September 01, 2011

A Cross-Country Trek to Document What Americans Give Away

In June, Jenna Isaacson, a freelance photojournalist, climbed behind the wheel of a recreational vehicle to begin a summer trek across the United States.

Her mission: to document how Americans rely on second-hand goods and thrift stores. Goodwill Industries International helped sponsor her seven-week trip, which began June 18 in Phoenix, and recently ended in the same city after she crisscrossed the country through 30 states.

Along the way, she visited more than 60 thrift stores, traveling 10,200 miles.

A Chronicle reporter met her about halfway through her journey in Wisconsin and was curious about the rest of the trip.

One challenge was money. She acknowledged to readers of her blog called "All Thrifty States" that gas was eating up most of the $7,559 she collected through Kickstarter, a fund-raising Web site, to pay for the trip, and she needed to raise more. Readers pitched in to make additional gifts.

"I probably got about $1,200 during the trip," she says. "It helped. I basically went into Phoenix on fumes, so if I hadn't had that last-minute donation push, I wouldn't have been able to make it."

Later this year, Ms. Isaacson plans to try to raise more money and look for more sponsors so she can travel through the rest of the 50 states, including Hawaii and Alaska.

Ms. Isaacson says one of the highlights of her trip included a visit to a thrift shop on an American Indian reservation in northwestern New Mexico.

The store's goods are donated by mail since people live far away from one another on the reservation, Ms. Isaacson says.

The store is the biggest employer in the area, offers school supplies for kids, provides hot showers, delivers water throughout the reservation, and helps families cope after disasters.

The customers in that store were quite a contrast to one she met in Indiana. A thrift-store shopper in her 60s, who was single, told her: "I cut corners everywhere I can—food, entertainment, clothing, everything —and I've been able to buy two Mercedes-Benzes with cash, and I just wrote a check to build my own house."

A wide range of America's class spectrum can be seen through thrift stores, Ms. Isaacson concludes. "It's completely represented in thrift stores. There's people who don't have homes shopping there, and there are people who can buy homes in cash because they shop there."

Ms. Isaacson's goal for her trip was to peek into America's collective closet, and what did she find?

"We buy way too much stuff," she said, adding, "You can pretty much guarantee you'll find something from Las Vegas in every thrift store—except Las Vegas."

See more about the All Thrifty States trip in the audio slideshow above, with photographs by Ms. Isaacson and The Chronicle.

Want to know what it's like to go through a busy Goodwill store in Wisconsin? For a taste, ride on our cart cam: