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All my clothing comes from stores with names like “Community Thrift Store,” “Family Thrift,” and “Vintage Value.” These are places several retail notches below Macy’s or Target, and even further down the retail chain from all the “dollar” stores. If “cheap used clothing” has an endearing ring for you, these are the places to shop. Here “second hand,” if not “third hand,” is an honored and expected description. And “clean,” clean is a nice word to run across.

I’ve been shopping in places like that for years. My weight fluctuates five or ten pounds either side of 165, thanks to diabetes. The more effectively my insulin pump works, the more emboldened I am to eat what I like and ignore a proper diet. Bad, I know, but I must be nimble and quick tending to my sartorial standards. So I have “fat” pants and “skinny” pants, two inexpensive wardrobes to accommodate the ups and downs as they happen.

Match slacks with a shirt from Community Thrift Store, and for seven bucks I’m good to go. If I need to suit up, add nine dollars for a suit coat. The only clothing I won’t buy second hand is the sort of second hand thing you wouldn’t want that close to you in the first place.

My favorite shop recently upscaled a bit. I’ve been going in and out of it for almost ten years and it was always cash only. Two years ago the owner added credit and debit card services. He mentioned business had more than tripled since the 2008 crash and more of the customers coming in expected to use plastic. Now he can afford the service while keeping prices about the same. He still won’t take a check, though.

All his clothing and home items arrive as donations or he makes bulk purchases. Before 2009 he could be picky about what he accepted. By the next year he was taking almost everything just to keep stocked. He and his clerks get it all cleaned up, presentable, and on the racks. It is a lot of work for the two-ninety-five shirt and four dollar slacks I’m likely to buy.

This, I figure, is the place people frequent when even Walmart seems too expensive. Laura Heller, a retail analyst, remarks in a Forbes online article that most Walmart shoppers have annual incomes under fifty thousand dollars. They are unlikely to have or use credit cards, and they shop Walmart from a budgetary imperative.

But in small rural towns, you will be hard pressed to find a Walmart. You are more likely to find one of the ubiquitous “dollar” incarnations: Dollar General, Dollar Tree, or Family Dollar.

If it is a standalone community with nothing bigger nearby, likely you will also find a Pamida along the main highway. Pamida, set to merge with Shopko this year, locates in communities of three to eight thousand. These stores along with the dollar stores serve what Heller respectfully calls “fly over country,” places where flags and parades mark our national holidays.

The dollar stores whether urban or rural, says Heller, serve the lowest-earning people in the United States, with incomes typically under twelve thousand dollars. Dollar Tree, Dollar General, and Family Dollar all report nearly identical customer characteristics. That, she explains, is why Macy’s, Nordstrom’s, or Target isn’t for everyone.

When I began assembling my diabetic closet, even the prices in Walmart and the dollar stores seemed formidable, certainly more than my chintzy soul wanted to pay for the privilege of adding a few pounds now and again. But I have a choice in the clothing I buy and, certainly, where I buy it. There is a sharp contrast existing between me and many of the people I shop with at Family Thrift.

Seems funny to put it like this but in a strangely twisted way, I am wealthy enough to afford the luxury of cheap clothing. A”let’s be honest”charmingly eccentric diabetic searching out second-hand four-dollar Dockers is amusing; okay, maybe nutty.

But as Heller reminds me to remember, for a lot of folks where they shop isn’t a matter of value or choice or anything else but absolute necessity. Shopping poor is sometimes “the difference between feeding and clothing their family or not.”

Russell E. Saltzman is dean of the Great Plains Mission District of the North American Lutheran Church , an online homilist for the Christian Leadership Center at the University of Mary, and author of The Pastor’s Page and Other Small Essays . His previous On the Square articles can be found here .


Laura Heller on shopping

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