If you’ve ever donated unwanted items to a charity you may have wondered what happens next. The first stop is probably a thrift store, where the items will sit on a shelf or a rack in frequently disorganized fashion for an indeterminate period of time. They might be purchased for a relatively low price, or they might not. How long will they stay there? What happens after that? Well, the answers to those questions probably depend on the organization. Let’s focus on Goodwill Industries.
In the American west and possibly nationwide, Goodwill is a junk juggernaut, almost as ubiquitous as Starbucks. But a Goodwill thrift store is merely one link in the chain for discarded possessions. Items failing to move there suffer an even less dignified fate – a journey to a Goodwill “outlet” store, where they are apprised anew and sometimes snatched up like fresh meat.
The concept may be a bit confusing, as a standard thrift store probably fits most perceptions of an outlet. But a Goodwill outlet is definitely unique; a thing of ruthless efficiency and a kind-of threadbare beauty.
You walk in and are greeted by a series of large blue bins on wheels. These are central to the experience. Items are tossed carelessly into the bins by employees and then thrown about in an equally careless fashion by customers. Clothes are grouped together; all types of clothes. I saw a child’s tutu, a Joseph Abboud sportscoat (not my size), and a used pair of men’s underwear (hopefully laundered) side-by-side. There were at least four bins of clothing as well as multiple bins of books and a number of additional bins containing all manner of household knick-knacks and other common items. The entire operation looked like a huge garage sale.
As for the prices, they’re generally bottom of the barrel, appropriately. Customers are charged by the pound for most items – $1.49 a pound at the outlet we visited. Furniture, books and other media are priced individually. Paperback books are a quarter apiece. My wife and I spent a grand total of $6 for a 30-year old doll with extensive wardrobe in excellent condition; a Cuban cigar box; a wooden utility box that looked like a kid’s high school shop project decades ago; a never-worn sun hat; and four books.
Still, caveat emptor is a necessity, even there. I saw a used dorm-style mini fridge (the price tag didn’t say if it worked) for $30. You can get one brand new on Amazon for prices starting at $40.
A Goodwill outlet is not an especially friendly place. Manners aren’t a high priority. An undercurrent of desperation hangs in the air, and cut-throat competition is the rule. People grab things simultaneously and engage in quietly vicious tugs-of-war. No one says ‘excuse me’ or stands aside so others can pass. Everybody seems to be angling for the best junk, the big score.
The bins move on and off the floor with regularity, and their reappearance with fresh mounds of items draws an aggressive squadron of pickers like bees to honey, or flies to, um, you know.
Elsewhere in the outlet book scouts frown with impatience as they sift through what is probably among the worst-organized collection of drivel they’ve ever seen. But they’re here for good reason. Things occasionally slip through. We know someone who found a dilapidated book of cocktail recipes in a bin at this very location and just had a feeling about it. Turns out it was published in San Francisco prior to the 1906 earthquake and was highly prized among a specialized group of collectors. The book fetched $20,000 on eBay, even in its battered condition. And that’s why this joint is crowded.
Goodwill outlets serve as a post of (almost) last resort for unwanted items. But what happens after that? Believe it or not, there is more. Next stop is a Goodwill auction, where bidders acquire large containers of items sight-unseen, kinda like an episode of Storage Wars, minus the prospect of hidden treasure. And then, finally, items that remain (probably like that pair of underwear) are sent to textile recycling organizations, which opens up a whole new chain of potential outcomes, from disposal in landfills to export to other countries.
So that means that if you someday find yourself in a foreign land and see someone wearing a shirt that seems vaguely familiar, well, you never know.