By Dana DeLaney-McSwain

Cleveland. We don’t have a lot. It’s easy to fall into the self-pity of yearning for what other cities have and ignoring what we do have here. But one of the things we do have is a truly staggering amount of deep-discount shopping and all of the glorious encounters that go along with it.

Marc’s, Value World, Value Warehouse, Unique Thrift, the 26 Salvation Army stores within driving distance of Cleveland, consignment shops, up-cycle shops, curiosity shops, and vintage shops—there’s a huge variety. We have our pick of rare, and often broken, junk. Deep-discount shopping in Cleveland is the classified ad equivalent of “runs good.” I’m sure this is a commentary of some sort on the mindset of the average Clevelander, something inspirational about conservancy and nostalgia, stoicism and hard times, but I’m way more interested in the junk.

If I left my house today with $50, I could easily return home with all of the following:

  • A life-size plaster chimp
  • Several lazy-eyed dolls
  • Four slightly dingy Jos. A. Bank dress shirts for my son, who will accuse me of buying him “hobo clothes”
  • Pope John Paul II commemorative plates
  • Hammer pants, any color
  • Gym shirts from all local high schools, 50 cents each
  • Bags of hair, possibly human (Really, I saw it at Unique and backed away slowly)
  • Two outfits hip enough to wear into The Root Cafe, smelling only slightly of mothballs

And yes. I have done this. This was my haul from last week.

There’s something magical about thrifting. The thrill of the hunt. Pawing through bins and crowded racks for that pair of perfectly broken-in jeans. Feeling your way through sweaters until you find that one ancient polyester yarn cardigan so nearly Anthropologie that your heart soars, as long as you ignore the $2.99 price tag stapled to it. You could be lucky enough to unearth a genuine Kardiac Kids t-shirt or a Bernie Kosar cartoon t-shirt from Daffy Dans back in the day.

[blocktext align=”left”]There’s something magical about thrifting. The thrill of the hunt. Pawing through bins and crowded racks for that pair of perfectly broken-in jeans. [/blocktext]Thrift stores are one of the rare places where you can find Clevelanders from all walks of life. A nexus of suburban housewives, inner city kids, private school kids, hipster twentysomethings, old men patiently following around their wives. The people inside are tied together not just by location and budget, but by the cross-cultural language of dance:  I’ve noticed that whatever thrift store you’re in, nearly everyone there is dancing, shoulders dipping, hips swaying to styles of music that aren’t  actually playing on the static-y sound system. People dancing to rap, country, folk, guitar rock that only they can hear, their own personal thifting theme song. Me? I hear the Bee Gees as I’m “Jive Talk”-ing my way though every thrift store in town, and no one looks cross-eyed at me because we are all locked together in a dance of thrift.

In Cleveland it is possible to clothe a family of four, furnish your home, and select gifts for friends and family that will stun and delight just by shopping second hand and deep discount. My all-time favorite discount purchase? That’s hard. But if pressed, I remember a hot summer day when I happened upon a pop-up lingerie sale near the intersection of 117th and Detroit, literally piles of vintage underwear on the street. I neither know nor care what would prompt someone to choose a random street corner to sell teddies and tap panties, I was far too enchanted by the “everything must go” sign. I scored a sheer ivory ‘60s negligee for 99 cents. This had the added benefit of putting my husband in the uncomfortable position of admiring my frugality as I haggled for underwear on a street corner.

[blocktext align=”left”]I found my own deep-discount prophet in the cereal aisle, or rather she found me. [/blocktext]But let’s move beyond the stuff, beyond the clothes and the trinkets, past the delight of street corner underwear. For me, it’s more about the people. They lie in wait to dazzle you like shabby prophets as you go through a sagging box of spatulas and butter knives, naïve in your certainty that at the bottom is the cheap pasta fork of your dreams.

I found my own deep-discount prophet in the cereal aisle, or rather she found me. She was just leaning there on a cereal display, as if she’d been waiting for me since time began. As I walked by she nodded at me solemnly and said in a gravelly voice:

“What’s going on?”

I made a choice in that brief moment, looking into her bloodshot eyes and replying, “Not too much.” And then I waited, breathless.

“Can I ask you a question?”

“Oh yes, please do!” I said in a rush.

“What do you think about texting?”

I paused, as my mind whirled, wondering where her question would take us, here in the deep-discount cereal aisle.

“Uhhh… I think the children of the future will have grossly huge and dexterous thumbs, but that doesn’t stop me from texting constantly. I’ll probably be texting in two or three minutes, depending on how long this conversation takes.”

She narrowed her eyes at me.

“My nephew is texting and sexting and I told my pa, I said, “Pa, you take that cell phone from that damn boy or I guarantee the next face you see at the door will be the sheriff’s.”

“That’s rough. How old is he?”

“My pa is, like, fifty or something.”

“No, your nephew.”

“He’s not really my nephew. My pa just took him on off the street. We don’t know who he is. I think he’s like fifteen. But street kids are trouble. And my pa loves him too much to put the smack down on his ass.”

“I’m right there with you. Texting and kids and the internet? It’s all trouble,” I said, still pondering the family dynamic in her home. “I used to work in the library, and you wouldn’t believe the stuff you see kids getting into on the internet. You can’t be too careful with kids. Even street ones that aren’t your nephew.” 

[blocktext align=”left”]“Oh, you know the whole thing with Eostre, great mother goddess and all that. You Jesus people call it what you want. It’s pagan, baby.”[/blocktext]“How old is your daughter?”

I blinked at her. Twice.

“I didn’t say I have a daughter. Did I say anything about a daughter?”

“Fancy lady like you has a sweet little girl, I know it.”

A high-pitched whine came out of me as I felt the conversation derail.

She pointed into my cart.

“How much are those sweatshirts?”

“They were $2.00 over in closeouts. You know, I… I… I’ve got to go. I’ve got a lot of shopping to do for Easter and …”

“No, ma’am, I do not. I do not hold with them pagan holidays. I will never celebrate a pagan holiday again. It’s too much damn trouble. Satan, you know. Satan!”

I felt solid ground beneath my feet again, thankful as she began muttering about Satan, typical deep-discount conversation from my experience. I was back in my depth.

“How is Easter pagan?” I asked, intrigued.

“Oh, you know the whole thing with Eostre, great mother goddess and all that. You Jesus people call it what you want.  It’s pagan, baby.”

“Well, yeah, but I’m Catholic. I understand what you’re saying historically about goddess worship, but I’m celebrating the resurrection of the baby Jesus. And eating chocolate. Mostly the chocolate part. I’m a bad Catholic.”

“Nope, my kids don’t get Easter baskets. They get coupons and a ten dollar bill. I lay them on the breakfast table and they shuffle through, pick out what they want.”

“Sure, why not?” I said. “Sounds awesome.”

She abruptly changed gears again.

“And you know what, honey, you’re wrong. The children of the future won’t have giant thumbs. They’ll have tiny, skinny, toothpick thumbs for texting. Freaky little thumbs.

She waggled her own thumbs at me and the trance she’d put me into broke. I felt the urgent need to move on.

“I really need to go. I hope you have a nice day,” I said, trying to push my cart around her.

“Wait a minute, honey.” She slid away from wall of cereal and began to creep towards me, panic rising in my chest as she slithered deep inside my personal space.

[blocktext align=”left”]Perhaps that’s the best thing about discount shopping in Cleveland. There’s no smoke and mirrors, no polish, no expensive shellac that homogenizes us. [/blocktext]Arms outstretched, she wrapped me in a bear hug, holding the hug to the count of eleven Mississippis. I know this because I was counting slowly, waiting to get licked or something equally weird. I kept repeating to myself that even this woman had an important story, over and over like a talisman. But instead of licking me, she pursed her lips over a toothless smile and half whistled, half whispered in my ear, “God bless you, honey. God bless your family.”

Then she went back to leaning on cereal. I bet she’s still there right now. I like to think conversations like this one keep me young.

Perhaps that’s the best thing about discount shopping in Cleveland. There’s no smoke and mirrors, no polish, no expensive shellac that homogenizes us. Surrounded as we are by the broken, the used, the worn-down-to-a-nub, we learn to take things at face value, to accept the strange, the lost, and the ridiculous; to brush it off and take it home and make it a part of our lives. The thrift and the shabby nostalgia brings out the best in us, perhaps making us a little more patient with each other as we all try to get by and make the best of what we have. Which can be a beautiful thing.

I saw a man and his four daughters once in the toy aisle of Marc’s Discount Store. The dad was a mesh-tank-top-wearing, neck and face tattoo sort of guy. His daughters ranged in age from about 6 months to 5 years. Not one of the girls was wearing shoes on their grimy little suntanned feet as they scampered about on the dirty linoleum floor. I watched as he patiently let the older girls pick something out from Marc’s assortment of 99 cent toys. All the while, the dad was blowing on the baby’s belly and neck, screams of delight coming from her tiny mouth as her sisters exclaimed over their little treasures. I moved on, but came upon them again as I walked out of the store. They were all sitting on the curb as cars and trash blew past like tumbleweed under the hot summer sun. Using an enormous knife, their father cut the tags off of four pairs of little plastic sandals, one pair for each of his barefoot daughters. As I loaded my car, I watched as those little girls preened and pranced, walking up and down the catwalk they’d made of the dingy sidewalk, demanding that their daddy tell them how pretty they were. And it was beautiful, right there in front of Marc’s. A Cleveland sort of beauty and one I wouldn’t trade for the world.

Dana DeLaney-McSwain is a writer of fiction and non-fiction living in Lakewood, Ohio. You can find more of her essays and humorous pieces at