me, for good luck, and for her keen fashion sense.

A really good way for a kid to learn about money is to have her buy her own clothes. My daughter gets a seasonal clothing budget, and has a very specific idea of what she needs and wants. Everything except shoes and swimming suit has to come out of the spring budget, which is about $30. She figured out pretty quick that you can get a lot of cute t-shirts and shorts for $30 at the thrift store, or if you are lucky, three items on clearance at Old Navy. Being the penny pincher that she is, there is no question about where she'll be spending her money. Armed with a bottle of water, tissues, gum, a tape measure (in case we find the elusive china cabinet or good bookshelves) and cash, we head out early so we don't end up spending the better part of a lovely day indoors.

When we arrive we spend a few minutes looking around together, getting the lay of the land. She then heads for the girls clothes while I circle around, getting the obligatory search for boy's jeans with intact knees out of the way, and then move on to the higher pursuits: books, dishes, yarn. Meanwhile she's surfing the summer clothes, pulling out the top-level stuff, adding up the amount in her head, putting things back when she gets close to breaking the budget. She knows that something stained or overly worn is going to get nixed by me in the final sort, so unless it's something really cool, those things don't make her cut. She also does a terrific job picking out every single item of clothing that is exactly what I would not pick for her, like the red satin blouse with the giant ruffled cuffs from the fall collection. Fabulous for her, but never in a million years for me. It works out well.

I'm sure there are many people thinking that thrift stores are overrun with unsavory characters and that it is irresponsible to allow a child, even a sensible and independant one, the freedom to look around on her own. Well, no, actually. The people we see in thrift stores are people trying to get cheap clothes for their families, and poor does not equal pervert. Yes, there is the obligatory stinky person, and the woman who sings along at top volume to the LoveFM hits (who I love incidentally), and the unattended kids destroying the bin of broken happy-meal junk, but all of them are basically harmless, and in the case of the stinky person, easily avoided. The child molester may be lurking, sure, just like he lurks in Target, or schools, or the CTA.. But I'm no fool, and neither are my kids, so we have very specific rules about thrifting (very similar in fact, to our CTA Rules). Were she unable to follow the Rules of Thrifting, she'd have me at her side, nitpicking over the practicality of the bell-armed shrug with the sparkly butterfly applique, and I would be saddled with 70 pounds of 10-year-old girl, loudly and repeatedly forbidding me to proceed any further in my quest for the perfect summer robe. That's lose-lose, not win-win, for those keeping score at home.

Thrifting requires a certain ability to tune out your surroundings so as to not be bothered by excessive flourescent lighting, crying children and chaos. It's not for everyone, particularly those overly concerned with germs. When thrifting with kids, it's all about trust. Trust that your kids can make good choices about what clothes they want to wear, trust that they can figure out a budget, and trust that all of the work you've done helping your city kids develop their street smarts and intuition has taken hold. Allowing children freedom to hold their own in the relatively safe arena of the second hand store is just the lead up to letting them take the bus alone someday. Someday a long, long time from today, but someday.

~*~

A cheap summer wardrobe for your family awaits at one of Chicago's finest thrift stores. My advice is to take a kid with you, preferably one of the girl variety. Take her out to eat afterwards, and look at all of the cool stuff you scored. Breaking a long standing policy of not divulging top-secret thrifting locations, here are a few recommendations for a cheap girls day out.

1. Unique Thrift Store, 3224 S. Halsted, right next door to Healthy Foods. Kugelis and thrifting, could it get any better?

2. Unique Thrift Store, 4441 W. Diversey. Zacatecas 2 is just down the street at 3658 W. Diversey. Maybe quesadilla's and a strawberry liquado are in order? Otherwise, there is usually an elote/mango/snowcone cart stationed nearby, ready to serve hungry thrifters. BYO wet-naps for a post-Unique freshen up.

3. The Village Thrift, 2043 W. Roscoe. This is not my favorite thrift store, it's a little to crazy and disorganized even for me, but it has a fabulous book section in the lower level. Good food nearby as well, at Kitsch'n, 2005 W. Roscoe, and Victory's Banner, 2100 W. Roscoe.

4. The Ark, 3345 N. Lincoln, falls into the category of "I can't believe it's still open." My first love, and good for the household items, sometimes a little expensive. Dinkel's is steps away, with chocolate donuts at the ready.

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About the Author(s)

Lori McClernon Upchurch lives on the far Northwest Side in a house that's overflowing with books, kids, pets and too much stuff from the thrift store. She is a proud member of Team Upchurch, a family of multi-talented unschoolers. She can generally be spotted driving around with a bunch of kids, not all of them hers, looking for someplace fun to get out and play.

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