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Thrift shops feed on nostalgia, except for those old shoes

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The Vintage Thrift Shop on Third Avenue in New York City is a department store for the nostalgia-stricken, a long, narrow space cluttered with previously owned goods: scarves, hats, glasses, jewelry, armoires, vinyl records and the one item within the booming vintage market that hasn’t completely rid itself of the “ew” factor.

“No way I will buy second-hand shoes,” said 32-year-old Shih-Ching Tsou as she rifled through dresses on a rack. “Clothes, yes.”

Shoes made the list of “10 Things You Should Never Buy Used,” an article published on the MSN Money Web site in February. That people buy used shoes seemed to shock some readers. “Used shoes? Who’s buying used shoes?” commented one poster on a message board.

A forum on TheThriftShopper.com, an online magazine and thrift store directory, asked the question: “Is buying shoes safe at a thrift shop?” The consensus, after a short debate, appeared to be “yes.”

“People think they’re going to give your feet fungus or something like that,” Ricky Becker, the general manager at Vintage Thrift, said with a dismissive tone. He owns 50 pairs of vintage shoes, including leather boots that he has had resoled twice. “They look dry, but I still like them because they’re so interesting.”

Flipping out his brand new distressed leather wallet--its entire surface covered with cracks and creases--he added, “Not everyone wants everything to look new.”

People buy used shoes for one other very important reason, Becker said. “They want to wear expensive shoes, but they don’t want to pay expensive prices.” Vintage Thrift, which operates as a charity, sells donated items and has on display shoes from elite designers like Etienne Aigner, Giorgio Armani, Kenneth Cole and Stuart Weitzman for as little as $10.

Michael Gold, co-founder of TheThriftShopper, said some people equate used shoes with used underwear. It’s an attitude that limits sales in a business that has benefits beyond helping people save money.

Most thrift stores are charities that raise money to help people in need, and “thrifting,” as shopping at the stores is called, protects the environment by promoting recycling, Gold said.

“Mick Jones, one of the founding members of the Clash, who obviously has a couple of euros in his pocket right now, he loves to thrift shop,” Gold said. “My wife and I have been buying used for 20 years each.”

In fact, Gold said, he got married in a pair of shoes he bought at a thrift shop. Almost all of his shoes are used, including three dressy leather pairs made in the 1950s that he bought for 50 cents each.

“If you buy a pair of used shoes, they’re a one-of-a-kind thing,” he said. “You can’t go to that same thrift shop the next day and buy the same thing in a different size for your friend.”

But Chicago podiatrist Elizabeth Kurtz sides with the skeptics. Although the risk of fungal infection can be reduced with anti-bacterial spray, she said, old shoes may not give you enough support to protect your feet from injury.

“Shoes aren’t meant to be around for ages,” she said, “and sometimes they can look fabulous, but their structure has gone and they don’t provide your foot with what it needs.”

She urges those who insist on buying and wearing used shoes to take the following precautions:

“Look at the sole of shoe, make sure it isn’t worn too much in one area. Look at the overall padding of the shoe. If the shoe can fold up on itself too easily then it’s lost its structure and it’s not a good shoe at all.”

Chrissy Hall-Reis, the shoe editor at jitterbuzz.com, a Web site that celebrates pre-World War II popular culture, and an avid collector of clothes and shoes from the 1920s, '30s and '40s, pointed out that the care needed when buying old shoes isn’t that different from the care needed when buying new ones.

“You have to be an educated buyer like with anything else,” she said. “Just like with modern shoes, you’re better off buying better quality vintage shoes.”

Alexandra Murphy, a blogger and forum member on TheThriftShopper, said she only buys high-quality, gently used shoes at thrift stores. Before becoming a thrift store “convert,” she said, she would hunt for bargains on clearance racks. There, shoes would often have been tried on and handled so much they were in worse condition than secondhand shoes. At thrift shops, she’s found high-end shoes in good condition for $3 or less.

“It makes no sense to buy something new and inferior,” she said, “when you can buy something gently worn of a superior quality for a fraction of the price.”

E-mail: epa2106@columbia.edu