Enter the dojo of The Thrift Fu MasterJanuary 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.