Nothing prepared me for a thrifting trip to ‘The Bins’

October 30, 2022 8:00 am

Shoppers “harvest” the bins at Goodwill on Southeast 14th Street in Des Moines. (Photo by Robert Leonard)

Iowa Writers 'Collaborative. Linking Iowa readers and writers.My daughter Johanna was home from college over the weekend, and “thrifting” was on her mind. So, wanting to spend as much time with her as possible, my wife Annie and I tagged along with her to the Goodwill on S.E. 14th Street in Des Moines, and I’m happy we did. I was exposed to a part of our world that I didn’t know existed.

Johanna has been thrifting with her friends for years, and I had gone with her before to small thrift shops, but those earlier trips did nothing to prepare me for a fascinating cultural experience at “The Bins.”

When we walked in, Johanna and Annie took off, knowing what to do. I just wandered around, trying to learn about what was happening.

Just a sample of the vast array of merchandise in “The Bins” at Goodwill. (Photo by Robert Leonard)

The store is vast, with wall-to-wall blue bins in rows. There are two types of merchandise in the bins; “hard lines” and “soft lines.” Hard lines are toys, records, shoes, and assorted items. Soft lines are clothing. Hard line signs are dark blue, soft line signs are light blue. People engage aggressively with both the hard and soft lines, and the bins “churn” with merchandise as hands move it around.

There are a lot of “clunking” noises with the hard lines, as all items are tossed quickly and casually aside after inspection, and being “hard” lines, they clunk. Soft lines gently flop, almost whispering.  Along the walls are static displays of lamps and larger electronics like at a traditional retail outlet. There are also static displays of sunglasses, sanitizing supplies, and framed works of art.

Photos don’t show the speed involved with harvesting. Watch the video below, please. People are working fast, trying to identify and claim items they believe to be valuable before someone else does.

I’m calling the people processing merchandise harvesters. What they are doing is little different than what many farmworkers do, manually harvesting product, whether it is strawberries or carrots; fortunately, the height of the bins means that the work isn’t stoop labor. They are working as fast as they can to ascertain through mental calculation and experience the value and desirability of an item, and if deemed valuable, to harvest it before someone else does.

Christina, left, and Rosanna oversee the Goodwill store. (Photo by Robert Leonard)

Since I often feel like I know so little about the world around me in general, I always seek out people who are knowledgeable and who are willing to teach me. Christina, to the left, and Rosanna, on the right, graciously agreed to answer my questions. I didn’t think to ask them their titles, but to me, they seemed like floor managers. But really, they were the ones who kept this organized chaos under control. If you allow me just a little hyperbole, people like Christina and Rosanna stand in the breach between civilization and the apocalypse!

Here is my interview with them.

They tell me that most of the merchandise sells for $1.59 per pound. Some of the electronics, appliances, lamps, etc., are individually priced if they are good brands and in good shape, but most go for $1.59 each.

There are strict rules — NO pushing, shoving, reaching over each other, or taking things out of other people’s carts.

“It’s kind of crazy in here sometimes,” said Christina.

“Sometimes there’s mad drama,” added Rosanna.

The above video shows what happens when new bins are brought in. A voice comes over the loudspeaker, saying “clear the aisles, including carts,” and announces where the new carts will be going. Harvesters move into place, waiting for the arrival of bins. The bins are then pushed in, and harvesters wait until given the signal that they can begin harvesting. Go!

Christina and Rosanna tell me about 20 regulars visit daily. Regulars are always waiting at the doors before the store opens at 10 a.m. While waiting, harvesters look through the windows to see which bins have materials left in them from yesterday, and they watch as bins are wheeled in with new merchandise to ascertain if there might be items of value in a particular bin or bins. When the doors open, they rush to the fresh bins.

Rosanna says most regulars have their own shops, or resell the products online. Some just come and buy things for themselves, and “there are a lot of newbies every day.”

One woman has her own YouTube channel where she videos herself at the bins. Apparently, she makes her living through her videos.

“Wish I had thought of that,” said Rosanna, laughing.

Rosanna and Christina tell me that while most of the time people behave well, sometimes there are arguments, and people will call each other names, and sometimes people need to be told to leave, or police need to be called. People will often record each other on their phones when there are disagreements.

“There are a lot of homeless people that come in … a lot of people on … just out of their minds that come in, and they act crazy, and they’ll cause drama and cause problems and we’ll ask them to leave and have to call the cops sometimes, but I mean for the most part its fun, its a fun thing to thrift.”

According to Goodwill, there are 18 stores around Des Moines that contribute to “The Bins,” and 10 new bins are rotated on the floor every hour.

Thrifting is especially popular among individuals of Generation Z, born between 1995 and 2010. The secondhand market is projected to reach $77 billion by 2025 — up from $36 billion in 2021 — and is growing at a whopping 11 times the rate of the broader retail clothing sector, according to a report from the retail analytics firm GlobalData.

Paige Lippman, a college student and reseller in New Jersey, has an idea why young people are interested in thrifting.

“I think like the three principles I kind of go off of are convenience, sustainability and affordability.” says Lippman. “I think those are the great things that college kids are very, very appealing to them.”

As one might suspect, there is specific thrifting jargon. Some see thrifting as a joyful addiction. Some consider the status of thrift shop items as artifacts: “Thrift shops are … cultural heritage sites in which are staged and saved artifacts from the past, usually from the ’80s and ’90s … they are places in which the past meets the present … they are about inclusive heritage where most of us can afford to buy something from the past.”

There are critiques of thrifting, with some suggesting that by thrifting, the affluent are “stealing from the poor.” There are conversations regarding the “ethics” of thrifting, and much, much more. I didn’t see any evidence that anyone was “stealing from the poor,” because there was so much to go around at “The Bins.”

To me, thrifting is a kind of resistance. A resistance to consumerism and to “Big Capitalism.” It’s a people’s capitalism that boldly undermines the corporate world. That young people visibly embrace and celebrate thrifting is also significant social and generational commentary.

I went to YouTube and learned that there are many Goodwill stores across the country that are called “The Bins” and there are a great many people making videos sharing information on what they gathered during their visits, along with their strategies for successful resale. Some of the people making the videos have thousands of subscribers. In the videos the young women seem normal. Some of the men in thrifting videos are creepy. Creeeeeeepy!

Of course, I have to ROCK (RAP?) the song “Thrift Shop” by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis.

But hey, there’s a great book on thrifting by Allison Engel, Reise Moore and Margaret Engel! I bought my copy from Jan at Beaverdale Books. I thought it would be a good Christmas present for Johanna, so please don’t tell her!

Robert Leonard’s column appeared originally at “Deep Midwest: Politics and Culture.” It is republished here through the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.

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Robert Leonard
Robert Leonard

Robert Leonard is the author of the blog "Deep Midwest: Politics and Culture," on Substack. He also hosts a public affairs program for KNIA/KRLS radio in the south-central Iowa towns of Knoxville, Pella, and Indianola. His columns have been published in the New York Times, TIME, the Des Moines Register and more.