It was a slow, humid summer day in Laconia, New Hampshire, and Goodwill was devoid of customers. Vineyard Vines crewnecks strolled the floors like New England tumbleweeds. Logan Wilder had four hours left in his shift. Amid sifting through an especially musky delivery, he stumbled upon a Nikon N6006 film camera. An avid photographer, Logan jumped with excitement and shouted, “Oh my god!” He then looked around to make sure no one had heard him.
Many people think that scenarios like this explain where the best stuff at thrift shops goes, but, as I have come to find out, that’s mostly untrue. If Logan takes the camera to the register, he’s laughed at. If he sets it aside, he’s fired.
Amy Botone, a former employee of Goodwill in Albuquerque, New Mexico, says, “Setting aside items to buy later - also known as ‘routing’ - is strictly verboten!” Botone worked at Goodwill for over 25 years. She recalls a time when employees received 25% off at the store, but to combat routing, the discount was retracted years ago.
Stacie Morrell, a manager at Homeward Bound Pets Thrift Store in McMinnville, Oregon says, “People think that we glean the good stuff off the top, but that is absolutely not true.”
Logan says his store still gives an employee discount, but routing rules are strict as ever. He confirms, “It definitely varies at different locations though,” adding, “The Goodwill I worked at was new, so all of the higher management was on the stricter side with employees.” Even before his first day of work, Logan’s manager gave him the rundown on employee purchases. He recalls, “Any donated item has to have been on the floor for 24 hours before an employee can purchase it. To check out, you have to have one of the managers ring you up, and they know most of what went out on the floor and when.”
Despite strict guidelines and constant manager surveillance, Adam Weinstein, a former employee of a Goodwill in Olympia, Washington, said, “working at Goodwill was like running a shit-show circus, honestly.” Adam worked in donations, then moved to stock. Weighing in on the primary controversy, he said, “You don’t get any first picks of clothes, as people may think.” He added, “A lot of people think we wash the clothes - that’s a huge common misconception. We only sort and pick through the clean stuff out of the giant garbage bags of disgusting, soiled, disturbing clothing that people would donate.”
Adam’s store was adamant about drastically raising prices, but as sales plummeted, managers insisted upon upping prices even further. Ready for a change, Adam quit Goodwill in December of 2018, and three months later, all of his former coworkers had quit too, except for two of the managers.
Not only do thrift shop employees not accrue the bonuses and ‘dibs’ that people think they receive, but it appears to be a pretty unpleasant job altogether. Mollie Stern volunteered for Interfaith Clothing Center in Rockville, Maryland as court-mandated community service. She says Interfaith acts as more of a clothing bank and less of a thrift store. Their primary purpose is to provide free clothing to low-income members of the community. She claims, “I was probably one of their best employees.”
Thrift shops are home to a wide variety of patronage: low-income individuals shopping out of necessity, hipsters shopping for themselves, and resellers hunting for a profit. Sometimes, one person checks all three boxes. This gamut of goals makes the thrift store a place of utmost diversity, but also utmost disconnect. People enter, shop, then leave, and that’s it. Few places host such a variety of races, socio-economic statuses, ages, and intentions. If the unspoken unity that occurs is vocalized, perhaps some of our cultural disconnects may diminish. Hopefully the gap between employee and customer will get smaller, now that you know that they didn’t take those Jordans before you had a crack at ‘em.