“Attention Goodwill shoppers,” flowed the voice over the loudspeaker, “today is dollar-forty-nine day. All items with a green tag are just $1.49. That’s right, all items with a green tag are just $1.49. Thank you for shopping at Goodwill, where we’re more than just a store - we equip people to work.”
My fingers flitted through the rack of coats, my eyes scanning labels as I walked down the coat rack. Beige. Beige. Too small. Women’s. Too small. Too cheaply made. Ugh, red. Ooh, leather - too small though. This looks nice! I lighted on a huge woolen overcoat with “London Fog” on the label. I pulled it off the rack and tried it on. Too big. The arms were the right length, but you could have fit another of my torso inside. What rotten luck it was sometimes to be tall and skinny. I replaced it among the other coats and continued making my way towards the end of the aisle. I passed a couple more. Here’s another wool coat - a possibility! The tag read “Stafford.” I think I have a sportcoat made by them - it was nice. Let’s see how this one fits. I pulled it around myself, looking a tad ridiculous as I stood there in the middle of store in July, trying on woolen coats. The sleeves fit, the length of the coat looked right, and there was just enough space for my torso to be comfortable covered. I looked at the tag. Green! Looks like I found the deal of the day.
“You find anything?” asked a voice to my left. I turned to see an middle-aged man, maybe early fifties, staring at me through a pair of glasses mounted low on his nose. He was wearing a green polo shirt and khaki shorts, and the scruffy beard on his face complimented by his socks-and-sandals clad feet reminded me a bit of my father. “Yeah, this right here,” I said, holding my arms out to better show him the coat that I was still hidden in. “One-hundred percent wool, and just a dollar-forty-nine!”
“Can’t beat that!” he said, and I nodded in agreement. “This is the best time to buy coats, because no one else is looking.”
“That’s right!” he agreed.
“How ‘bout you? Find anything?”
He shrugged and held up a long beige coat. “Got this here, but there’s no label on it so it’s useless to me. It’s nice, though. 100% wool.”
“Really?” I asked as I stepped towards him. He handed me the coat to look at. Sure enough, it was wool. Really well-made, too. Heavy. But without a label, any potential customer would be skeptical that it really was a nice coat, or that it wasn’t stolen. Such skepticism is problematic for flippers.
You see the flippers from time to time at the Goodwill or other thrift stores. Guys browsing the electronics or the golf clubs, looking for a name-brand stereo or putter to buy and flip. Women looking at the men’s dress clothes or the household knick-knacks on the off chance that they might find a shirt of a good cut or maybe some genuine silver utensils. Buy and sell, a little bit of money here, a bit there. There’s always something to be learned from these people.
“You can have first dibs on it if you want,“ said the Flipper, gesturing at the coat still in my hand. I took off my new-found pile of warmth and tried his coat on. Too short in the sleeves. Again. Besides, it was beige. Beige coats are a sign of the wealthy, of the richer upper class who either don’t have a lifestyle that puts them in positions where an overcoat can get dirty, or who have enough money that they don’t have to worry about replacing a coat even if it does. This violates what I call the “proper use” of an item. God made fabrics and materials, and humans figured out that if those materials were combined and stitched a certain way, they would keep one warm. The primary purpose of a coat then is to keep one warm and dry and clean. Wool does all of those things (which is why I seek it out), and wearing a darker color allows the coat to fulfill its function longer, because the dirt doesn’t show. Using an item until it is finally worn out is a wise financial decision; here proper use and financial prudence dovetail nicely together. The only reasons a coat need be beige is because of style, which is ephemeral, or to broadcast one’s actual wealth, or to make oneself appear to be wealthy and in possession of “good taste.” Since I care little for style and am not wealthy, nor do I want to pretend to be, I have no interest in beige coats. “It doesn’t work for me, thanks though.” I handed the coat back.
I continued my search down the coat rack, nearing the end. Ah! Another well-made coat - one he could flip, perhaps. “Here’s a nice one,” I said, holding up a darker woolen Hugo Boss. Surely the German name would impress him. Instead I was met with a “What’s that? Is that a good one?” So this man isn’t just a flipper - he’s an ill-educated flipper.
Brands are a funny thing. They signify quality, but only to a certain extent. There is a very fine line between when a brand means “well made” and when it only means “trendy, so we can charge more.” Browsing Goodwill over the years has taught me a lot about quality - about things that are waterproof, windproof, warm, airy, breathable or not. NorthFace, for example, is one of those brands that is an automatic buy for me. It doesn’t matter if the item fits me or not, because it is guaranteed well-made. A well-made item is useful for somebody, and even if I can’t use it I can at least have the satisfaction of giving a high-quaity item away to someone else. NorthFace is (normally) expensive, and rightly so - it delivers on what it claims. Making extreme cold-weather gear or a windbreaker that is waterproof/breathable is hard, and to do it well justifies the cost. This is part of proper use. Things that accomplish their goals well should be honored and used. And, for Christians, Jesus commands us to be generous with our belongings. To both invest in proper use and to pass it on, I feel, honors Jesus. Because of this I have tried to make a habit out of anticipating being generous. If I find nice things at good prices, I buy them in the hopes that they will be useful to someone somewhere down the line. But as I stood there in front of the coats, it seemed that Flipper was unaware of proper use.
This brought all sorts of existential questions crashing down on me, one after another like a rack of coats breaking free of their hangers and burying me under a pile on the floor. What did this guy do? Was he successful? Where had he been in his life that brought him, here and now, to the middle of a Goodwill in Minnesota, staring at a rack of coats trying to figure out which ones he could buy and make a profit on. Did he like wool? Leather? Polyester? Now the guy was talking something about cashmere. “Here, you feel that? That’s cashmere. That’s gotta be. That’s the stuff you really want. That’s the good stuff.” Did he know what he was talking about? Did a mid-life crisis push him into a place where his way out was to work to be an expert on fabrics? Was this just a fun hobby? Either way, it didn’t look like he wanted the Hugo Boss, and it was too big in the torso for me to consider. I looked at my $1.49 success story of the day as he wandered off through the jeans aisle.
“Attention Good will shoppers. There is a car parked out front that needs to be moved. If you drive a blue Honda with license plate xxx-xxxx, please go move your car. Thank you.”
It wasn’t my car, but I figured it was time for me to go anyway.