In bargain hunting, as in gang warfare, if you’re going to join the fray, you’d better be prepared to get cut. The Goodwill Outlet’s only decoration is a series of large blue signs posted every few feet, warning shoppers about potentially sharp objects mixed in with “our goods.” The “our” is underlined to emphasize that Goodwill Industries has no truck with sharpness, and any piercing items one might unearth—a stray machete, say, or a roll of barbed wire—have been carelessly left behind by fellow shoppers.
As it turned out, I encountered nothing more menacing than an especially itchy sweater on my first visit to the Outlet, but I had no way of knowing this when I arrived. The rows of blue plastic bins filling the otherwise bare room exuded an aura of mystery and danger. Each was the size of a pool table and piled several feet deep with a chaotic tangle of merchandise, loosely sorted into heaps of clothes, books, videos and housewares.
There was no telling what I might find. A rare toy worth thousands on eBay? A colony of indigenous Pygmies? One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them? The friend who’d brought me had discovered two designer handbags—a Fendi and a Gucci—on previous visits. I doubted I’d be savvy enough to recognize such a chi-chi find, so I modestly hoped for a cute winter coat or a useful cookbook.
Only one thing was certain: Whatever I discovered—be it Gucci clutch or Pygmy king—would be mine for the low, low price of $1.29 a pound. Therein lies the beauty of the Goodwill Outlet: What is sacrificed in terms of ambience and organization is more than repaid in affordability.
The items at the Outlet are brought from other Goodwill stores in the Sacramento area where they failed to sell. The bins are these goods’ last hurrah before they are recycled, sold for scrap materials or thrown away. Goodwill Industries of Sacramento Valley and Northern Nevada is proud of the fact that its efforts keep more than 9 million pounds out of landfills every year. It’s an amazing achievement that relies, in part, on the desire of people like me to purchase things we don’t really need at deep-discount prices. (Hey, we all do our share.)
Inside the store, groups of women chattered in various languages and picked through the clothes like magpies. Some clearly were on a lunch-break lark while others, who had fashioned beds for their children in the store’s shopping carts, seemed settled for the day. A surprising number of male shoppers sorted through bins of videos and books. My friend pointed out three gents she’d seen on every visit, pouncing on each new table of records as it emerged from the back room. We guessed they were resellers, looking to capitalize on the rare recordings most of us were too clueless to appreciate.
Unsure about bin-sharing etiquette, I moved toward an unattended one and began digging. Within minutes, I had an awesome silk blouse and deep muscle aches in both arms. There was no way to examine the piles without scooping up merchandise and tossing it aside, and the repeated effort proved quite strenuous.
I only lasted an hour. My arms were throbbing, but I’d amassed a nice little pile of garments. There were no mirrors or dressing rooms, so I awkwardly pulled a few sweaters over my clothes, turning this way and that so my friend could render her judgment. I put a few things back, but I bought most of it. Knowing a potentially ill-fitting shirt would cost 75 cents made it easy to justify the fashion risk.
I walked out with a ski vest, two sweaters, four blouses and a sun hat, all weighing in at 3.78 pounds. Grand total: $4.88. After a quick run through the wash at home, I tried everything on and decided to keep it all—except for one sparkly sweater that proved interminably itchy. That one I’ll give to Goodwill.