H ardcore thrifters hardcore thrift.
They understand the various subtleties of Savers, Salvo (Salvation Army) and Goodwill. They know the weekly discount days. They check to see which colored tag is on sale. They see national holidays as chances to observe heavier savings.
Yet even some thrifters aren’t familiar with the concept of a thrift store outlet. Isn’t regular thrifting already the most outlet-y kind of shopping? Aren’t you already sifting through the castoffs and discards, the one-offs and defects?
Yes, but you could be going deeper. You could be shopping on State Street in Hamden, near the North Haven line, at the Goodwill Outlet Store—or, in texting parlance, GWO.
In Connecticut, there are many Goodwill retail locations, with more popping up (hello, Waterbury!). But there’s only one GWO—the place where the items that don’t sell in the regular stores get one last shot at a forever home. Mostly sold by the pound, they’re discarded or recycled if no one claims them.
This is truly the last stop on the thrift train, and it looks it. In a room the size of a school gym, wide, wheeled blue bins stand in for racks and shelves. Feeling like more of a processing center than a store, items are organized for size, shape and type, not aesthetic appeal. An army of chairs confronts you upon entering through the sliding glass double doors. In a corner are shopping carts (if you’re lucky) and a wooden construction cart piled high with motley rolled rugs.
Beneath painted steel beams and harsh fluorescent lighting, the bins are filled to the tops and paired up, creating three lines of twinned blue containers. Generally, one of these lines is filled with clothes, bedding and shoes, while the other two contain various assorted objects, from skis to family photo albums. A single-file line against the back wall has books, DVDs, vinyl and tapes.
The bins at GWO are switched out at random intervals, so there are always new objects and a constantly renewed sense of chance and hope. Crowds of shoppers track them as they burst through swinging double doors, a big brass bell announcing their arrival and warning people to get out of the way. Two staff members dressed in Goodwill blue escort the bin, one wheeling and steering and one making sure nothing falls out onto newbies or small children.
Veteran shoppers know that when one bin leaves the floor, another is soon to take its place. Drawn there as if by force, before the bell has even been sounded, they line the space where the old bin was, leaving just enough room for the new one. Once in place, they wait for it to stop moving before reaching in, lest they be rebuked by the staff and receive the ire of other shoppers.
The noise when a bin is first breached is uncanny. The churning of objects and shouts of exultation mix with the low rumble of the in-the-way stuff tumbling aside. Things can get testy; staff often have to act as “bin bouncers” when tempers flare.
There are GWO regulars and they can be territorial. They recognize each other by sight, if not by name. They know who specializes in what and they can be cutthroat, even filching from unattended carts. Others are friendlier and help each other locate desirable items or celebrate finds. Some wear protective gloves and some carry their own bags, eschewing big carts in favor of maneuverability.
Along the lefthand wall of GWO, a grove of furniture is individually ticketed and haphazardly arranged. Under signs reading “please do not sit on furniture,” cart-sitters do it anyway, crashing out atop tables or dressers. Such signs, many bilingual, appear throughout the store; one warns that the bins “may contain sharp items” while another reminds adults to supervise their kids. Other signs announce an “electronics testing station” and a scale used to weigh hauls pre-checkout.
The more you buy, the lower the price, starting at $1.59/lb. under 10 pounds. There are no dressing rooms and no mirrors at GWO. Trying on clothes is difficult, if not impossible, but an errant purchase isn’t going to break the bank, since it costs cents on the dollar compared to MSRP.
Located along the M3 bus line, GWO is an easy commute for many in neighboring communities. During the winter it’s warm and cozy; during the summer it’s cool and air-conditioned. With vending machines offering refreshments (even an ice cream machine), several tables and roomy, clean restrooms, some people stay all day.
Many, termed “pickers,” come to find items to sell online in order to supplement their incomes. Some seniors come to find company and stretch fixed incomes. One woman said she finds high-end brand name clothing for her grandchildren that she couldn’t otherwise afford. There are also cool-kids who tend to congregate around the records and couples walking hand in hand among the piles.
A notable immigrant population also shops at GWO. On any given day, you can hear people speaking Spanish, French and various Asian dialects. Some load carts with shoes to send back to their home countries, where these worn but intact items are badly needed and expensive to procure.
For some, there’s not just value but a community to access; for others, there’s profit. GWO is a department store of castaways, filled with the remainder of yesteryear and those who seek it out.
Written and photographed by Amy Larkin.