Where the Poor Shop

Not the least bit ashamed of being a thrift-store junkie

By Mary Helen Ponce
Published on LatinoLA: October 13, 2004

Where the Poor Shop

The store is crowded; men, women, and children fill each nook and cranny. Most are Latino immigrants who crowd the apartments along Sunland Boulevard. They live within walking distance of the second-hand store, la tienda de segunda. While rich folks flock to the Beverly Center and Glendale Galleria, folks here - most of whom make minimum wage (if that) are here for the Grand Opening of a Salvation Thrift Store.

When I first read the flyer announcing the opening, I was puzzled. A fiesta to launch a used-goods store? Earlier that week I had spotted a Monet print that at ten dollars I thought too expensive for a thrift store. Then Rosita the manager, a native of Guatemala suggested I attend La Fiesta. ?We?ll give you a 20% discount on the picture."

So here I am, where the poor shop. Not the least bit ashamed of being a thrift-store junkie. From what I know, many of my friends, struggling writers all, shop at second-hand stores. Naomi, a mural artist admits she gets her clothes at the Goodwill. She once bought an antique lace curtain and made it into a stunning skirt

Outside, a mariachi group is setting up along the sidewalk as Rosita sets out hot dogs, salsa, chips and cokes. The food is free, which is why little kids are lining up. "Our Councilman will be here soon," Rosita whispers. ?He helped make this happen."

Most second-hand stores cater to the working-class poor: folks who have to watch every penny and aren't too proud to wear cast-offs. But not always! Antique dealers (with x-ray eyes and ready cash) also shop at used stores. Stealth-like, they wander the aisles, circle items of value. In their best Spanish, they try to bargain with the cashiers, but not with Rosario.

Most of my paintings were bought at garage sales and thrift shops: Degas, Gaugins, Monets and Picassos. All in perfect condition. All for a small pittance. I'm adept at framing and hanging pictures; I keep screws and picture wire handy. Last year at this very store I bought two Salvador Dali prints for my son in Boston; he likes cubism, a style I've never understood. Although I wrapped los cuadros in bubble wrap and hand carried them on the plane, the glass cracked.

Much to my disappointment, there are few paintings on display today. It could be the clerks hid them for themselves, a common practice, I'm told. But clothes and shoes are selling like hotcakes.

Books are what I most buy. Some second-hand stores sell out-of-print books. My 9 bookcases boast many First Editions: Churchill's early works, Hemingway's best-sellers, and a beautifully illustrated copy of Lorna Doone, which I?d read in high school. My best acquisition is a 1894 edition of Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter.

Thrift stores are a great place to find vintage clothes. My friend Lisa prefers boutiques on Melrose where clothes once worn by Hollywood stars sell cheap. I envy Lisa's collection of 40s dresses splattered with beads and bright sequins. Most of all I dig the veiled hats that sit atop her closet.

In my teens I had to drive my mother to a local Goodwill. I hated this errand, afraid my classmates at San Fernando High would see me - and make fun. Unlike my hometown Pacoima, San Fernando had sidewalks and many department stores, including the Goodwill. While my mother browsed I hid in the car, listening to the Drifters.

My mother bought clothes to send to Mexico. My uncles, who came here as braceros, made periodic trips home. Like most immigrants, they hoarded their dollars, made them stretch. Prior to their leaving my mother bought bags of used clothes: pants, shirts and shoes for their families. All for a low price.

Once while at la Goodwill my mother needed my help with her purchases. While she paid I picked through a stack of pants. At that time all the hep chicks wore Levis; I was no exception. The tighter, the better! Just then my hands came to rest on a pair of grey cashmere pants, fullly lined, that sold for $2.00. I dashed to the pseudo dressing room (a curtained alcove) and slipped them on. They fit like a glove. My mother was happy to pay.

The next day I wore them to school, then to football games and to parties. I refused to loan them to friends. I wore holes in them until they came apart.

Alas! The Monet is gone! While I was checking out books someone else beat me to it. But, all is not lost. I found a Degas print for $5.00. I couldn?t wait for the Councilman?s speech, but once the crowd thins, I'll be back.

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