Broke and the City: Actually Affordable NYC Thrift Stores

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To most people who grew up outside of the metropolitan area, "thrift store" means cheap clothes that are quick fixes for an empty wallet and a starving wardrobe. A Salvation Army or local hospital charity store will yield sometimes cool and vintage-looking items for about $5; I spent most of high school scrounging secondhand places and the one vintage store in an hour radius of my hometown (where I once got a floor-length leopard fur coat for $40). You can imagine my surprise, then, when I first moved to New York a few years ago and discovered that even Goodwill can be overpriced. An old tee that would normally cost $2 would be marked up to $20, and forget even looking at anything labeled "vintage"--even my grandmother's muumuu can fetch $60 in certain Manhattan boutiques. I despaired. How else was I supposed to dress myself? I missed the thrill of the hunt, the sifting through musty men's button downs and neon track jackets to uncover the perfect _____(insert heart's desire). Plus, I liked being able to go shopping and not spend tons of money. Though it's taken me awhile, I eventually found few places that deserve the thrifty label, where I can nab four or five pieces for under $30 (as I did this weekend). Here are some of the city's hidden secondhand gems (and some more well-known ones that are just plain awesome).

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Finderz Keeperz 121 W 116th St. (Just east of Lenox Ave)

Genuine vintage in the $20-$40 range is practically an NYC urban myth. However, one look at Finderz Keeperz and all my fantasies came true. The size of a large walk-in closet, it’s packed to the seams with genuine vintage items. Racks burst with sequins, feathers, satin and scarves, with random knick-knacks like jewelry boxes tucked into every available space. The new managers try to keep a handle on the overflowing stock, and they do a good job of highlighting the best items amid the clutter. I spied a pair of Nike Airs circa 1980 and a gorgeous beaded flapper shift that was only $25. Even better, the $10 rack out front isn’t your bottom-of-the-barrel cast-offs, but things you’d actually want to purchase in normal sizes. I had to leave before I spent all my money on feathered hats and bejeweled clutches. But I shall be back… this is (was?) the city’s best kept secret.

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Harlem Goodwill 2196 5th Ave (just south of 135th st.)

As a franchise, Goodwill has standard pricings but can mark up at their discretion, leading to price differences depending on location (example: this location vs. Upper East Side Manhattan). The Harlem store is affordable, clean, has friendly service, and rarely rises from the base prices: dresses are $10, pants and skirts are $8, tops and sweaters are $6. Also, this particular branch gets a lot of donations from Target.

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Mary Help of Christian’s School Flea Market Northeast corner of 11th St. and Avenue A

On Saturdays and Sundays, a small Alphabet City church lot transforms into a community flea market where vendors sell everything from toile-print sundresses to homemade afgans to collections of silverware. It’s impossible to detail everything since the vendors set up on a first-come, first-serve basis and not everyone rises early every week, but the basic gist is a community yard sale where the already-dirt-cheap prices (clothes under $15, jewelry under $10) are negotiable, everyone knows everyone, and many vendors sell grilled hotdogs and corn with lemonade (there’s even a designated coffee and tea corner). It is a flea market, so expect to see a fair amount of junk, but the good outweighs the bad: a few stands looked more like pop-ups from a vintage store, or the emptied contents of a seriously stylish grandma’s closet. Bring plenty of cash and your bargaining face. Side note: this isn't too far from Tompkins Square Park, where you can find sidewalk sales around the perimeter on weekends.

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Housing Works Thrift Store various locations throughout the city

Housing Works is an organization that benefits AIDS and homelessness that runs nine different thrift stores around the city (in addition to numerous bookstores and cafes): proceeds go 100% to the cause. Their prices aren't aren't exactly the cheapest but they're still pretty low. Almost no basic clothing items are above $25, with the majority around $10 or $15, and the steepest items were leather belts and some nice shoes, which ran around $35. Because it's a reputable establishment, everything is in really good condition and, for the most part, is of a recognizable brand. They even get designer donations and boutique cast-offs--I've seen

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Junk 500 Driggs Avenue, Brooklyn

This place is heavier on the furniture than the clothes—lots of glassware, old typewriters, records and VHS, and even a fireplace--and the garments they do have tend toward 70s button downs, granny prints and the occasional ridiculous costume piece. But there are definitely salvageable goods here, and it becomes a scavenger’s adventure; I’ve never gone in there and not found something fun, be it a leopard-print pony-hair vest, a pristine Flashdance VHS, or giant daisy earrings. They have a glorious array of costume jewelry too, and it’s not overpriced--you won’t be paying $20 for a hunk of plastic.

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East Village Thrift Shop 186 2nd Ave. (between 11th and 12th St)

Tiny and unassuming, this is your basic secondhand store and thus is pretty hit or miss. I’m a fan for the friendly prices and the DVD collection that always seems to have some awesome 90s flick. They’re pretty heavy on the womenswear, but because they don’t filter their donations it’s closer to a Salvation Army than the nearby Buffalo Exchange (who sends people here when they don’t want their stuff). Seasoned thrifters won’t be daunted, but others may get easily bored. I will testify to their excellent collection of scarves and beaded clutches though, as well as the numerous solid color Ts and tanks.

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Beacon’s Closet 88 North 11th Street, Brooklyn (between Berry and Wythe Aves)

To be honest, Beacon’s isn’t that cheap. It can actually be kinda pricey in certain realms. However, the enormous amount of fantastical costume pieces here means you’re bound to find something awesome for relatively cheap. I scored this crazed rhinestone-and-sequin tunic there for $30 (which is really amazing if you consider Topshop sells similar stuff for at least double that) two years ago, and it’s been a party staple ever since. The store is a mixture of legit vintage and average secondhand goods. Be prepared to spend serious time rummaging though--it’s color coordinated, rather than separated by size or style, and can be somewhat overwhelming. They also have eyewear and jewelry, and an ever-changing selection of new hosiery for basic prices.

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Buffalo Exchange 332 E. 11th Street (between 1st Ave and Avenue A) or 504 Driggs Avenue, Brooklyn (at 9th St)

Buffalo Exchange is a chain thrift store where hipsters can sell clothes for money or store credit to buy other hipster cast-offs. I’ve been to both NYC locations and one in San Diego, and all I can say is the goods seriously depend on the neighborhood. The Williamsburg location is trendier and overall has better clothes, but it’s a bit more expensive, they don’t buy back as much of your stuff and the staff isn’t very nice. The East Village store is much smaller but a lot friendlier, and despite the lack of brand names I’ve found really awesome goods. It’s crowded on a regular basis, but the Village store gets a lot less traffic so cool items are easier to come by. It’s worth checking out, but a word to the wise: don’t expect to find exactly what you’re looking for there; it’s one of those places where you go in with good intentions and come out with an armload of stuff you want but don’t need.

**note: there is also a brand new Chelsea location at 114 W. 26th St.