Everyone has their own favorite neighborhood thrift store, the name and location of which they guard with the close-lipped fervor of Allied operatives keeping state secrets from the Nazis. Each store specializes in merchandise subject to the individual whims of its proprietor. Aardvark's Odd Ark has long been the place to go for retro dresses, vintage skirts and plain, white button-up and pastel, ruffle-front prom tuxedo shirts. Jet Rag on La Brea Boulevard is alternately scorned and worshipped for its dense collection of overpriced, costume-y Jackie O. dresses and patterned, pointy-collared polyester '70s shirts. The Goodwill and Salvation Army stores are hit or miss, depending on the location and season. Some people swear by the clean but relatively expensive Council Thrift stores, run by the National Council of Jewish Women. Council Thrifts focus on used designer apparel and accessories. At the West L.A. locations, which include a brand-spanking-new one on Santa Monica Boulevard, it's not out of the question to spot a pair of Blahniks for 40 bucks, a Coach purse for a hundred.
Furniture-wise, Pepe's Thrifty Shop in Culver City is a tiny Dickensian vintage oasis. Barely bigger than a studio apartment, cane chairs and midcentury nightstands pile here atop antique credenzas, crowned by hanging chandeliers and sconces. You have to scoot sideways down the single looping aisle and be ready to pounce upon a desired item: Stuff here is value priced and moves fast.
The Lincoln Heights location of St. Vincent de Paul, however, is a different beast entirely. The Costco of thrift shops, it is all these stores rolled into one. Friendships have broken up over sharing the location of this no-longer-hidden spot. It's a sprawling, workmanlike place, 90,000 square feet, packed to the rafters, where on Sundays Mexican families shop for hours after church. You could furnish an entire house on the sheer glut of merchandise here, from armoires to wrought-iron bed frames. Men's, women's and children's clothes, mainly from the '80s and '90s, are so cheap (five pieces for $3 for the pink-tag items) you'll feel like you stole them. It is the home of the $9 file cabinet; the $10 pleated-shade lamp.
Recently, I spied a set of four wicker chairs that I'd swear were Breuers, for $59. Also: a midcentury lighted dressing table (minus the light, minus the mirror). An old Westinghouse freezer, the kind with a pull latch that kids get trapped in and suffocate, $399. A desultory flock of kids' bikes, $29 a pop, roosting by the exercise equipment. Every single hexagonal 1970s drum table has come for a stopover here on its way to hipster homes across the city.
There is a truly magnificent gallery of used electronics in the back, near the so very, very sad stuffed-toy table overwhelmed by crusty teddy bears and no-longer-purple Barney dolls. Wireless three-channel intercom for $3, anyone? Perhaps an Emerson clock-radio tape player, with the previous owner's “Island Tranquility” meditation tape still inside. While the women rove the dress aisles, the men slake their gadget lust here with Beta tape rewinders and $7.99 Hitachi rice cookers.
Tucked behind the freeway overpass on North Avenue 21 just short of downtown, it's invariably dingy and dusty in the store. Trucks heavy with new furniture come and go, belching exhaust fumes into the front docking zone. Loaded down with armfuls of cheap treasure, you'll crave a refreshing shower after a visit to St. Vincent de Paul's. For the stuff you can't haul home on your own, they now even have same-day delivery. But steer clear of the sofas. They are ghastly. And they always seem to have someone's overheated, sweaty octogenarian grandmother already sitting on them.