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Thrift Store Death Spiral I

Thrift Store Death Spiral – One

As someone who moved away from home early I often had to find ways to stretch my funds. It wasn’t an entirely unfamiliar situation. At that time, which was before Wal-Mart, before Amazon, and just as Dollar stores were opening across Toronto, anyone seeking discount retail value only really found it at second-hand and thrift shops. Early in my teen years I’d found second-hand bookshops a great place to discover new stories and authors. Not always the broad selection available at the retail chains, but a reliable source for some of the greats, and at a discount. Downtown had an abundance of used book shops, while my own suburban neighbourhood had only two. The calculus involved turned any search for a new book into something of an adventure. Really hunting around for the right book at the right place and the right price was a fun day out for my teenage self.

There’s more to life than reading, and more to books than shopping. Putting my acquisitive experience on a more practical footing, I did a lot of comparison and measuring, usually around cost but also which edition and what cover art any given book might have, the condition it was in, and whether it would fit in my back pocket. Thrift stores were, naturally, a resource. They could be found, much like franchise fast-food joints, paired up and competing wherever they stood. My apartment wasn’t large, which set a high bar for what came through the door. Small pieces of furniture, records, books, and miscellaneous tools and implements all had to meet criteria beyond simple need or desire.

Goodwill, Salvation Army, Value Village, there were perhaps one or two others… They each had that same distinct odour. (I mean, it’s not a bad smell, really, but if you give it any thought it’s definitely enough to make your skin crawl.) This being before the internet, I sought new information and guidance browsing book sections. There were usually a lot of books on spiritual and religious matters, pop psychology, and a hodge-podge of card game and car mechanics guides. My own hobbies were primarily gardening and house plants at that time. Having taken a deep interest in those subjects, the abundance of magazines and reference material was like a feast to me. The fiction was all pretty mainstream, and there were the inevitable large-format discount hardback books full of glossy pages recommending poorly designed culinary fusions, shoddy homeopathic advice, and unproven crafting projects. Adherence to genre and category were lax on the shelf, and the amount of attention paid to monitoring was limited to clumps of new arrivals all being fit into the appropriate section, resulting in a process of natural selection disturbed only by curious and indecisive shoppers.

Across franchises and locations the selection was at times uncannily similar, even consistent. Noticing this, I would often speculate on how much effort I ought to put into scrutinizing the shelves. A usual trip thrift store shopping was with my girlfriend at the time, which meant we were browsing with purpose. My approach would be to break away and give the book shelves a quick scan, just because. That would sometimes pay off, though not as often as a more thorough search. In some stores, though, a thorough look could take as long as an hour. To save time, I developed a kind of consumer profiling system in which I would try to predict behaviour. I’d guess at which would be the least-often-browsed sections, usually the uppermost and lowest shelves. It was easy spotting where no books had been added or removed. Using this approach, I could, when I made the rounds of our shops, focus my search in areas that I knew few others would have looked. Additionally, I relied on the probability that an employee adding books to the shelves would go about their work applying the least effort, and made plans to influence where they would apply their efforts. To this day I remember observing those upper shelves developing movement at a much slower rate than mid-level shelves. By creating gaps on the top shelves, I found I could encourage placement of new additions there so that I would get first crack. Another tactic I tried out involved basing my level of time-commitment on how quickly I came across a copy of the novel, ‘Coma,’ which virtually every thrift store had a copy of. It was a little unusual to find that book absent. Hard as I tried I couldn’t make a correlation between the selection available and the volume of copies of that book. No doubt there’s some explanation related to demographics and timing, sales, distribution, and the appetite for (re-reading) thrillers, but that was all beyond my expertise and interest. Ultimately I found that while I could influence the probability of success (as I defined it), I had no reliable way to predict my chances, so I just read every title on every shelf and sorted the wheat from the chaff.

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