Chicago Thrift Store Review: Salvation Army on Clybourn

By Lisbeth Levine

As much as I love a good thrift store – and it’s more than the average bear – I had a love/hate relationship with the old two-story Salvation Army on Clybourn Avenue in Lincoln Park. It was an easy place to drop off donations, but the store itself was unbearably dingy. I actively avoided shopping there until a few great finds persuaded me to keep hand sanitizer in my car and overlook the store’s shortcomings. Still, when they closed the store last September to make way for a new one that would nearly double its size and carry the hashtag “the new image of thrift,” you can bet I was excited. In the interim, I shopped the temporary store on the same campus that had newness on its side but not size – the selection was limited and the aisles could get quite crowded.

At the end of July, my patience was rewarded. The new 30,000-square-foot store that opened on July 26 at 2258 N. Clybourn Ave. is a much better match for the neighborhood and lives up to its “upscale resale” billing. According to Major John Aren, administrator for the Salvation Army’s Northside thrifts, the store is a prototype for future shops and is expected to be the organization’s highest-grossing store in the country.

Not only is it clean and bright, but the amenities are rare for a thrift: There are nine fitting rooms, touchless restrooms, plenty of shopping carts (they were always in short supply before) and a water fountain. Shopping hours have been lengthened from 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday through Saturday. The building even has a green roof and is LEED certified. The operation is green in other ways, too, diverting 20 tons of reclaimed materials away from landfills every month. And if you thought it was easy to donate before, wait until you see the three drive-through donation lanes. You never have to leave your car.

But based on what I saw at shopping previews and on opening day, you’re missing out if you don’t venture in. Especially if you’re in the market for upscale clothing or for deals on new merchandise. “The donations in Lincoln Park are gold,” said Aren. “This store not only feeds itself but it feeds other stores.” He estimates that 3,000 people a week donate at this single location. And if you shop it regularly, you know that the store also receives generous donations of unsold goods from retailers including Target. The selection of brands is impressive, both from popular chains like Banana Republic and Ann Taylor as well as more rarified designers of both clothing and home goods (a fashion stylist I know walked away with Frette linens at a preview event).

The aim is to put out less merchandise in this store, but to make sure it’s pristine. “If it’s stained, ripped or torn, it’s not on the shelf,” Aren said. With that distinction will come somewhat higher prices, but bargains were still plentiful at the opening.

A boutique area in women’s houses much of the new merchandise and designer names, but as with any thrift store, it’s worth combing the regular racks as well. I spotted new BCBG dresses for $13-$17, new Cynthia Rowley dresses for $9 and $13, white jeans by Theory and Banana Republic Martin fit wool trousers with price tags still on them for $15. The jeans selection was vast and included labels such as Victoria Beckham for Rock & Republic and True Religion. In shoes, there were several pairs of Cole Haan and Prada along with plenty of new merchandise from Target. The men’s area was well stocked with dress shirts, polos and shoes, and I spotted some old school warm-up suits that were sure to be snapped up in the first few hours. A pair of Cole Haan leather loafers in good condition was priced at $18, and most shirts ran between $3 and $12. Children’s clothing is strong as well, with everything from school uniforms to snow pants. Girls bathing suits, some new with tags, were priced from $2-$4. The store gets plenty of The North Face, Patagonia, Mini Boden and other high-quality brands that can easily weather several years of wear.

The store offers a wide selection of books, music and movies, linens, electronics, household items, tabletop, furniture, toys and more. I picked up six Marimekko cotton placemats from Crate & Barrel that look like they were never used and saw new children’s bedding with Disney and Thomas the Tank Engine characters.

Overall, prices on the new merchandise tend to be on the high side, but as long as you know your prices (you don’t want to be paying more than the clearance price at Target in my book), you can also find astonishing buys. To make sure you’re getting the best deals, sign up for their monthly email newsletters, which include coupons that you need to print out and bring with you. Also watch their Facebook page for special promotions. Once the store has been open a month, the regular half-price tag schedule will apply – the emails and Facebook page alert you to the color that is discounted each week.

My only quibble with the store design is that columns in the center of some of the aisles prevent you from being able to push a cart through, and I can imagine the havoc when it’s crowded and people are trying to turn around mid-aisle.

Proceeds from the store support the adult rehabilitation program on the property as well as other Salvation Army initiatives.

Salvation Army
2258 N. Clybourn Ave.