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The Reluctant Adventurer: Looking for Buried Treasure at the Goodwill ‘Bins’

Friday, November 14, 2014


What do you need? 

I mean, right now. 

Is there any one THING you absolutely need to survive that you don’t already have?

If you’re reading this on your computer or phone, the answer’s probably, “no.” 

Even so, you may, like me, periodically find yourself in Target holding a glass mosaic vase with a sinking feeling that if you don’t get it right now you’ll never reach your full potential as a human being. That purchasing this vase might be the thing that finally forces you to buy fresh flowers every week like you’ve always wanted, but could never afford to do. Because we all know that Target has been selling magic, life-changing vases since they opened their doors in 1962.

The fact that we all think we need more crap than we actually do is the reason my brother has a business. 

He’s been selling mid-century modern furniture and vintage stereo equipment from a space at Vintage Pink on Hawthorne for the past seven years. 

Scott goes to The Bins in Hillsboro most mornings, and this time, I had him take me with him. 

You’ve probably heard of The Bins, but may not have shopped there because you fear piles of unidentified crap. I get it. I have plenty of piles of unidentified crap in my house already. Why do I need more? 


What’s a Bin?

The Bins are four giant warehouses that process over 80,000 pounds of Goodwill items a day. The piles of unidentified crap they have are either overstock from the 90 donation sites in the area, or items that have spent five weeks at a Goodwill store without selling. They sell clothes, bedding, books, toys and small appliances for $1.59 a pound and furniture for almost nothing – it’s strange to see more than $10 on a table or $20 on a couch.

They also have exercise equipment, mattresses, tools…anything you can find at a Goodwill store, you’ll find here. In a pile.

How it works

For most of the bins (about 10 feet long and five feet wide), you can just jump in (figuratively) and start looking. But not the new bins. When Bin veterans know a new bin is about to come out, they’ll line up on either side of the row and wait. Once the bin shows up, the frenzy begins. 

Members Only jackets fly every which way as a new bin comes out.

These people are oftentimes “pickers,” finding clothes and books for resellers, or are vendors themselves. Do not get too close to them or you may lose an eye or an appendage you were hoping to use later. 

I steer clear of the new bins, as there’s nothing I need badly enough to wear a prosthetic the rest of my life (except maybe a pair of Christian Louboutins, am I right, Kim Kardashian????).

I decided to check out the furniture, and ended up running across what I can only describe as Inadvertant Bin Art. 

I call it “Driving Miss Daisy.”

Don’t ask why the hubcap’s on the couch. Just enjoy its beauty.

You can also make your own art out of what you find in the bins. I made this out of a crocheted doll and a toy vampire box. I call it “The Death of Irony.”

Speaking of toys, no matter what you’re looking for, you’re going to end up throwing a lot of stuffed animals around while shopping at The Bins. They’re usually the items I least want to touch but find the most touching. This fella, for instance: I call him Mr. Lickerton.

Mr. Lickerton pays for the sins of all mankind.

I can tell by the tag on his back and the wear on him that he’s probably from the 70’s. That means someone’s held onto him for 40 years. Did she move into a tiny house? Did she die? Or did she finally just say, “I am 50 years old, and Mr. Lickerton no longer fits my lifestyle. It doesn’t matter that Jim Pasternak won him for me at the spring carnival and then French kissed me by the elephant ears. Jim’s been divorced three times, and now he’s involved in some multi-level marketing scheme involving ‘skin-scare systems.’” 

Of course she’s over Jim, because Jim somehow managed to squander all the promise she infused him with in 8th grade. And poor Mr. Lickerton is now a symbol of every man that ever disappointed her. Why does he have to pay for Jim’s sins? WHY?

What was I looking for again? 

Oh yeah, a jacket. 

I get some stuff.

I do actually have a list of things I “need.” And, after throwing around a LOT of clothes, I find them. 

I’m a little uncomfortable throwing stuff around because you never really know what you’re going to come across in these bins.

“One time I picked up a Barbie and noticed a brown smudge on her arm,” Scott told me. “Yeah, it was poop. I touched poop. That’s what’s known as a ‘bad day at work.’”

Once you have all your items, you take them to the front to be weighed. 

8.18 pounds at $1.59 a pound = $13.01.

Here’s my total haul (right)

A black pencil skirt from Target with the tags still on it, a jacket, hat, scarf and turtleneck for hiking (ick), two car mats and a sparkly dress, Ann Taylor linen shirt and hideous Christmas sweater for my mother to sell in her space (she’s also at Vintage Pink). That’s $1.30 an item, suckers!

So is it worth digging through all the (sometimes literal) crap? I’m going to say, absolutely. 

Not only is it financially prudent, it’s green. The next stop after The Bins is the landfill. Remember that statistic at the beginning? They process 80,000 pounds of items a day. And I saved .0001% of it! 


Last words

There really was reason to celebrate. I got some great stuff, and so did Scott.  My favorite purchase of the day was this amazing old register he found for $11.

He’s seasoned, though, so you can’t assume you’re going to find treasures like he does on your trip. After all, he’s also the guy who found this (right). 

He’s gonna be rich. RICH, I tell you. 

So go forth and (while wearing gloves) start throwing piles of stuff everywhere and find your treasures. But before you go, there was something I saw on my trip that chilled me to the bone. I couldn’t imagine anyone buying it, but I just want to be clear: if there’s one rule you should follow, it’s this: Never, ever buy a secondhand loofah.

C’mon, people. Have some self-respect.

The Goodwill Bins

2920 SW 234th Avenue, Hillsboro

(There are also Bins in Sellwood and Vancouver)

RECOMMENDED FOR: The frugal, the patient, the brave, the eagle-eyed, glove-owners.

NOT RECOMMENDED FOR: The poop-averse, the obsessively clean, those who don’t like their items to have a past, people for whom “not broken” is a priority in their purchases.

Courtenay Hameister is the Head Writer and Co-Producer of Live Wire Radio, a syndicated radio variety show distributed by Public Radio International. She is currently working on a book that will be released through Audible.com in 2015. Follow Courtenay on Twitter at @wisenheimer. 


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