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Feature Story

It’s hip to reuse


Shoppers are digging the surge in local thrift stores

Like sharks sensing blood in the water, bargain hunters circle the void as the empty blue basin is wheeled away by
the blue-shirted employees. The Goodwill Outlet Store on Des Moines’ southeast side has changed the decision-making paradigm for shoppers. The store doesn’t specifically price its items; instead merchandise is weighed in grocery carts at checkout and sold for 99 cents per pound.

Paying by the pound significantly alters the buying calculation. Your heart might initially soar when it sees that
bowling ball you desperately covet. For the right price, you are willing to overlook someone else’s initials etched into
it. But after considering its 16 pounds of girth, and the subsequent $16 price tag, your enthusiasm wanes.

The store differs from the mainstream in other ways as well. Some traditional upscale retailers have signs inviting
guests to touch the merchandise, but not here. Gloves are sold at the outlet and offer a barrier between you and the wares. Veteran shoppers are easily identifiable, as many of them bring their own gloves or poles, sticks and paddles to turn over the piles and shift the unorganized, unsorted thrift.

This is the last stop for donated items before being sold for salvage by Goodwill. The inventory primarily consists of
excess items that didn’t sell at retail locations or that arrived when shelf space wasn’t available. But worthy items still populate the bins, as evidenced by the circling hordes that are now eagerly awaiting the arrival of a fresh blue tub.

New basins are periodically rotated in, and when the fresh piles of unknown inventory are placed, it creates a frenzy. The sharks circle as the blue shirts roll the new bin into place. I see a briefcase and remember a recent national news story about a Goodwill in New York City that discovered $39,000 in a donated purse. The cash was returned thanks to an employee with an honest heart who also found the owner’s address on an envelope inside. I reach for the briefcase, thinking, “Maybe?” But as I do, curses rain down from the bellowing crowd.

Prep Iowa


Goodwill had a 22-carat pink sapphire ring on a 14-carat gold setting among its donations. The ring was sold at, and the proceeds went to support Goodwill’s mission. Photo submitted.

“It’s not time yet,” a guy standing nearby gently informs. His name is Joseph Hoeft, and while he isn’t wearing gloves, he does have an air of confidence about him, so I listen.

“Everyone know the rules,” asserts a blue shirt without pausing long enough for the statement to qualify as a question.

“Rules?” I ask, turning back to Hoeft for answers.

“Basically, don’t rip anything out of someone else’s cart,” he explains. The grocery-style carts at the outlet can leave the previously salvaged wares vulnerable while shoppers are scrambling for the new stuff.

Maneuvering with cat-like agility, Hoeft deftly eludes a random elbow from the crowd, pauses, sees daylight and then knifes his way into the fray. After wrestling a portable DVD player out from the ruckus, he generously offers it to me.

“You want it?” He asks. “I have about 50 of them already at home.”

As a professional reseller, Hoeft comes here every day, sometimes two or three times — and he’s not the only one. The Outlet Store has served 74,000 customers so far this year, almost 10 percent of the combined 850,000 customers served at Goodwill of Central Iowa’s 19 locations.

Nationally, about one in six consumers shop at thrift stores, according to the Association of Resale Professionals, and the state of central Iowa’s resale industry is strong as well. Goodwill has opened nine stores in the area since 1999, and it also launched during that span.


VHS tapes are one dime and VCRs are a dollar at the Goodwill Outlet Store. If you could take this haul back to 1985, you’d be a rich individual.

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, as witnessed by the thrifting outlet store. But bonified treasures are sometimes donated, too.

“We had one guy come stomping in, and he threw his engagement ring on the counter,” says Steve Havemann, the executive director of St. Vincent de Paul. “He came in, slammed it on the counter and said, ‘I’m donating it; sell it.’ I felt bad for the guy. We held onto it for awhile to see if he’d come back in, but he never did.”

One man’s treasure was someone else’s help during a time in need.

“St. Vincent De Paul’s mission is to build people to self-sufficiency,” says Havemann. Everything that is donated here and all the store sales go right back to that mission. We try to meet people’s basic needs with food, clothing and financial help for shelter and utilities, and we put a big focus on education.”

Havemann says St. Vincent’s has also received full bricks of raw silver, antiques and rare Bibles. These valuables and others have helped the Catholic nonprofit’s recent expansion and to fuel the growth of nonprofits in the thrifting industry. St. Vincent’s Sixth Avenue store near University Avenue has been a pillar in that area for years. Its new store is located at 520 S.W. Army Post Road.


Modern thrifting is synonymous with bargain hunting and collecting, but it isn’t all diamond rings and buried treasures. Most stores have a used underwear section.

“It’s part of the mission, too,” says Havemann. “It’s meeting people’s needs. It’s not just people coming through for personal preferences; some people come for true needs.”

St. Vincent’s has a social service department on site geared to grant the proper type of support services to help people.

“What we don’t want to do is just give handouts and say, ‘Good game, and we’ll see you out there,’ ” says Havemann. “We want to be intentionally serving them.”


For shoppers unwilling to deal with the glove-wearing, stick waving, frenzied part of the gaggle, thrifting has gone online. Goodwill often lists the cream of its incoming crop on, which functions similar to eBay. Various items sold from local donations include mink coats, army helmets, art and just about any kind of novelty.

“We had a 22-carat pink sapphire ring in a 14-carat gold setting,” says Beth Hanson, retail director for Goodwill of Central Iowa. She adds that all the money accrued from online sales is put back into Goodwill’s mission just like at the retail stores.

“Eighty-six cents of every dollar in our store goes back into these programs,” she says. “Last year we helped around 6,500 individuals right here in central Iowa — 1,100 of which we helped to actually earn jobs.”

The items listed locally can be seen at Some of the unique items sold include:
• Vintage Bacon five-string banjo ($2,280.88)
• Two folding kayaks ($907 and $852)
• Signed copy of “Speaking My Mind” by Ronald Reagan ($708.99)
• Signed copy of “The Audacity of Hope” by Barack Obama ($531.60)
• 1783 Washington one-cent coin ($600)


Beth Hanson is the retail director for Goodwill of Central Iowa.

Fashion in the 1970s was about bell-bottoms, while the 1980s brought big hair and bright colors. But in 2017, all styles are seemingly acceptable. This fashion free-for-all is another factor for the uptick in central Iowa thrifting and for the growth in sales at Goodwill’s traditional retail stores, according to Alison Monaghan, director of marketing and development at Goodwill of Central Iowa.

“There’s always been an appeal to vintage,” says Monaghan. “But with this younger millennial group, they are looking to define their own personal style. They don’t want to go buy the same thing their neighbor or best friend can get.”

Shelves stocked with clothing, both yesteryear’s favorites and today’s, account for more than half of the sales volume at Goodwill stores in the area, and vintage and one-of-a-kind finds are a big part of the reason why. Many people come to find something unique.

“You know when you leave that you won’t see anyone else with that on,” says Monaghan. “It may not be one of a kind, but it’s pretty darn close. It’s going to be unique, something different, and I think that appeals to anyone.”


“That’s my purse,” says Hoeft, the professional thrifter, as he points to a Coach handbag nearly buried in the tub.

“It’s an easy 60 bucks,” he says of the purse. “And I pay a dollar for it.”

Occasionally he checks other stores for deals, but it’s the outlet that has his heart.

“Who wants to pay $10 for a pair of pants when you can get them here for a dollar instead?” he asks. “It’s the best store in Des Moines, as far as I’m concerned.”

His best finds include two bulletproof vests, 14-karat gold playing cards and blocks of silver.

“It’s all luck,” he says. “You want to be the first. You never know what you’re going to find. It’s dumb luck.”

“Don’t be telling all the secrets,” says a rival reseller walking by and pointing at him.

“My secret is I’m not digging right now,” he laughs and returns to the hunt.


Americans with a little extra who are willing to donate gently used items are what drive the supply for thrift stores. But what is pushing the demand for those goods?

During the decades of yore, shopping at stores like DAV or Goodwill was considered embarrassing. And searching for a specific item at a shop can often be a fruitless and even maddening endeavor. Trying to find something that is the exact right style, size and in the correct color within the random and haphazard clothing racks can be a tall task.

So why do we love it?

As I’m sifting through old VHS tapes — they sell for a dime at the Outlet Store — I see “Forrest Gump,” and I remember that life is like a box of chocolates. And then I see “Groundhog Day,” and I remember that while most members of humanity have a need for certainty and order, they also need a little spice in their lives. For thrifters, the thrill of the kill is secondary to the challenge of the chase. Each is driven by the possibility of what could be in the briefcase, when everyone else assumes it is empty. Thrifters are searching for something, but they don’t know what it is until they see it.

My haul at the Outlet Store includes three clipboards, five baseballs, two whiffle balls, Boggle, a money belt, a leather organizer, a wicker basket, a bow — without any arrows — and some Christmas cards. I didn’t know I wanted any of it, but I was glad to have all of it. And even after rounding up to support Goodwill’s mission, the total was $9.

In the immortal words of Rolling Stone’s Mick Jagger about a completely unrelated subject: “…you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, well you might. ♦

TIP: HOW TO TURN $4 INTO $2.5 MILLION AND OTHER THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW. Americans are on the hunt for original copies of the Declaration of Independence. That is why many of the backings to thrift store artwork are ripped. The New York Times reported of a man who bought a $4 painting at a Pennsylvania flea market because he liked the frame. Behind the painting, he found what turned out to be a first printing of the Declaration of Independence, which he sold for nearly $2.5 million in 1991.

TIP: The best time to go thrifting, according to Steve Havemann, is at noon on Friday. The bargain hunters largely begin on Fridays at 3 p.m. You can beat many of them by arriving earlier.

TIP: In case you are wondering: “Wedding dresses sell,” confirms Havemann.

TIP: Gift cards are for sale, and so are refurbished computers. Many thrift stores now offer systems starting at less than $150.

TIP: Board games are a great deal. Some pieces may be missing, but finding a game you like for $2-3 is common. If you find out you don’t like the game, you haven’t lost much.

TIP: A careful walk through the Goodwill Outlet Store consumes a couple of hours, so grab a cart at the beginning. It’s nice to have.

TIP: Thrift stores are great for sports equipment and toys for children. But be ready to cover your eyes, as almost all thrift stores have a naked Barbie Doll somewhere. These unwelcome hazards jump out unexpectedly, especially as piles turn over at the Outlet Store.

UNBURIED TREASURE: Keeping treasures out of the landfills is important to Goodwill of Central Iowa. Local Goodwills sold nearly 5.8 million pounds of clothes, 800,000 pounds of books, 400,000 pounds of shoes, plus 30,000 pounds of purses/belts/bags and a total of 21.6 million pounds of goods in 2016.


1111 E. Army Post Road, Des Moines
4611 S.W. Ninth St., Des Moines
3304 S.W. Ninth St., Des Moines
127 Fifth St., West Des Moines
520 S.W. Third St., Ankeny
2627 E. University Ave., Des Moines
• 4640 Merle Hay Road, Urbandale
• 500 E. Army Post Road, Des Moines
GOODWILL: Metro Locations
• 3251 E. Euclid, Des Moines
• 5355 N.W. 86th St., Des Moines
• 6345 S.E. 14th St., Des Moines (outlet store)
• 3333 S.E. 14th St., Des Moines
• 4520 N.W. Urbandale Drive, Urbandale
• 1600 Valley West Drive, West Des Moines
• 6630 Mills Civic Parkway, West Des Moines
• 509 N. Ankeny Blvd., Ankeny
• 1510 N. Jefferson Way, Indianola
• 170 Laurel St. S.E., Waukee
264 W. Hickman Road, Waukee
• 521 E. Locust St., #102, Des Moines
• 3330 100th St., Urbandale
2900 S.E. Grimes Blvd., Grimes
• 1605 S.E. Delaware, Suite H, Ankeny
• 5550 Wild Rose Lane, West Des Moines
7662 Hickman Road, Windsor Heights
• 1426 Sixth Ave., Des Moines
• 520 Army Post Road, Des Moines
• 133 E. Second St., Des Moines
• 4620 S.E. 14th St., Des Moines
• 105 E. Euclid Ave., Des Moines
• 5434 Merle Hay Road, Des Moines
• 9997 University Ave., Clive
• 708 S. Ankeny Blvd., Ankeny
• 1805 S.E. Delaware Ave., Ankeny
• 835 42nd St., Des Moines
• 5435 Mills Civic Parkway, West Des Moines

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