The expansive parking lot at 210 N. Avenue 21 in Lincoln Heights was nearly full Monday afternoon, with yet more cars wedged into tight spots out on the sun-blasted street. Bargain hunters scaled the stairs like salmon going upstream, working against the satisfied shoppers on their way out with full carts.
Where was all this booming business? At the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store.
In case you needed more evidence of the gut-kick California's economy has taken, consider this: Sales records have been shattered at thrifts in Oxnard, Long Beach and the Lincoln Heights store, said David Fields, executive director of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. In April, cash registers at the 95,000-square-foot main store in Lincoln Heights rang up $349,158 in sales. That was 16.5% higher than the same month in 2010.
Meanwhile, at Goodwill Southern California, marketing director Sasha Itzikman said the chain's 65 stores in Riverside, San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties are "seeing great increases" in sales. "We're on track to have a record-breaking year," she said, attributing the surge to high unemployment and general economic fears. "People are rethinking their spending habits."
At St. Vincent de Paul's three stores, said Fields, it's apparent that more first-timers are coming in. And regulars appear to be coming in more regularly, motoring past Target and Ross Dress for Less on their way to the thrift shop, where they can buy second-hand for less than half the clams.
"I just came from Big 5," said Ramon Soria, who doesn't throw his money around since retiring from a clerical job to look after his parents.
At Big 5, he said, he bought a pair of discounted sneakers for $16. But the weight-lifting set he wanted, to sweat himself back into shape, would have cleaned him out. So he did what he's been doing more and more: He came to St. Vincent de Paul, where he bought the $4.99 blue jeans he was modeling, and where he now had his eye on a set of weights.
Oh, yes. They've got an exercise equipment department, a housewares section, tools, rugs, tables, chairs, dressers, cabinets and enough clothing to dress everyone in Lincoln Heights.
You can buy a 99-cent book and read it on a $39 easy chair. You can pick up a $150 refrigerator or a $79 entertainment center, and you can look your best in good-as-new pants, shirt and shoes for under $20, total, some of them with designer labels.
Of course, you cannot walk into a thrift shop in Los Angeles without the threat of bumping into a hipster, artist, musician or even a bona fide celebrity who might not be there because of economic need. They go thinking it's cool to find a sport coat that looks like it was owned by a Russian ventriloquist, a dress that Betty Grable could have worn, or a serving bowl manufactured around the time when ridged potato chips were invented.
I spotted a few such treasure hunters, and then there was Gretchen Schofield of South Pasadena, who buys wool sweaters she turns into felted purses and pillowcases as a hobby.
But I was there to write about the economy, and Mary Foyer had something to say about that. A website writer who said she's unemployed more than not, Foyer was on a treasure hunt in women's clothing.
If you know what you're looking for, she said, a $20 bill will get you five or six items of better quality than a single $20 item at Target. And she has found ways not just to save money, but to make money, by shopping at St. Vincent de Paul.
"This here is from Anthropologie," she said, holding up a pink top with $4.99 stamped on the tag. "It was probably $100 at Anthropologie. Somewhere between $70 and $100, I'd say."
If it didn't fit her, it didn't matter. Foyer didn't intend to keep it.
"I can sell this on EBay for $25," she said, speaking with authority.
So she's done this before?
Her answer was a smile.
Retirees Alfred and Virginia Hurtado of El Sereno weren't there to buy, but to give. They donate goods regularly, they said, liking the fact that they can clean out the garage without filling up a landfill and help people in need at the same time.
Jose Sanchez, 27, dismantles equipment for a recycler and stops by the thrift store twice a week. On Monday, he was looking for a refrigerator, and he knew he'd find one for about one-third of what he'd pay retail. But there's another reason he does much of his shopping at St. Vincent.
Sanchez said that when he was unemployed, he wanted to make good use of his free time. So he volunteered at the store and learned that the money the store takes in is used to send city kids to camp, to provide food and shelter to the destitute, and to train volunteers for home visits to families in need of food, clothing, furniture, legal and medical referrals.
"When you shop here," Sanchez told me, "it helps a lot of people out."
According to Fields, donations to the thrift stores are somewhat flat right now. So if you've got something you don't need but someone else would love to have, call (800) 974-3571 to find out how to make your tax-deductible donation to St. Vincent de Paul.
"One man's trash is another man's treasure," Shauna Silver said as she pushed a cart of goods past the registers.
Yeah, especially in this economy.