Archive for January, 2010


If Thrift Is In The Shop & No One’s Around to ‘Fu It…

January 25, 2010

It’s been over two weeks since I posted on here, and I’m feeling very neglectful. This is in part because I’m still saving my shekels for the big unnecessary awesome purchase, which means that I’ve got to be careful about small unnecessary mildly impressive purchases. It’s unfortunate timing that I should be looking to make such an acquisition right after launching this blog, but there are lessons in Thrift Fu to be gained in its absence.

This evening I found myself in a fly-by-night discount DVD store that’s sprung up across the street from The Strand. While there were at least a few DVDs at reasonable prices I was interested in, those for which I have a BURNING DESIRE were absent (or, in a couple cases, in a format I didn’t want them in), and after sifting through just about the entire store’s stock I suddenly realized there was no good reason for me to drop over $20 on DVDs about which I was only somewhat chuffed. I put them back with not a little regret, but I realize now this was false Thrift Fu, and I successfully resisted it. The DVDs I want will find their way to me on their own path at their own pace, and I will appreciate them all the more when they do.

Observant readers may have noticed that my username on WordPress is “jerryabington.” Since I’ve been quite open that my name is in fact Ken Applebaum, who then is Jerry Abington? He is the narrator of Cory Doctorow‘s seminal sci-fi short story “Craphound.” Craphound is the nickname of Jerry’s alien partner, but it’s also a breed of person who scours yard sales, thrift stores, backwood auctions and the like, seeking items of unsuspected value that might be snaked for a song, be it for one’s own collection or an appreciable profit in resale to a more knowledgable buyer. At least, that’s the way Jerry views it. Craphound, on the other hand, comes from a race who puts ultimate value on stories, and they trade advanced technology to Earthlings for the physical totems of memories.

I chose Jerry’s name as my handle not because my interest in Thrift Fu is a purely materialistic one. If anything, I’d like to become less materialistic and more sensitive to the inherent stories in my practice thereof; why else write a blog about what in the end is random shopping? Jerry eventually reaches this consciousness in the story by Craphound’s example, though not before shunning Craphound for what he sees as a gross violation of The Craphound’s Code:

And then I explained to him all about how you never bid against a craphound at a yard-sale, how you get to know the other fellows’ tastes, and when you see something they might like, you haul it out for them, and they’ll do the same for you, and how you never buy something that another craphound might be looking for, if all you’re buying it for is to sell it back to him. Just good form and common sense, really, but you’d be surprised how many amateurs just fail to make the jump to pro because they can’t grasp it.

I don’t know yet if there’s a Thrift Fu Code, since up to now it’s been a mostly solitary pursuit (and I prefer it remain so to preserve the personal nature of whatever its message may be), but this seems a good starting point, as is the whole moral parable that is “Craphound.” If you’ve never read it, for the sake of the ‘Fu, it’s available for free online (as are almost all of Cory’s works); here is a .txt version, and it wouldn’t take much of a hunt to find it in almost any other format you like. There’s even several podcast readings of it online (of which I think the best is from Escape Pod) and a comic adaptation.

I should note I’ve not gone completely cold turkey on Thrift Fu lately. Some of the best scores from Goodwill from the past couple weeks have included:

There may be a couple items I’m forgetting. Obviously, you can take the boy out of Thrift Fu for a little while, but you can’t take the Thrift Fu out of the boy.


Full Thrift Fu Jacket

January 8, 2010

I’ve stayed out of the thrift shops so far this week, mulling over a large, unnecessary but incredible expense, yet Thrift Fu stalks me nevertheless. As I walked from the train to my apartment Monday evening I found an item I needed: a two-shelf glass display case simply dropped at the corner of Fulton and Spencer. It needs to be cleaned like you wouldn’t believe & the side is cracked, held together with duct tape, but neither matters: it’s now a key component in my toy robot shrine. I’ll be putting more delicate & valuable items inside (some of them Thrift Fu finds themselves), and I’ve replaced a missing door with a grate from the extant shrine scaffolding to keep my young, curious, destructive cat out. I may install the blacklight tube I’ve had long dormant inside for a cool effect, and it adds two shelves to the entire affair, not to mention a more formal air. Pictures when it’s worth sharing.


I should at this early stage in the game detail exactly how it is that Thrift Fu made itself aware to me. As I said before, it was in the summer of 1999. I was still living in my little college town in Wisconsin that was at one point both an industrial hub and a daytrip destination, but by the time I got there it was neither any longer. What is was, according to scuttlebutt, was the axis of regional illegal narcotics trade. Better by far than the next major town north, which had the dubious reputation as the Midwestern capitol of the KKK. I had been working since that February as a telephone bill collector, a nasty business for which I showed surprising aptitude, and had just finished up co-professoring a course in comic & animation semiotics. (I should note that I was not the TA, as I was indeed under contract to the college for the semester; I did in fact teach the bulk of the classes, having greater fluency in the topic than the tenured professor in charge.) I lived across the street from my office in a chilly, ramshackle railroad apartment directly over a redneck poolhall, which later became a disappointingly tepid crafting store.

During the school year, my girlfriend more or less lived with me, but she had gone home to her native land of Finland for the summer. We’d shared a ratty single bed for that whole year, & I was determined to make my piss-poor surroundings more amenable to her company, so I decided to buy a queen sized bed. I checked the Salvation Army Thrift Store near the supermarket I frequented, but their prices were unusually sky high, or perhaps they had none in stock; I forget which.

(A detour: it was at that Sally Ann that I found my “costume” two years before for an annual event known as “Dress To Get Laid.” It was a navy blue, corduroy, bell-bottomed, snug-fitting, wide-lapelled, zippered from the neck to the crotch jumpsuit. I wore it mostly open with a coupla faux gold chains & a medallion across my hairy chest and told people I was the Lost Bee-Gee. It was the one time that party lived up to its billing for me. Down the road, it looked even better when my girlfriend rocked it, hugging her curves and opened just enough to showcase her impressive cleavage. Perhaps that was the true first manifestation of Thrift Fu, but I was unaware of it at that time.)

Foiled at my usual haunts, my one co-worker of equally outré tastes, if not more so, drove me to a smaller thrift shop on the opposite side of the river that ran through town. There were plenty of cheap mattresses to be had, and though I’m only slightly less squeamish about sleeping on another’s bed than I am in wearing someone else’s underwear, my ardor for my girlfriend trumped any concern, real or imagined. I’d found one that looked sufficiently unsullied, and was getting ready to pay, when it caught my eye. I quite visibly froze and drooled.

The jacket.

To be more specific, a Berman’s leather motorcycle jacket. I have never owned a motorcycle, and though the image of shooting through late night Manhattan atop a sleek, growling two-wheeler is fucking badass and sexy, I very much doubt I ever will own one. Hell, I’ve barely ever rode one. But this jacket was the next best thing. Both retro and futuristic, with a side-zipper, buckles, ribbed padding, the works. The shop owner reckoned it was worth up to $500, but he was asking a measly $20. Best of all, at a size 42, it fit me to a T, and was sooo warm. I was in love.

And yet, I had a mission at this store, and after the $40 I was spending on the mattress, I couldn’t eat another $20 on top of it. I sadly, reluctantly took it off and hung it back up, concluded my business, and hauled my mattress back to my warren. At least I had the greater surface area of my bed to console me, and soon enough I’d have a happy girlfriend to go with it.

Still, I couldn’t stop thinking about the jacket. It preoccupied me while I strong-armed money out of poor area bastards all day. Thus it should come as no surprise that as soon as I got my next paycheck, I booked it across the river to that same thrift shop. I exploded through the door, sought out the rack I’d seen it on…

…and it wasn’t there.

Of course it wasn’t there. It had been two weeks, and a jacket that shit-hot wasn’t going to wait patiently for me to return to claim it; some other lucky bastard snatched it up and was looking quite the dashing sort rather than me. Deflated, I began slinking towards the door, next to which was the counter where the same owner sat in front of a “20% Off Everything Today!” sign.

Clinging to a shred of hope, I looked up at him. “Hi. I don’t know if you recall, but I was in a couple weeks ago buying a mattress.”

“Yep, I remember you,” he replied, sensing a question.

“Oh, cool. Well, there was this brown leather motorcycle jacket hanging over there that I was really into. It’s not there now, so I’m guessing you’ve sold it by now…”

“Nope.” His eyes twinkled.


“I said, nope. I didn’t sell it.” He stood up, got a step stool and reached up over the cabinets above the counter. “I saw that you wanted it, and I knew that you’d be coming back for it, so I put it aside for you.” And with that, he pulled the jacket off the cabinet.

I was stunned. My entire sense of reality collapsed. I couldn’t speak; whenever I tried, I sputtered random syllables, so bad was my cognitive dissonance. “B… but, but you couldn’t have known I’d be back for it!” I finally choked out. “You could’ve SOLD this!”

“I knew, and I am selling it. To you.”

The price tag I’d seen was gone. I remembered it said $20, but did he? “Um, um, okay. So, uh, how much is this gonna be?”

He remembered. “It’s $15.” He remembered, and cited me an even lower price than it had been priced at before.

Just how far could I push this? I pointed to the sign behind him. “Does that apply?”

He made a show of looking behind him, though he knew full well what it read. He understood that this was a ritualistic dance, and he needed to give me every thrill of victory. “Of course.”

I walked out of that shop with the baddest fucking $500 motorcycle jacket, saved just for me without any conscious intent on my behalf, for a mere $12.

That summer, I sensed something was different; machinery was in motion and forces were at work on me. I began visiting thrift stores and yard sales more often when finances allowed (and sometimes even when not). At one yard sale, I managed to charm a family into selling me a functional Atari 2600, with two extra controllers and a 25 game library, for $15. This was mere months before the retro videogaming boom exploded, and nowadays the system itself would go for no less than $80. I still have it.

In August, my girlfriend returned from Finland and promptly broke up with me. By April 2000 I’d found a job back in New York; when I moved, I abandoned the mattress on which I’d never got to sleep with her, along with the rest of my hopes and dreams where she was concerned. The item I’d specifically sought out was the one which turned out to be the most disposable, while those that Fate had delivered into my hands were the ones that are still with me over a decade later. The jacket’s potency is no diminished; while moving several years back, a carload of teens pulled up just to ask me how much pussy the jacket had got me and whether they could buy it off me. They could not.

All praise be to Thrift Fu. Let go and trust it, and it will provide.


Enter the dojo of The Thrift Fu Master

January 1, 2010

Today, January 1, 2010, is my older sister Julia’s 40th birthday. That’s a pretty big one of those. She’s six years, two months and one day older than me, so that’s the current countdown to when that particular ax falls on me. Being as it’s pretty big, no ordinary gifts would do. And ordinarily, I, being a cheap bastard, would just smoosh her birthday together with Hannukkah & call it a day, but obviously that wouldn’t do this year.

In the end, I gave her three gifts today. The first and cheapest was a CD containing assorted mp3s I reckoned she would enjoy. (Though she’s scaled it back somewhat, she nevertheless has a ginormous music collection, with musical tastes to match, so it’s both easy AND hard to cater to her palate.) Bang, one down.

The second and, until last night, the only other one I’d intended to give her, was a pendant I found for her at my job. It’s sterling silver, and features a Chinese character that, according to the accompanying literature, means “long life.” Kind of appropriate to one’s fortieth birthday, I should think, and furthermore, since family lore has it that somewhere a bunch of generations back on my mother’s side there was Mongolian blood introduced to our Russian forebears, my sister likes to believe we are, by some definition thereof, part Asian. Two birds, one stone: BANG! Two down.

As I say, these might have been the only gifts she’d have got, and good gifts they’d have been on their own merits, no doubt. Last night as I came home from work, I had nothing in my intentions for the following couple hours but a speedy preparation for a New Years party I would attend. And yet, as I stepped off my train, for reasons I didn’t really understand, rather than a direct course to my apartment, I instead was walking the other way to my local Goodwill Thrift Store. At several points I nearly turned around, sure that I was wasting valuable time, even once I’d set foot in the Goodwill. Yet still I trudged on.

I’d found a couple books I was merely lukewarm about, & was perusing the housewares area with muted interest when my eyes landed on what looked like an old children’s book. Well, it’s hardly unusual in any thrift store to see miscategorized items in areas they don’t belong, either by employee or customer neglect. But as my eyes focused, I saw that it had newer spiral binding. I picked it up to look at it. Indeed, the cover and first several pages were from a 1940’s era kids book called The Birthday Cake, but then they stopped, replaced by blank pages. It was, in fact, a journal made from a children’s book by a crafty outfit called Ex Libris Anonymous. Best of all, Goodwill was asking a whopping $1.79 for it. (A check of ELA’s site reveals that even their smallest journals go for $12.) I put back the lukewarm books, picked up one I liked better about how the Internet has changed art, plus the first season of Aqua Teen Hunger Force on DVD. Total tithe was $7.58. (More on “tithing” in a bit.) Bang, three down.

Today, upon arrival at my sister’s party, I presented her with these three gifts one by one. The CD was received graciously, fully aware it didn’t cost me a dime. (Many has been the birthday or holiday my sister has done likewise, so who better to know those economics but her?) The pendant was appropriately impressive, and she immediately put it on, saying, “Look, it’s our people!” (What did I tell you?) But the journal, presented in a lowly brown paper bag, was the one gift that elicited oohs and aahs not only from my sister, but all her ladyfriends in attendance as well.

“Where did you find this?” one of them demanded of me. “I want one, too!”

I just shrugged, not wishing to tip my hand.


Ladies and gentlemen, my name is Ken Applebaum. I am something of a big nerd, so I wished my whole life for superpowers. Around 1999, I discovered at last that I had one, if one a bit unconventional. Two years later, on a BBS for nerds who wanted to look cool, I gave it a name.


I have since seen this term used elsewhere, so I must have really tapped into some primal energy, but I assure you, I coined it nearly a decade ago. If I could search the archives of said BBS I could prove that, but alas, I cannot. Like anything that requires a certain suspension of disbelief, like Thrift Fu itself, you must take this on faith, for now, at least. Indeed, Thrift Fu is the closest I’ve ever had to true spirituality, having never truly connected with Judaism as it was presented to me or have since learned of it, nor any other organized religion for that matter.

If you hear the term “Thrift Fu,” your mind may leap to a number of suppositions about what it means, and a good many of them would be grossly inaccurate. It is not bargain hunting. It is not eBay trawling or comparing prices on Amazon. It is not lowball bidding. It is not coupon clipping.

So what, then, is Thrift Fu?

Thrift Fu is a kind of zen and a kind of divination. Thrift Fu is surrendering yourself to pure chance, utter happenstance. Thrift Fu is whatever The Universe wants you to know or to have, placed in your path at a price at which you are willing to pay for it.

Still confused? I’m not surprised. It’s less something that you can understand intellectually and more something that you have to intuit. When I found myself yesterday evening with two hours to get ready for my evening yet walking away from where I needed to go, that was Thrift Fu working through me. Had I been operating completely, robotically intellectually, I’d have missed an opportunity to get one of the more memorable presents I’ve ever given.

Thrift Fu is not just about finding the lowest price on something. I’ve never claimed it was the absolute cheapest way to any given item. It’s not about finding the item or the price; it’s about the item or the price finding you. There are things that might be available to you absolutely free, but they are still not worth it, be it in intrinsic value or what other, less obvious price they might ask of you. They might even be the right items at the right price, just at the wrong moment.

On the other hand, there are items that are so precious, perhaps to no one more so than you, that no price is too high to pay to acquire them. That price is your tithe to Thrift Fu.  It is your exchange to put things in balance. Sometimes, that price may not even be in currency, but in whatever function you must perform. The item itself may not be intended for you, so your role in its journey is as a conduit for whomever it’s intended.

Thrift Fu is a power, and like all powers, it can run out of control. I’ve at times been helpless before its might as items practically threw themselves at me. Despite the word “thrift” in its name, it can actually get expensive if not kept within limits. That’s part of why I’ve created this blog: to chronicle my finds & try to connect the dots between them into whatever I’m being told, but also to receive external feedback whether I’m seeing the same things others are, and to hear some of your stories on the matter, too. (And, should this blog turn any sort of profit, perhaps I can start writing off my thrift store visits on my taxes as business-related expenses.)

I welcome you to this journey that I’ve been on. In time, perhaps you will go on your own. May only the bitchenest shit find you. I shall speak to you all again soon.