News and analysis
July 26, 2011

A Tour of America's Thrift Stores Puts the Spotlight on Giving

Jenna Isaacson

The Brewer family shops in a Goodwill store in Rapid City, South Dakota.

Jenna Isaacson was lost. She was about an hour from her destination, a Goodwill thrift store in a Milwaukee suburb. Directions from her iPhone had led her to Waukesha, instead of Wauwatosa.

With a long sigh, she turned her 19-foot camper around and found her way to the thrift store, where her mood quickly brightened when she came across a black T-shirt with words in green: “Sponsored by ... Your Mom.” She bought it for $2.99.

The 32-year-old former newspaper photographer is on a cross-country road trip this summer to visit thrift stores in 32 states. Her goal? “To show people that thrift stores are not just places you go and donate stuff,” she says. “You’re saving money, you’re helping people, you’re helping your community, but you’re also saving things from your landfill.”

Footing the Bill

To pay for her 9,000-mile seven-week trip, Ms. Isaacson received $6,400 from Goodwill and raised another $7,600 on a Web site that helps new charitable efforts get off the ground. Even though she’s visiting stores run by a variety of charities, Goodwill hopes that the project will show the rich array of people who buy donated goods and call attention to the money its thrift shops bring in for job-training programs.

Ms. Isaacson says she wants to turn her journey into a book, a short documentary, or a traveling exhibit. Along the way, she’s blogging about it on her Web site called All Thrifty States.

The idea for the project came to Ms. Isaacson at 3 o’clock one sleepless night last year when she was down on her luck. After she was laid off from her newspaper job in Sarasota, Fla., she moved to be with her husband in Washington, D.C. But freelance photography gigs there were scarce.

Ms. Isaacson thought hard about her passions in life—thrift, travel, and photography—and combining those helped the project take shape in her mind. A friend suggested she use Kickstarter, a fund-raising site that enabled Ms. Isaacson to announce her project and seek contributions online.

A Search for Sponsors

By April, 90 days after she announced her idea, she had raised $7,600 from 193 supporters, friends, and strangers. Before going on the road, Ms. Isaac­son tried everything she could to attract sponsors, even brand­ishing her bright yellow All Thrifty States sign outside the “Today” show in New York.

She also marched down to the offices of O, Oprah Winfrey’s magazine, to deliver information about her project.

She even contacted Snapple, the company that makes her favorite drink, but Goodwill was the only one to bite after Ms. Isaacson pitched her idea. After a series of conference calls, Ms. Isaacson and the charity drew up a contract. Goodwill said it would pay for her recreational vehicle’s rental fee as long as she agreed to put its logo on the RV and visit and blog about at least a dozen Goodwill thrift stores.

Goodwill is also helping to promote the project through social networks and traditional news-media outlets.

“We felt a lot of synergy with her project,” says Lauren Lawson-Zilai, a Goodwill spokeswoman. “Jenna wanted to promote the fact that there are limited resources, and with the financial crisis, people are feeling that. Jenna’s served as a walking advertisement.”

The bad economy has been good to Goodwill, whose stores have seen foot traffic rise. The organization opened 83 stores in the first six months of this year, and in May total sales were 10.5 percent higher than a year earlier.

Frugal Childhood

Ms. Isaacson is one of the millions of Americans who have long shopped at thrift stores. She turned to them when she needed an outfit for a job interview, when she gained or lost weight, or when she needed furniture.

Life on the road is nothing new for her. Growing up in Kansas City, Mo., she and her family often took trips across the country, not stopping at hotels but sleeping in the car. It was a no-frills way to see America, she says.

In addition, she has what she calls “trucker blood.” Her 97-year-old grandfather, whom she credits for her thirst for thrift, was once a long-haul trucker. Using his senior-citizen discount, he often took her to thrift shops when she was young.

While thrift stores have become a valued resource for hard-pressed families in the economic downturn, Ms. Isaacson says she can’t help but think about how her grandfather’s generation would be aghast at everything today’s generation throws out.

“You didn’t just throw something out because you didn’t like it anymore,” she says. “You gave it away or you used it. We have become this throwaway culture.”

Friends as Hosts

The All Thrifty States project has had its ups and downs, Ms. Isaacson says.

She’s constantly worried she won’t have enough money to finish the trip. This summer’s high gas prices have eaten up much of what she raised online. She sometimes asks readers of her blog to contribute, but she is reluctant to overwhelm them with constant appeals. (She’s selling some of the items she bought, though: The “Sponsored by ... Your Mom” shirt, for instance, is now on eBay for $40—or best offer). Before the trip ends, she will probably need an additional $1,000 to $2,000 to pay for RV parking fees and gas, she says.

On the road, she’s battled the wind-tunnel effects that wind farms in the Northwest created, driving for miles with white-knuckled restraint, steering far to the left in order to go straight. And during a stormy night at an Iowa RV park, she huddled in the camper as strong winds, thunder, lightning, and pelting tree limbs buffeted her vehicle.

Physically, the demands of driving 250 miles a day have meant a lack of exercise. And avoiding fast food is hard since she doesn’t want to venture too far from the Interstate.

Ms. Isaacson feels safe—though she did buy some pepper spray at a farmer’s market in Cheyenne, Wyo. But she says she it can get lonely sometimes, even though she’s relied on friends, former classmates, and ex-co-workers for a place to stay, park her RV, and do laundry. She describes them as “driveway hosts” and “hot-shower providers.”

A Learning Experience

On many occasions, she’s left a town smiling because of her thrift-store finds and because of what she’s learned from her stops.

Utahns, she says, make lots of handmade garments, and Boise, Idaho, has the best handcrafted sweaters. “It shows that they invest time and money to create something useful,” she says.

In Centralia, Wash., the Visiting Nurses Thrift Shop, which helps support hospice nurses, carefully puts stained clothes through a washer and dryer in the back room. In Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, the Women’s Center Thrift Store helps victims of domestic violence, providing money for women’s shelters and crisis counseling.

Thrift stores, Ms. Isaacson says, retain the milieu of small-town America, good customer service, and courtesies often missing from big-box stores. There’s a certain attitude that makes shoppers of all types feel welcome, she says.

“I never hear people talk and joke and laugh like that when I’m shopping anywhere else,” Ms. Isaacson says. “Thrift stores just sort of seem like we’re all in it together. They’re very inviting places.”

Capturing Stories

What’s given her even more pleasure has been capturing the stories of people whose eccentricities she loves.

Why do they go thrifting? “A lot of people say it’s just the thrill of the hunt,” Ms. Isaacson says. “They love not knowing what they’re going to find.”

In Barstow, Calif., she met Tom, a former Marine, who scours thrift stores for Korean War officers’ silverware. In Madison, Wisc., she met Mary, who had never thrifted until she lost her job but is now a “new regular.”

And in Seattle, Beautiful Existence (yes, that’s her real name) found out about Ms. Isaac­son’s journey on Facebook and gave her a tour of the city and a heads up on great thrift shops all over the state.

Along with her sons, Epic and Edge (their real names), Ms. Existence took her to Seattle’s flagship Goodwill store, the highest-grossing Goodwill store in the country, with $8-million in sales last year.

In Fort Collins, Colo., Ms. Isaacson met with Tony, who runs Eco-Thrift and was putting a price sticker on a cattle-branding iron when she showed up. At his side was Blaze, an Australian shepherd mix donated by a customer who didn’t want the dog anymore.

Perhaps the most emotional visit was in Salt Lake City, where she did a video interview with K.C. Owens, manager of a Methodist-run charity shop, about a teenage girl being treated at a nearby hospital.

The girl came into the store during the holidays and took home a Christmas blanket that Ms. Owens gave her. Ms. Owens thought nothing of it until she was told a year later that the girl had died and asked to be buried with the blanket.

“This is exactly the kind of human connection our donated goods can make a difference with,” Ms. Isaacson wrote in her blog. “To us, it’s just stuff, but to so many people it’s so much more than that.”

Thrifty Anniversary

Ms. Isaacson’s husband Ed joined her in Las Vegas and left 17 days later in Denver. In St. George, Utah, they celebrated their fourth anniversary by finding gifts for each other at a thrift shop.

Ms. Isaacson bought her husband a leather belt with his name on it and a Western shirt, and he gave her a few tops and a Route 66 wall sign that hangs in her RV.

Her two-day stop in Milwaukee was just past the halfway point of her trip.

She got a good night’s sleep at her sister-in-law’s house while her four-year-old nephew Liam played in the RV. She even managed to visit her grandfather, Jack, who showed off his latest thrift find, a red sweater for $1.49.

She left for Chicago later that night. Only 4,000 miles left of roads for getting lost and found.