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Sometimes a place can be much too neat

At an old thrift shop, the organization was marginal at best – and that was great for 'treasure hunters.'

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I knew something was wrong as soon as I entered our local thrift shop one recent Saturday. There was a spaciousness and order about it that put me on edge. The piles of clothing were neat and square, the aisles were clear of clutter, and a couple of unfamiliar women moved about with an efficiency worthy of a Fortune 500 company.

This was not the thrift shop I had known – and loved – for so many years.

The clapboard building, once a school, had housed what amounted to a great ongoing rummage sale that saw a constant flow of goods in and out.Not only clothing, but a whole spectrum of understated wonders: pots and pans, kids' toys, eight-track tapes, books, linens, and backpacks, to name just a few items.

The thing about the old thrift shop was that whatever order existed was marginal. The categories were crude and general – a heap of men's jeans on the floor, a stack of sweaters on a wooden table. But there was always the element of surprise, the possibility of coming upon something that had migrated from one pile to another.

My favorite nook was a shelf all but hidden under a long rack of men's shirts. One had to crouch even to notice it. And then you had to stretch your arm in, through the shirts, and sort of feel for what might be in there. It was nothing short of a grab bag, and I always quivered with anticipation at what I might find.

Now and then I'd hit real pay dirt: a stack of vintage Christmas cards, neatly tied with a ribbon; a telescoping aluminum cup; an old fountain pen in its original case; a recipe for homemade doughnuts.

Beyond the gratifying clutter that made a visit to the thrift shop a treasure hunt, the real eye-opener was the prices.

For years the thrift shop had been administered by a local woman, Mae, who sat at her station surrounded by shopping bags of donations and baskets of slowly accumulating purchases.

Wedged into place between the women's clothing and a table of what can only be referred to as doodads, Mae was skilled at assigning values on the spot. I once found an almost-new denim jacket for my son. Knowing that those things cost $30 to $40, I brought it to Mae more out of curiosity than an intention to buy. But she studied it, bit her lip, and said, "Seventy-five cents?"

I was in cheapskate heaven.

The thrift shop as it used to be was the one true commons in my small Maine town. Whenever I climbed those creaky wooden steps, I looked forward to meeting friends and neighbors.

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