In New Orleans, there's a thrift store, consignment shop or flea market for just about every budget and style preference. But many Orleans Parish thrift stores get picked over rather quickly by scores of vintage boutique owners, costumers and trendy college students. As a result, selections can be lackluster. To score the good stuff, it helps to venture outside Orleans Parish.
To get your feet wet, start by hitting up the Jefferson Highway thrift store corridor. In thrifting, as in life, tenacity pays off, so if you don't hit the jackpot at The Red, White & Blue (5278 Jefferson Hwy., Jefferson, 733-8066; www.redwhiteandbluethriftstore.com), you might get lucky at Goodwill (9323 Jefferson Hwy., 737-7490; www.goodwillno.org). Be warned: There are no dressing rooms at The Red, White & Blue, so it helps to shed your modesty or wear a form-fitted undergarment (leggings and a tight camisole work well) while trying on clothes. A friend with a discerning eye can serve as a mirror, since those are also in short supply.
Thrift City (601 Terry Pkwy., Suite P, Gretna, 363-0006) is still the behemoth among New Orleans thrift stores, and though it's not quite as accessible to Orleans Parish residents since it moved from its former Mid-City location, it's more than worth the drive and the Crescent City Connection's dollar toll. With frequent sales, dressing rooms and a spacious warehouse containing seemingly endless racks of clothes, it's one of the more pleasant thrift stores.
The Goodwill in Covington (1000 Business 1-90, Suite 41; 985-892-3937; www.goodwillno.org) has a few things in its favor: A relatively remote location, dressing rooms and proximity to affluent Northshore citizens (who donate barely worn designer threads) as well as less-than-affluent small-town Louisianans (who donate irony-ripe stuff like polyester jumpsuits and T-shirts featuring pastel kittens with creepily dilated pupils). Be sure to check out the outstanding collection of watches and jewelry in the glass accessory case.
If these road trips whet your appetite, consider embarking on the ultimate thrift store pilgrimage: McAllen, Texas, a sleepy border town, has Momo's Ropa Usada (6601 S. 28th St., McAllen, Texas, 956-664-2311), where unsold thrift store inventory goes to die. Sold for 40 cents a pound, there are nuggets of gold to be found among the towering heaps of garments, which stretch nearly to the warehouse's ceiling. Be prepared to literally dig for clothes, and learn how to say "Pardon me" in Spanish in case you trigger a clothing avalanche that engulfs fellow shoppers.
My motto at by-the-pound and regular thrift stores is "If in doubt, buy it." At best, you'll end up with a truly one-of-a-kind vintage ensemble. At worst, you'll have prevented clothes from going to a landfill and contributed a few bucks to a charitable cause. At any rate, a well-honed spirit of adventure is essential for striking thrift store gold, whether at home or on the road.