Between 2011 and 2012 (for exactly one year) I worked in a resale clothing store. This was a difficult time in my life for a variety of reasons, and as difficult times tend to go, it was also a well-disguised learning experience.
I had recently moved to Orlando with my then-boyfriend (now-husband) Zach. We rented a one bedroom apartment in a shady part of town and lived hand to mouth. He worked at the airport, loading bags onto planes for sometimes 18 hours a day. I worked part-time as a secretary and applied to jobs constantly. Less than three months after moving in together, we were in a wreck that totaled Zach’s vehicle; we then lived with one car for the following full year.
We entertained ourselves with various forms of art. I wrote freelance articles and songs; he painted and played guitar and also wrote songs. We performed together in a band. It was not a bad life.
In July 2011, I was hired as a shift manager at a resale clothing store. I’d actually owned a consignment shop back in my hometown (another story for another time), and this resumé bullet point provided a foot in the door.
My responsibilities included register transactions, bank runs, tagging clothing, dressing room duty — all par for the course. It also, however, included the task of BUYING USED CLOTHING FROM PEOPLE AND GIVING THEM CASH ON THE SPOT, the most horrifyingly Godforsaken task that exists in the world of retail, as far as I know.
Yes, I’d run a consignment shop before, but a consignment shop is not an outright resale shop. In consignment, the customer does not earn money until the item sells on the floor, usually days or weeks later. In resale, the customer expects to leave the store that day with cash in hand. Instant gratification.
Here’s how the selling process was supposed to work:
Customers brought us their stylish clothing, freshly laundered and folded neatly in a box or laundry basket or shopping bag. This was called a “buy.” An employee looked through the buy, decided which items the store could purchase, and entered those items into a computer program, which spat out an itemized price list. We then presented the total offer to the customer, who accepted it happily.
Sometimes it went exactly like this. Often it did not.
It was a busy store in a busy part of town. On average, we probably looked through a hundred buys per day. The buys ranged from perfect to near-perfect (a pile of awesome but wrinkled clothes tossed into a garbage bag) to nightmarish (piles of dirty clothes and discarded yard sale items and sometimes actual trash that filled up five garbage bags). And everything in between.
Sometimes they were funny. Once, a customer accidentally left behind a burned CD titled “Sex Mix,” but it ended up containing nothing but Dave Matthews and Goo Goo Dolls. :/
It was not uncommon to find drugs, usually dime bags, tucked away in the pockets of backpacks or old winter coats. Once, a co-worker found an eight ball in the pocket of a pair of men’s jeans.
Often, the buys were less funny. I still shudder at the memory of a box of clothing filled with spiders (which, by the way, don't present themselves until your hands have already been digging around in there for a bit). Silverfish and roaches weren’t common, but they certainly weren’t uncommon enough.
One time we purchased a pile of clothing only to find out that it’d been stolen and sold by a vengeful roommate. I’m really surprised that didn’t happen more often. Regularly, people brought us stolen, new-with-tags items from department stores. We usually knew how to spot those, and would refuse to purchase them.
And then there were the stains. Oh, the stains! Stains of every color and origin. Mustard stains. Armpit stains. Grease-that-dripped-from-pizza stains. Deodorant stains. Snail trails. Period stains. Jizz stains. Shit stains. And no, I’m not fucking around.
Not only did I see all the stains one can imagine, but I also learned to anticipate them. A white fitted tee? Check the armpits for sweat. Men’s basketball shorts? Don’t even go there. Leggings? Ugh. Leggings are the worst. There was almost always a period stain. Almost. Always. (I understand and celebrate our basic human right to go commando in whatever loungewear we choose. But please do not try to resell said loungewear out in public where innocent people like myself have to look at it.)
That said, employees were not obligated to go through any buy that looked suspect. But there are two issues with that. First, the bad stuff is not always easily discernible. No one writes on the side of their bag: “Caution: There Are Shit Stains In Here.” And even when a buy DID look suspect, you had to explain the problem, face to face, to a customer. Which brings us to the topic of … confrontation.
Angry outbursts were a regular thing, especially around the end of the month. You could usually tell when someone was trying to scrape rent money together because the buy would include a haphazard mixture of household items, and the customer would hover as you went through it, attempting to sell you on the things you declined. Dealing with that was certainly annoying, but I was empathetic with the struggle of trying to make ends meet.
The most infuriating confrontations occurred with middle- and upper-class mothers, who were the most likely of all customers to pester us about our buying policies. Once, a parent yelled — yes, YELLED — at me because I didn’t purchase her daughter’s snail-trailed Hollister shorts. Much to present-me’s dismay, I remained professional and simply said, “There are some stains. Perhaps if you washed them and brought them back.” I did not respond by turning them inside-out and presenting the crotch crust directly to the grown woman verbally harassing me.
A lady once challenged the existence of an obvious stain. I remember the shirt. It was blue and made of polyester fabric, and it had a noticeable grease stain right there on the front, in plain sight. I thanked her politely for bringing it in, but said we had to pass on it because of the stain.
She shrieked — this is absolutely no exaggeration — “STAIN! I don’t see a STAIN! A spot, maybe, but not a STAIN!” She then cursed out our entire staff in what well-mannered children would consider an “outside voice” before storming off.
Another time, a mother snapped at me regarding my cash offer for her daughter’s buy -- a few really nice dresses. “That’s ridiculous. Those are from Anthropologie. Do you even know how much they cost in the store?”
To which I replied: “Yes, I do. But we sell them used for much less than the retail value. And in order to make a profit, we have to pay you even less than what we sell them for. That’s how a resale business works. You are welcome to keep them instead of selling them.”
To which she replied with pursed lips: “Well. I won’t even tell you what I think about that.”
And she didn’t. She did, however, use her store credit to purchase a bagful of significantly discounted Anthropologie dresses.
The cash offer disappoints a lot of people, and to an extent, I do understand. I’ve been on the other side of the counter. I’ve been frustrated that a store wouldn’t purchase my [special or expensive thing] or that they only offered [a less-than-anticipated amount] for it.
But the fact remains: no store or individual owes you for that Thing you purchased. Maybe your Thing is out of style or season. Maybe your Thing doesn’t appeal to the store’s key demographic. Maybe the store just has too many Things right now!
Going through a person’s used clothing, clean or not, is a surprisingly telling activity. I also learned that how a person talks about clothing gives away a lot about his or her personality. I’m not drawing deep conclusions about a person’s character, obviously, but there are patterns. I liken this to a seasoned waiter’s ability to predict his tip long before the meal is ordered. Sometimes the patterns are positive, sometimes negative, sometimes sentimental.
The most moving experience happened late one night, about 10 minutes before we closed. A young guy (22-ish?) walked in and asked if we were still accepting buys. I said we weren’t. He persisted politely but desperately. “My girlfriend’s out in the car, she’ll bring it in and we won’t keep you long, please?” He seemed so nice. I hesitated for a moment but agreed.
He went to fetch his girlfriend and I glimpsed outside at their car. It was sort of run-down and filled to the brim with boxes and storage containers. They entered the store together carrying a bag each. She thanked me for keeping the store open for them. She was young too, and pretty. Soft-spoken but not timid. They both looked exhausted and stood quietly at the counter while I worked.
I looked through her bag of clothes first. A bunch of nice jeans. Some cute flats. Shirts, all kinds. A slew of really cute sundresses. As I was sorting through it all, I noticed that something seemed off. There were too many nice, random things. There was no pattern.
She was selling her entire wardrobe.
I pulled a striped, summer-y dress from the bag and heard her draw a quick breath. “Aw, that’s the one I wore that day we drove to the beach, remember?” I looked up. She was teary-eyed and sniffling.
“Do you want to keep it?” I asked. “It’s a bit more worn than the others, I couldn’t give you much for it anyway …” She smiled a bit and said yes, she’d like to keep that one after all.
And then her boyfriend, in the the most tear-jerkingly romantic moment I’ve ever witnessed in real life, wrapped his arms around her, kissed her forehead, and whispered just loud enough for me to hear: “You and I are going to have so many beautiful things one day. I promise.”
(I know you weren’t there and can’t know how in love they looked, but I assure you they were. She was sad about selling all of her clothes, but she was not being coerced into it.)
His bag was next. Unfortunately, even with a generously lax eye, I couldn’t accept much of it. “I can take a pair of jeans and all of the American Apparel V-necks,” I said.
“Oh good, you can take those T-shirts?? What about this one?” He pointed to himself, to the V-neck he was wearing, and started to take it off. She stopped him and pointed out that it had a small tear at the bottom. “Oh.” He shrugged.
I don’t know why they were selling everything, but I got the impression they were going somewhere — or getting away from something. I heard her whisper a hope that there’d be money left for food after filling up the gas tank.
I cried while I closed up the store that night. I cried again later when I told Zach about it. I couldn’t get that couple out of my head. (I even wrote a song about it.) Under different circumstances, say if I’d been financially or emotionally stable, I’d have felt pity for them. But in a way, I’m glad I wasn't and that I didn’t. It wasn't pity. I saw a lot of myself in their tired eyes. I hope everything turned out okay for them in the end.
That store gave me so many things: laughter, friendships with great co-workers, absurd stories. It taught me how to stick up for myself, how to handle confrontation, how to talk comfortably with strangers about unusual topics. It demonstrated that, despite all the ways people are different, we sure do have a lot in common. Even if it IS just our dirty clothes.