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Here We Come A-Thrifting 

Holiday shopping on a budget

Is it better to give, or to receive? Ask some people their opinion of thrift stores, and they'll tell you they took a bag to one just the other day. "How nice it is to help out those less fortunate," they'll say, "clean a closet, and get a nice little tax write-off besides!"

Ask others, and they'll tell you they just took a bag out of the store, and would you look at this darling brass candelabra? And how about these Brooks Brothers shirts? Only three dollars each, and they look like they've barely been worn!

Thanks to a burgeoning thrift-friendly fashion scene, the rise of indie rock, and the preponderance of thrift shopping-friendly home improvement shows, "thrifting" is now hotter than ever. Americans are united, it seems, in at least one area: their love of a bargain. And what better time to cut corners financially than during the too-expensive Christmas shopping season? So here's our plan to hit most everybody on your shopping list for less than it costs to buy a copy of Madden 2005, and in one store to boot.

Different thrift-a-nados have their own preferences, but I like to hit the media aisle -- records, books and CDs -- first. Searching for vinyl can be maddening on occasion, as often a seemingly great "score" turns out to be scratched beyond listenability, or else missing its record altogether. Poke through all the Sing Along With Mitch and Ferrante & Teicher records, however, and there's usually a good chance you'll find something worthwhile -- I've picked up vintage Coltrane records, super-rare free jazz sides, and even a pre-plane crash Lynyrd Skynyrd Street Survivors album with the rare "flame cover." Another positive: the vinyl fans on your list aren't going to mind that the album is used. Same goes for CDs and books -- with the exorbitant prices being charged these days by the brick-and-mortar retailers and with the popularity of MP3 players and used CD stores, "used" isn't the Scarlet U that it used to be. Five to seven vintage sides can be had for $5, and you've already scratched one person off your list. Next, the books.

When shopping for books, you can go in one of two directions: first-run, high-print bestsellers you'd heard good things about but didn't want to drop $30 on -- The Corrections, The Emperor of Ocean Park, just about any Oprah book -- or the used/rare/first edition titles. When looking at older books, also flip through the first couple of pages to see if it's signed. Takes a few extra seconds, but it's worth the effort if you get lucky like I did a few months back, snagging a signed Eudora Welty collection. Five hardcovers, five dollars.

Electronics: don't bother. Most thrift stores have no return policy on electronics, making any purchase risky at best. If you have a friend hankering for a "classic" 386 computer or an IBM Selectric, however, disregard this warning.

Furniture is another dicey proposition, unless you happen to get really lucky or happen to have a talented upholsterer on retainer. If you're into pasteboard "entertainment centers," however, you're usually going to be in luck.

Glassware is a good place to check, as it's an item that tends to resist wear relatively nicely. You can pick up a cheeky ashtray (I recently purchased one with the legend "Burt Reynolds Horse Farm"), a vintage coffee cup for your java-loving co-worker, and a complete set of dishes for your newly admitted collegian, all for a total of about $10.

Jewelry is another item that is a perfectly acceptable "used" gift, and nobody has to know that that Bulova watch or piece of antique jewelry didn't come from dear old Grandma. Ten dollars spent here can keep all your nieces in costume jewelry for months to come, with enough cash left over to pick up an old watch for yourself on the side.

Clothing and shoes: The key here is knowing the sizes and styles appropriate to the person you're buying for. For the teenager, look for buttery-soft T-shirts, preferably a size smaller than usual with the requisite cracking in the decal or printing. Vintage coats also work well, especially leather blazers, which are seemingly impervious to style trends. Nicely worn-in jeans, especially if from a premium brand, are a nice gift, and plentiful in number (no article of clothing is more weight-dependent than the blue jean, which leads to lots of potential scores for the slim-sized). Shoes can be a nice gift too, as long as you're careful to disinfect them when you get home. Keep an eye open for rare sneakers, some of which -- Nike Air Force Ones, early Nike running shoes, Adidas "shelltoes," and Air Jordans -- command a nice premium online.

Figure you've spent your last $20 here, and you've got 90 percent of your Christmas shopping out of the way in only a few hours. However, you're likely to find some of those same Christmas gifts you gave last year -- you know, the ones that made the receiver exclaim, "Oh, it's so...perfect!" -- gathering dust along with everything else, so make sure any purchase you make is of an item that you might like to have yourself. Nobody says you can't give and receive, after all.

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