Cree McCree

DCL

Whether you're a cheap-chic pro like me who buys to resell at flea markets or just shopping for your own closet, America's far-flung network of charity thrift stores is the motherlode for recycled fashion and vintage clothes. The trick is knowing where - and how - to look.

Where to Look

Big operations like Goodwill and Salvation Army have store locators on their websites, which are useful to a point. But they won't tell you that Monday is 50%-off day at the Destin Goodwill or that Thrift City in New Orleans has a half-off sale every third Thursday. Most smaller shops don't even have websites. Online yellow pages and city guides can help, but the good old-fashioned phone book often yields better results. To maximize your shopping experience, call first to inquire about special sales and shop hours. It's not much fun to drive all the way across town to the Volunteers store only to discover it's closed on Tuesday (and it's Tuesday) or it closes at 3 p.m. (and it's 3:45).

In general, the more streamlined the operation, the higher the price tags. If you enter a Salvation Army and find color-coded racks, dressing rooms marked "three garments only, please," bright fluorescent lights and Muzak, you can almost turn around and walk out (unless, of course, it's 50%-off day). Ditto for those fancy little resale shops run by do-good socialites. But it always pays to make one quick round, even for pros looking to resell. There are occasional pricing slip-ups, and the upscale stores are so well laid out you can canvas the whole scene in minutes. It's the funky, disorderly, overstocked shops where you can really score. To illustrate, let's take a trip to one of my favorite thrifts.

Thrift Store Field Trip: Destin Goodwill

I discovered the Goodwill in Destin, Florida, which rocks my annual beach vacation, by the oldest method in the book: "I brake for thrift shops!" Though I'm not crazy about Goodwills in general, which tend to be heavy on the color-coded church lady clothes and light on the hipster finds, it was obvious from first glance this was no ordinary Goodwill. Housed in a sprawling hacienda-style building studded with mosaic glass and shells, the store's provenance as a former Mexican restaurant-cum-nightclub hasn't been tampered with since Goodwill took it over in the '70s. High vaulted ceilings, faux stained glass windows and defunct stone fireplaces frame several interlocking rooms crowded with recycled merch ripe for the pickin' - especially on Mondays, which is 50%-off day. But though Destin may be one-of-a-kind, the same rules apply as in any other thrift.

Check the New Arrivals

As soon as I'm in the door, I take one thorough sweep with my eyes, looking for obvious scores like that sharp black fedora ($5), which goes straight into my cart. Then I check the racks of new arrivals waiting to be hung. Some thrifts have strict "no shopping off the new racks" rules, but Destin isn't among them, and today I'm rewarded with a flirty little dotted swiss sundress ($6) I can easily sell for $15. All right! Off to a good start.

Gauge the Competition

Today, I'm traveling with my krewe (New Orleans-speak for posse), which gives us an advantage. We can pull stuff for each other while shopping for ourselves, and since I'm the only pro, hot items that don't fit anyone else come to me for resale by default. But I usually thrift solo, and how quickly I work depends on who's in the store. If I spot a couple retrochic hotties making the rounds, I know we're hunting the same prey. So I do my best to head 'em off at the pass, throwing finds in my cart as I go, without inspecting them closely; later for that, But if my fellow shoppers are a genial wino, a harried mom and a few retirees, I can afford to be more leisurely. Check Condition, Size & Label My friends score big on Saturday, as the photo posted here attests. But I hold off on major shopping until half-price Monday. With no competition in sight, I work efficiently, but with no edge of frantic acquisition. I pass my hands and eyes over the racked items. feeling for fabrics - is that a vintage gabardine? - and looking for colors and prints that attract me. Once I pull an item, I check it carefully for size and condition. If you're shopping for your own wardrobe, be realistic: Will you ever fit into those jeans? Can you live with those armpit stains? Sure, you can easily sew that sundress strap back on, but are you really going to alter that tailored jacket to fit? A $5 find that dies a slow death in your "I'll get to it someday" pile is no bargain. Pros like me have to be even more exacting. That skimpy silver lame sheath ($6) is fab, but could languish on my rack for years waiting for the perfect size 000. A satin smoking jacket shows up in the men's section, but that stain looks indelible and at $12, it's no bargain, even at 50% off. The vintage alligator sportshirt ($4) from the New Orleans Jazz Fest, however, is pure gold; it'll net an easy $20 on its home turf. So is a pair of Versace jeans ($5) in a purple-green-and-gold harlequin pattern that's perfect for Mardi Gras. Unlike many vintage fleas, I'm not obsessed with labels, but if you are, be sure to do your homework: designer labels go up and down, just like pop stars, and not all Guccis are created equal. Don't Skip the Kids Section I never leave a thrift without checking the kids' racks. If I'm lucky, I'll spot a tutu for my granddaughter Sofia or a mini Hawaiian shirt for her brother, Mason. But I also look for larger sizes that fit grownups. Most kids' clothing is priced super cheap, and Destin is no exception. Today, I pick up a boys t-shirt that reads "I Am Significant" and will look smashing on a small woman. I also score a couple neon tank tops on the girls' rack; they're actually women's items that got tagged here by mistake. Things have a way of getting mixed up in even a moderately disorderly shop, so it's a good idea to make a quick pass of all the sections. Get to Know Your Check-Out Clerks The thrifter's golden rule? Get to know your checkout clerks. While many stores have strict policies about selling unpriced items, enforcing those rules often depends on the whims of individual clerks. Gloria may go by the book, but Theresa's willing to bend, and knowing these distinctions can up your potential to score. Even on the road, in an unfamiliar shop, making nice at the checkout counter makes for good business. It also makes new friends. Next time I'm in Destin and Jeff's behind the counter, I'll remind him about the shirt he wore on the weekend of Woodstock's 40th anniversary: "The Hippies Were Right." About what, I asked? "About everything," he grinned.