A Road Trip Through America’s Thrift Stores


Photojournalist Jenna Isaacson embarked on the All Thrifty States documentary project, sponsored by Goodwill, to promote secondhand shopping as a way to conserve resources and money during the economic recession. Photo: Jenna Isaacson

Jenna Isaacson isn’t the only one on a road trip this summer, but her cross-country journey has a unique mission: to raise awareness about buying secondhand, as a way to conserve resources and save money during the recession.

Isaacson departed from Phoenix last month and has been visiting thrift stores across the country, documenting her experiences along the way on her blog.

Since the economic downturn, work has been slow for Isaacson, an independent photojournalist based in Washington D.C., so she decided to combine her love of thrifting, travel and photography for this documentary project, “All Thrifty States: A Visual Journey through America’s Collective Closets.”

“With Thrifty States, my goal is for consumers to have a better understanding of the positive aspects of secondhand shopping, which include helping people served by nonprofits, shrinking landfills, reducing clutter, saving money for municipalities and boosting the economy,” Isaacson says.

After collecting initial donations for her trip through the fundraising website Kickstarter, she approached Goodwill about sponsoring the project, and they agreed to provide her with a fuel-efficient RV for her travels.

“Jenna Isaacson is taking her passion for donated goods and educating the public on the tie-in between donations and environmental sustainability, while also breaking any negative stigmas about thrift stores and bringing light to the mission, knowledge and benefits of secondhand living,” says Jim Gibbons, president and CEO of Goodwill Industries International. “Jenna is a true advocate for the mission of Goodwill, bringing awareness to Americans on what donations mean for both people and the planet.”

READ: Goodwill Doesn’t Want It, Now What?

Bridal salons to biodiesel: the trip so far

Since leaving Phoenix, Isaacson visited Los Angeles and then traveled up to the Pacific Northwest, stopping in Las Vegas, Salt Lake City and Boise on the way. She is currently driving through the Midwest before she heads to the South, planning to finish her trip back in Phoenix in early August.

Isaacson updates her blog daily with photos and stories of unique treasures she has found, interesting people she has met and stores she has visited that raise money for the local community: from the bridal salon, complete with raised platform and mirrors, in downtown Omaha’s Goodwill store to the St. Paul, Minn. thrift store that helps fund the state’s largest no-kill animal shelter.

One highlight of Isaacson’s journey so far was visiting a green-minded thrift store in Fort Collins, Colo. Powered entirely by wind energy, Eco-Thrift aims to be zero waste, recycling and donating unsold items. The store also collects used vegetable oil from the community to make biodiesel that fuels its donation pick-up trucks. Isaacson even found upcycled benches and chairs made from old skis for sale at the store.

“Eco-Thrift takes environmental friendliness to the next level,” Isaacson says.

READ: First Zero Waste Grocery Store to Open in Austin

As gas prices continue to rise, Isaacson hopes to raise additional funds for her road trip.  Her website accepts donations and now features a store where she sells prints of her original photography, as well as thrift store goodies she has collected on her journey.

The Brewer family shops in a Goodwill store in Rapid City, South Dakota. Photo: Jenna Isaacson

Thrifting tips for newbies

Isaacson has been thrifting since her childhood, when she would accompany her grandpa to secondhand stores on senior discount days.

“A local rollerskating rink must have closed because one day, there were 200 pairs of rollerskates,” she says. “I thought, ‘Who would get rid of all these rollerskates?’”

The veteran thrifter lists a number of tips on her blog for thrift store newbies, but gave her top three tips for Earth911 readers:

  • Have patience: Realize you will find better stuff if you’re patient.
  • Get started on secondhand clothes shopping by looking for the brands you already know you like; don’t overwhelm yourself by looking at every piece of clothing. As you spend more time thrifting, you’ll discover other items and brands you like.
  • Don’t get caught up with trends – they come and go. Choose clothes that work well with your body type: Flattering clothes will always be style.

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