The Goodwill Outlet is not for the faint of heart.  Nor do I think you should be able to call yourself a true Thrifter if you haven’t at least stuck your toe in one at some time in your life to see what it is like.

I found my own local Goodwill Outlet (I adopt ownership of all things I love) quite by accident while trying to map out a thrift store circuit in the early days of my thrift life.

I had been to stores calling themselves “outlets” before, but always felt they were just glorified retail spaces at glorified strip malls that somehow convinced millions of people they were worth the hundred mile drive to get to them.  People forget gas costs money.  That whopping 40% discount you got on that $40 shirt from the Van Heusen Outlet doesn’t seem so “whopping” when you factor in the $60 you spent on gas to get there.  Hell, I can buy a shirt made out of money for that kind of money!  My Goodwill Outlet, on the other hand, is only about two miles out of the way from a direct drive between work and home.  That’s a gas expense of about thirty cents per trip.  Take THAT Van Heusen!

Besides, the Goodwill Outlet is a whole different animal than those fancy outlet pretenders.  It is not just a shopping destination; it is a shopping experience.  And it is not just a shopping experience; it is an ANTHROPOLOGICAL experience.  Sounds scienterrific, right?  Well, it is.   I challenge you to find a place that teaches you more about humankind than a Goodwill Outlet.  It is almost guaranteed you’ll come out of it faster, stronger, and wiser than when you went in.  It’s better than a bite from a radioactive spider.

It’s all about the bins.  The long, blue plastic bins — heaped full of shoes, or clothes, or toys, or junk, or stuff, or whatever — are swapped out hourly with new bins full of different heaps of stuff and are probably responsible for making your average Goodwill Outlet visit seem more like a zombie dumpster dive than a stroll through Tiffany’s can ever hope for.  This is the adventure of it.  Yes, Goodwill Outlets are about the adventure, not about what you actually get there. Take THAT Tiffany’s!

But most of my visits to the outlet are to peruse the decrepit furniture lining its interior walls and replenish my wife’s furniture repurposing needs.  It is not uncommon for me to find an antique chair for a dollar or an executive desk for five.  I’m not joking.  Stuff is that cheap there…and cheaper.  Granted, most pieces usually need a little love, but that’s what all this is about  — taking something that seems used up, giving it a little love, and making it feel like living again.  That’s not just a good way to treat furniture; it’s a good way to treat people as well.  See?  The Goodwill Outlet is already making us better people.

Anyway, only the larger items (electronics and furniture) have price tags.  All the other stuff — the stuff from the bins (which I think would make a great title for a horror movie) are paid for by the pound.  Yes, you heard that right.  By. The. Pound.  It’s like buying deli meat that other people have already played with.  Well…maybe not quite like that.  Regardless of the disgusting metaphor, you can find some pretty good things in the bins and pay very little for them.  You just have to catch the bins at the right time or be willing to swim with the big fish.  The big fish are the veteran Goodwill Outlet bin shoppers who I suspect spend hours there with their ever-growing shopping carts, vying for pole positions around the perimeter of the area where the new bins are brought out every hour.  You can tell they take it very seriously by the look in their eyes as they wait, shoulder to shoulder, for the new bins to arrive.  Don’t even try touching something from a new bin before all the bins in that line have been swapped out and the attending Goodwill employee has given the “ok”.  Premature grabbers are not tolerated by the other, more experienced grabbers.  And they have no qualms about letting interlopers know they are breaking rules that aren’t posted anywhere, but are understood and followed by anyone in the club.  I call that club the Outleteers.

I remember the first time my wife saw the Outleteers and the Swapping of the Bins.  We had gone in on a Saturday afternoon to see if any viable furniture had survived the morning.  We found nothing we could use, but before leaving, she noticed a group of people standing in a semi-circle and asked me what they were doing.

“It’s the Swapping of the Bins,” I said.  “We can stay and check them out, if you like.”  My wife is a a big fan of the Discovery and National Geographic channels and I told her if we stayed, she’d see something better than either of those.  Intrigued, we waited.  It being her first time, I suggested we maintain a safe distance.  She looked at me to see if I was kidding and took a few steps backward when she saw I wasn’t.

The Outleteers stood quietly as the old “picked” bins were removed.  Occasionally, one would say something in a low voice to one standing next to them, but in general, they all remained focused and on task.  As the Goodwill employee brought out the first new bin and parked it in its designated spot, a woman walked over from somewhere else, squeezed between two Outleteers, and picked up a metal tray.  She was quickly reprimanded by the group and told to put it back and wait.

“How in the hell was I supposed to know I can’t do that?” she shouted with an embarrassed voice and slunk back where she came from.

“She’s a phony,” I muttered to my wife as if I were her travel guide. “She got way too upset for someone who just didn’t know the rules.  She knew the rules.  She’s just mad she got caught trying to break them.”

“I see,” my wife replied, taking it all in.

The second bin came out.  No trouble.  Everyone seemed to nod in unison.

There was a palatable excitement from the Outleteers as the third bin was rolled out and the wheels locked in place.  They had enjoyed a couple minutes of viewing the heaps of stuff in the first two bins and had their strategies planned.

“Okay,” the Goodwill guy said and walked away.

Bedlam.  Mayhem.  Chaos.  Havoc.  Yes,  I just googled synonyms for pandemonium and I don’t care.  Anyone would need  help describing the energy and the dynamics of an Outleteer picking frenzy.  There are just no specific words for it in the English language.

My wife looked on with wide eyes.  I could tell she found the scene horrifying and strangely alluring.

“So, what do you think?”  I asked.

“It’s like the Animal Kingdom, Epcot, and the Magic Kingdom were all stuffed into a bag of potato chips and fed to a flock of highly intelligent seagulls,” she replied.

HA!  Take THAT Disney World!