At about 4:45 one afternoon, a woman showed up at Such A Deal, the San Rafael thrift store run by the Marin Jewish Community Center.
"She was in a frenzy," said Norm Gover, the store's manager for the past five years. "She had a job interview at 6."
Although the store closed at 5 p.m., Gover kept it open an extra half-hour so that the woman could get herself outfitted. When she left at 5:30, she was decked out in high-heeled shoes, a silk suit and a blouse, and was carrying a new handbag. According to Gover, she looked great, like an entirely different person from the one who walked in the door.
"It set her back about $16," he said. "I don't know if she got the job but I knew she left knowing that this made it possible."
At Bay Area thrift stores, you can get everything from baby clothes to crystal at a great price while benefiting a good cause. The right store at the right time could even make your big day a bargain.
Take the woman who recently came into the Bargain Mart in San Francisco, a second-hand store run by the National Council of Jewish Women, looking for a wedding dress. Not only did the store have one but it fit.
"The woman was chubby and the gown was chubby. She just fit right into it," said volunteer Dorothy Krieger. "It was the most glorious sale you can image. She was so happy. We were so happy."
Krieger who used to own Aries on Nob Hill, an upscale boutique in the Stanford Court Hotel, said the dress was probably around $2,000 new, but used, it only cost around $300 or $350.
Between the donations that come in the door and the people who walk out the door with them, thrift stores net more than tax deductions and bargains. They are about people and their stories.
For the past seven years, Eileen Caplan has managed the Bargain Mart. One of her favorite stories involves a young man.
"We have some beautiful mink coats," said Caplan. The man it seems was admiring a full-length black one. "He took a shine to it. He looked at it. He stroked it."
"If it's for your wife," Caplan said thinking she'd nudge him into a decision, "she'll love it."
"It's for my cat," the man said plunking down $750. "He'll luxuriate in it."
In her 20 years as a volunteer at ClothespORT, the Women's American ORT thrift and consignment shop in Oakland, Eve Simkover has seen everything, including some very unlikely customers — well-to-do Piedmont matrons who outfit themselves from head to toe in secondhand clothes.
"I love doing it," says Simkover. "I've always been into clothes. I used to be a model in Montreal."
Even luminaries ferret out bargains at thrift stores. Caplan once spotted a customer walking down the aisle who looked like a well-known personality. When she walked over to the shopper and asked if anyone had ever told her that she looked like so-and-so, the woman responded, "I am" so-and-so.
Caplan's favorite time of the year is right before Halloween, when lots of men come in looking for just the right gown to wear to the city's various balls.
All three thrift stores have had their share of unusual donations. Like the organ, dental chair, mahogany desk and doll collection that are now at the Bargain Mart. And then there's the recliner.
"You push a button and it stands you up and practically walks you out the door," Caplan says laughing.
Gover remembers a woman who came into Such A Deal with a load of clothes to donate. A few days later she was back at the store asking about one of her husband's sport jackets. He wanted it back. Fortunately it hadn't been sold.
In addition to their "high end" merchandise, the stores also serve the communities in which they are located. Baby clothes are priced at about 50 cents an item so that anyone can afford them. Bargain Mart gets referrals from city agencies to outfit men and women to enter the job force. Such A Deal practically gives books away at 15 or 20 cents a piece.
During the height of El Nino, Gover took shoes from the store and left them under the freeway for people who were living on the street.
"I always had a laundry basket of socks on the street in front of the store for 50 cents a pair," says Gover. One day a woman about 65, who had obviously spent the night on the street, came into the store looking for something dry to wear. She had a pair of socks. "She put 50 cents on the counter and pushed it toward me. I pushed it back."
A couple of weeks later the woman came back to the store. She had a plastic bag with a sheet inside.
"'I'm not using this now. Maybe you can sell it,'" she said to Gover. "Those kinds of experiences help us believe that we're being successful."