One of my first jobs was cashiering and sorting at a thrift store. I lasted an entire week and a half in the cavernous, grimy maw of grandpa sweaters, used underwear (why?!), and broken children's toys. And though I may not have been cut out for thrift store employment (I moved on to the much more glorious shoe department at Mervyn's in the mall), I developed a fond appreciation and lifelong habit of thrifting.
Hence, below are some the East Bay's most stellar thrift, vintage, and used clothing stores. But first, a caveat: What makes a great thrift store is obviously subjective. While one shopper may prize organization above all, another may value friendly service or the lowest prices. And due to the rotating nature of used clothing stores, it's impossible to say for certain whether a particular brand or item will be in stock if/when you decide to turn up. That said, with the help of crowdsourcing, Express staff insights, and personal experience, this list is a solid start for your gently used needs. Let's get picky.
So much more than a clothing shop, Tilde (349 15th St., Oakland, TildeOakland.com) is a retail outlet that mainly features 1980s and 1990s (aka contemporary vintage) styles. It's also an arcade, art gallery, event space, and has an upstairs library and reading room run by Libros Libres, a group that puts on literary happenings, and gives away free books! Owner Lisa Aurora partners with WRN FRSH, an Oakland-based brand, and Art Beat Foundation, in addition to selling her own handmade dresses and jewelry. The clothes you'll find at Tilde are higher priced than what you'd find at, say, a Salvation Army, but the shop's thoroughly winning attitude, superb nerdery, and local flair make it one of the most unique shopping experiences you'll ever encounter in the East Bay.
In this dilapidated red house in North Oakland, shoppers are unlikely to find what they were looking for — but they will most certainly find something they weren't looking for, and that's half the fun of thrifting, is it not? Inside (and outside) the spacious Victorian that is Antique Center (6519 Telegraph Ave., Oakland), you'll find used furniture, housewares, and other doodads in varying stages of working order. Part antique shop, part garage sale, and part delightful eyesore, shopping at the Antique Center is difficult work (with erratic hours — calling ahead first is advisable), but the rewards are plentiful. For the committed rummager, you're likely to find treasures unavailable anywhere else, such as an old pinball machine, a Saved by the Bell-era cellphone, or a taxidermied ground squirrel.
At 33,000 square feet, Hayward Eco Thrift (25891 Mission Blvd., EcoThrift.com) is one of the largest thrift stores I've ever seen (remarkably, Eco has an even bigger store in Sacramento at 39,000 square feet, and also operates stores in Stockton, Vallejo, and a few other cities in Northern California.) In addition to its size, Eco also turns over its entire store every 28 days, meaning each month promises a completely new experience. Be prepared to spend a lot of time here, in other words. Clothing styles range from the practical to the outright ridiculous (pink taffeta bridesmaid dress from the Eighties? You betcha. Alligator print slacks? Uh huh.), and Eco is an excellent and well priced (many items are under $10) place to shop for theme parties and other costumed getups. The housewares section is more hit-or-miss, so thrifters will probably do better to stick to the clothes.
Far & Few (1643 San Pablo Ave, Berkeley) is unassuming shop located in the South Berkeley Design Loop that has managed to keep a very low profile (as a testament to that, perhaps, it has no website, and a very sparse Facebook page). Still, its clothing, while not super cheap, is carefully curated, and often better priced than other vintage shops around town. Run by two sisters, Far & Few is small but mighty, with fun costume-style attire (If you're feeling fancy, check out the silk scarf collection), hats, and coats. As one Express staffer noted, "I bought some cool high-waist bright red Versace pants from there and felt like I was Elizabeth Berkley in Showgirls!" As a bonus, its neighbors include Spacepop, a "lifestyle company centered around bold, bright, and eclectic design," and the stylish boutique Social Studies.
Definitely a thrift store that requires some patience, enthusiasm, and a love of tweed blazers, the Downtown Oakland Goodwill (1220 Broadway, Goodwill.org) is a store that rewards careful digging. With a sizeable housewares section (that includes occasionally baffling items such as already-opened boxes of sandwich bags and maxi pads (both $3.99) and large selection of toys and children's clothes, the downtown Goodwill may not be the biggest, but its central location and diversity of styles make it worth a trip. On a recent visit, for instance, I found a pewter bowling trophy inscribed with the passive-aggressive compliment "Thanks for showing up." But Goodwill offers more than just clothes: It's often a record collector's dream (with an honorable mention going to the Fruitvale Goodwill, 1301 30th Ave.), with classic selections and rare vinyl often marked down to less than the cost of a taco-truck taco. If you're a music aficionado, you'd do well to get lost in these stacks. As an organization, Goodwill also provides, well, good will, by offering employment training, job placement services, financial education, and youth mentoring to those in need.
El Sobrante Thrift Town (3645 San Pablo Dam Rd., ThriftTown.com) is a gold mine for pickers (those who scavenge thrift stores for designer gems in order to sell them online). Thrift Town professes to put out more than 4,000 recycled items every day in each of its stores (of which there are fifteen total throughout California, Texas, and New Mexico). El Sob's store is enormous (and often busy, so plan for a bit of hustle and bustle, and perhaps some parking annoyance, before you shop) and has a sale virtually every day (whether it's by way of its color-coded tags, regular sales promos, VIP deals, or 50-percent-off holiday specials). Shoppers can also find brand name items at excessively cheap prices, if they are willing to do a little digging, as well as more off-the-wall items (adult-sized Snoopy costume, anyone?). The store is fairly well-organized (with the usual thrift store exceptions of books and kids' toys), and all of its merchandise comes from nonprofit partnerships. According to its website, Thrift Town has generated more than $80 million for nonprofit organizations, so East Bay shoppers can give themselves a slight pat on the back when buying that lacy blouse from Anthropologie for $4.