Northern Virginians explore the region’s thrift & consignment stores as an opportunity to consume and contribute with greater awareness.
By Elizabeth Vittori / Photography by Fracis Tatum
It’s a rapidly spreading trend and new source of bragging rights among a growing number of affluent Northern Virginians. No longer discussed in hushed tones, shopping thrift has become mainstream throughout this region.
The immediate success of the History Channel’s “American Pickers” and decorating blogs like Nesting Place helped coin the term “thrifting.” The expression describes the passion many people feel about the thrill of a pursuit for undiscovered treasures.
Considered by a growing legion of residents to be the new antiquing, “thrifting” not only offers the opportunity to get much more for a lot less; many here say it is a way to consume more conscientiously and efficiently. For those with a discerning eye, it can even be a serendipitous source of income.
For Sydney Sawyer of Clifton, thrifting isn’t just a pastime; it is a way of life. Sawyer is a physical therapist and volunteer leader. Some might be surprised to know that she prefers to buy and wear thrift. She has long been open about the source of her family’s inimitable style, converting scores of friends to the benefits of shopping and donating more mindfully.
A lifelong animal advocate, she regularly donates goods to the Humane Society Thrift Shop in downtown Fairfax. “In time, I started shopping there. I used to write a check. Now, I donate and shop. It provides the opportunity to directly give twice to a very worthwhile charity.”
Northern Virginia’s growing array of thrift and consignment stores now offers a virtually unlimited shopping experience, from “big box” to boutique and everything in between.
Stores like Unique Thrift in Falls Church and the newly opened B Thrifty in Woodbridge have capitalized on the movement.
Not your mother’s thrift stores, these massive, Costco-scale spaces of over 100,000 square feet are for-profit businesses that display as many as a quarter of a million items at one time. A nearly endless selection offers furniture, housewares, clothing and electronics for a fraction of retail prices. “They offer more variety. It’s like shopping in multiple stores at once. It saves time,” says Sawyer. Recent better Unique Thrift finds include an oversized, hardwood farm table for $25 and a like-new pair of men’s Timberland hiking boots.
B Thrifty in Woodbridge aims to improve on Unique’s mega-successful model, says co-founder Joon Park. Owners recruited former Unique Thrift general manager Robert Montero to help lead the ambitious effort. In addition to wider aisles and hyper-organized merchandise, owners hope fitting rooms and a shoe department will provide a near-retail experience for customers within a 30-mile radius.
The fledgling enterprise targets “current thrift shoppers and military as part of our customer base,” according to Park. “We want to convert even more customers and push boundaries.”
“An online presence and social media were important from day one,” Park asserts. Opening day had more than 800 would-be customers anticipating the grand opening of this thrift outlet, replete with an international bazaar, food court and U.S. Post Office.
Within weeks of an August 2011 opening, the store had 6,000 members of its “BIP” customer loyalty program and 700 Facebook fans.
Entrepreneur Tom VanBlaricom of Fairfax Station has made a point of supporting smaller, locally owned businesses throughout Northern Virginia. He shops thrift because “it’s smart.” He says, “This is 2011. What is cool is finding unknown treasures for pennies on the dollar. What’s not cool is paying full price. It’s an adventure.”
Robin Graine, a divorce mediator in Fairfax, started thrifting when shopping for formals for her then 8-year-old’s “fashion show” birthday party. “I’m interested in very fine clothes that I generally wouldn’t be able to afford,” but she “also looks for fun dishes and yard ornaments.”
Among Graine’s favorite stores are the upscale consignment shop Chic Envy in Fairfax Corner and Rose Too at the intersection of Main Street and Route 236 in downtown Fairfax.
Located next to “big sister” Yesterday’s Rose, Rose Too might pass as a retail boutique. Ambience and period music make shopping for distinctive and varied merchandise a sensory experience. That is no accident, according to Judy Stone, store manager.
Packed with eye candy, best finds include: a pale blue, sweetly beaded cashmere sweater from Bonwit Teller that evokes 1958; a black leather and shearling-lined coat that might retail for over $1,000, price $85; a set of English transferware, $45; and vintage sterling silver cake and pie servers in original sapphire blue velvet-lined cases, $20. And all purchases benefit the Arc of Northern Virginia and the National Council of Jewish Women locally.
Thrifting is Sound
I firmly believe in reduce, reuse, recycle. With thrift, there’s no waste. That’s why I donate too,” Sawyer says. Music teacher Jacquie Lambertson agrees. “I like reusing things. I want things in my home that have meaning or history. I like keeping things from filling up our landfills and other precious natural resources.”
Donna Netschert owns Village TimeSavers, an organizational and errand service. She considers thrifting “one of the highest forms of recycling.” Netschert regularly donates to Clock Tower Thrift and encourages clients to do the same. Donors receive a coupon for a discount on purchases. “It’s a win/win. I drop off things I no longer need but others can use, and reward myself with one useful item.”
Located near the interchange of I-66 and Routes 28 and 29, Clock Tower Centreville is a convenient stop in the Southwestern part of Fairfax County. While the store offers a respectable selection of general merchandise, best finds are housewares. These include a solid selection of attractive serving pieces. Plenty of parking and less foot traffic add to this store’s appeal. Centreville and Falls Church locations both benefit Northern Virginia Family Services.
Loudoun Habitat for Humanity Executive Director Jeff Dee says the organization’s volunteer-run Purcellville ReStore is a lean operation. Customer purchases of home fixtures and furnishings don’t just help build build local homes. Every dollar spent at a Restore prevents 1.3 pounds of waste from accumulating in a landfill, according to Dee. Habitat for Humanity operates additional ReStores in Alexandria and Chantilly, as well as Fauquier and Prince William counties.
Outside Leesburg’s historic district, Twice is Nice is run by the Ladies Board of Loudoun Inova Hospital Center. Super-organized inventory will appeal to china and better tableware collectors. The shop also offers an extensive selection of books, women’s clothing and seasonal decorations. Twice is Nice and the “Ladies” famed rummage sale, a year-round Herculean effort organized by several hundred volunteers, raises hundreds of thousands of dollars annually, with funds supporting nursing scholarships and “wish list” equipment that improves patient care.
The concentration of charitable thrift stores in Leesburg’s historic district and neighboring shopping centers testifies to this community’s altruistic commitment. Thrift’s growing popularity has even created a degree of friendly competition according to Sue Ross, manager of Blue Ridge Hospice’s (BRH) flagship store in Purcellville. A former retail manager, Ross says the organization’s six stores are making a concerted effort to organize and style their wares. “We’re stepping it up to provide a really good shopping experience.” In an effort to market the store, Ross publicizes events like pajama day and storewide treasure hunts. Higher-end items, like a one-of-a-kind, hand-painted Italian ceramic tea service, are sold by silent auction at the checkout counter. An increase in thrift purchases helped BRH provide nearly a quarter of a million dollars in patient care in 2010.
Loudoun CARES is an umbrella organization that fosters communication among local nonprofits. Forty-year Loudoun resident and CARES Vice President Susan Snyder says, “Individual organizations are avoiding a silo effect by keeping each other in mind. Many separate entities are networking and working creatively on a greater level to help residents here in need.”
Consignment Boutique’s co-owner, Marilyn Naylor, says her shop is “all about service.” A “New with Tags” section and on-site seamstress two days a week helped earn the shop a nomination for Leesburg’s Best New Business award this year. In addition to better women’s ready-to-wear and jewelry, the shop carries essentially unused decorator items used by realtors to stage model homes. Naylor says retired state department employees and home organizers also provide a steady stream of desirable consignments. Consignment Boutique donates unsold items to BRH thrift stores.
Increased competition is evident across NoVA as the industry’s usual suspects continue to refine their public image. At the Goodwill store in downtown Fairfax, employees were vacuuming and greeting customers; merchandise was neatly displayed and pressed. Clothing is sold for a flat price according to category (sweaters $5.98, sport coats $7.98) A large flat-screen Sharp television in perfect condition was listed for $199.
In 2003, Janet McGill’s former Maryland neighborhood was leveled by a hurricane. She credits the Salvation Army with providing the meals and assistance her community needed to recover. She says she prefers to donate to and shop at the Salvation Army store near her current Manassas home, “not only because it’s large, organized and clean but because I believe in the cause.”
An avid thrifter and art collector, McGill also shops www.shopgoodwill.com, a searchable auction website and online clearing house for higher-end items. McGill has obtained several pieces by her favorite artists here, including one by the British Impressionist Algernon Talmage. She says she purchased a signed print for $32, later learning its value was nearly $2,000.
Thrifting Can Be a Salary
Elaine Singer, of Great Falls, knows “plenty of women who can afford to pay full price but shop consignment just for the bargain.” Three years ago, the 20-year veteran of the high-tech industry opened a Plato’s Closet, a national group of 300 “upscale resale” shops that targets shoppers under the age of 25.
Before opening a store near the Dulles Town Center, Singer did extensive research and confirmed consignment and thrift were becoming mainstream.
Singer’s store has successfully tapped another market. “My 25- to 55-year- old market is exploding. In Northern Virginia, women keep themselves up and dress trends.”
Her store offers a variety of designer items that appeal to a crossover population. Consignors are forewarned: “If you wouldn’t purchase the clothing, it’s not suited for Plato’s Closet.”
Lara Cofer, personal stylist and owner of Fairfax’s Ooh La Lara, says her review of clients’ closets inspired her toward resale for the top one percent of the market. In helping dress Northern Virginia’s elite, she often noticed unused ladies merchandise by designers like Gucci and Chanel, and encouraged women to purge them. She sells items for her clients online, receiving a commission in return. This allows her clients to invest those earnings in new purchases at department stores like Neiman Marcus.
Thrifting is a Search
“I like fun stuff and junk,” claims Donna Nickum, a 40-year antique dealer who hails from Clifton.
The extensive assortment of wares she sells by appointment from her converted garage might be considered well outside the traditional thrift realm. Though she admits it’s become more challenging and expensive in recent years, Nickum says, “You can always find treasures.”
Collectors visiting her home will likely feel like they have happened onto one of Willy Wonka’s golden tickets. Every corner lovingly showcases her life’s passion, antique collections.
Her vast assemblage of antique hat pins and salt cellars alone is astounding. Her treasures and her knowledge have repeatedly captured the attention of the Smithsonian Institute and antique periodicals.
Nickum spends several days a week searching area estate sales and auctions. She still looks for items that she calls “sleepers; unique collectables that can be quite valuable.” Nickum explains, “The thrill of the hunt, the next deal” compels her continued, enthusiastic search.
Jacquie Lambertson, of Clifton, echoes that sentiment. “My mother is an antique dealer. We grew up stopping at yard sales and thrift stores. Thrifting is looking without having a particular item in mind. It allows you to discover a hidden treasure.”
Likewise, Sawyer’s unending search “provides a sense of familiarity and nostalgia.” She says of her pursuit, “There are things from my childhood that I’m still looking for and will find. I just know I will.”
Best of Thrift
Best Bang for Buck
2956 Gallows Road, Falls Church, VA 22042
Mon-Sat 10 a.m. – 8 p.m., Sun 11 a.m. – 6 p.m.
Those with only $10 to spend won’t leave empty-handed. Parking can be a challenge on Mondays and Thursdays when all merchandise is 25 percent off list price. Get 50 percent off store inventory on federal holidays.
Best for a Fashion Risk
45591 Dulles Eastern Plaza, Suite 138, Sterling, VA 20166
Mon-Fri 10 a.m. – 8 p.m., Sat 10 a.m. – 7 p.m., Sun noon – 5 p.m.
Thirty- and 40-somethings who want to test drive trends can snag a pair of skinny jeans and shades without fear of commitment or retail sticker shock.
Best for a Fashion Reward: Town
11895 Grand Commons Ave., Fairfax, VA 22030
Mon-Sat 10 a.m. – 8 p.m., Sun 1 p.m. – 6 p.m.
Deeply discounted Chanel and St. Johns grace the racks of this designer-only consignment shop. While a full-length black mink may be out of reach for most shoppers, cases of “old boyfriend” jewelry from Tiffany and better shoes make brilliant buys for many.
Best for a Fashion Reward: Country
302 Industrial Court SE, Leesburg, VA 20175
Mon noon – 6 p.m., Tues-Fri 10 a.m. – 6 p.m., Sat 10 a.m. – 5 p.m., Sun noon – 4 p.m.
This shop appeals to those who spend weekends at Point to Point and Gold Cup. Better labels at reasonable prices means shoppers will be able to indulge in the handmade jewelry from local artisans.
Best for Vintage Accessories and Gifts
10385 Main St., Fairfax, VA 22030
Mon-Wed 10 a.m. – 6 p.m., Thurs 10 a.m. – 7 p.m., Fri-Sat 10 a.m. – 6 p.m., Sun 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Approved by staff’s knowledgeable eye, merchandise meets premium standards. Those who love accessories or long to give meaningful gifts will leave happy. Shop Thursdays for 75-percent savings.
Habitat for Humanity
ReStore Best Just Cause
Multiple NoVA Locations; www.habitat.org
Mon-Fri 10 a.m. – 8 p.m., Sat 10 a.m. – 7 p.m., Sun noon – 5 p.m.
ReStores offer appliances and home goods at 50-90 percent off retail. ReStore’s mantra is “miss a day, miss a deal,” so check inventory frequently. Money spent directly funds the building of homes in the region.
Humane Society Thrift Shop
Falls Church: 703-533-9268
Clock Tower Thrift
Blossom & Bloom
Twice is Nice