Fashion lovers are divided into two groups: those who go for the secondhand stuff, and the ones who shy away from "someone else's clothes." The latter tend to prefer the well-known chains and predictable designer attire, but if you belong to the first group—well, things can get pretty confusing. Where do you shop in order to score?
First, there are endless Goodwills, the go-to spot for cheap, used clothes. These can be hit-or-miss, and the better Goodwill branches are usually kept secret by those in the know. Then there are vintage stores—think records hanging on the wall, a corset-clad salesgirl, lots of tulle and polyester. Last but not least, there are consignment stores, ranging from "luxury consignment" to just your average consignment shop to established chains like Buffalo Exchange and Crossroads.
Pricier than Goodwill and on the contemporary side of things, consignment stores often look like unassuming boutiques and may cost you the embarrassment of accidentally mistaking the clothes for new. Unlike cash-and-carry Goodwill, consignment shops can be places where deals are made; many offer store credit or cash for quality clothes you bring in.
The selection gets better as real estate prices in the neighborhood escalate, and given the price of real estate in certain Northern California counties, you can rest assured that the consignment market here is pretty much unbeatable.
I love secondhand, mainly for thrills and giggles, but also for the added value—always expect the unexpected, and if you don't dwell on the previous life of a skirt or a blouse, you can end up with an expensive brand bought at a modest price for yourself or other women—and men—on your gift list. Consignment stores, especially in wealthy towns, are delightful treasure chests, and can offer an excellent taste map to the area's demographic, history and style sensibilities. Equipped with this sentiment and a sharp eye, I set out to find the best stores in Marin, Sonoma and Napa counties. It wasn't easy, but I imagine that those awesome dresses and handbags that readers will score thanks to this quest will be totally worth it.
Larkspur: What Poppy Wants
A true Marin County gem, this magical shop is a circus tent and a boudoir rolled into one. Owner Laura McGibben gathered an enviable collection of '50s and '60s gowns, elegant hats, vintage jewelry and designer finds, including Yamamoto and Elie Tahari, for a fraction of the original price. On one random visit, a lady was spotted shopping for a dress appropriate for a beach wedding, and the options were plentiful. Alternatively, there's a great selection of cowboy boots that McGibben brings from trips to her home state of Montana.
Mill Valley: Diamonds in the Rough
"You know how, when you visit a business and the owner is there, you get better service? Well, we're here all the time," says Sybil Mayfield, the owner of Diamonds. Mayfield and her husband, Zach, purchased the store and rebranded it in 2006. The humble location, next to a thrift store, is a fashion magnet. On a random visit, a Chanel suit and a McQueen dress were seen, as well as Sam Edelman shoes, designer bags and moderately priced, hand-picked basics and accessories that passed Mayfield's careful selection. "Our style is very modern," she says. "I call it contemporary classics."
Point Reyes: Bloom Boutique
Point Reyes has cool atmosphere to spare, and Bloom, a two-year-old boutique, fits in perfectly. What singles Bloom out is the crisp, modern feel and the vacation vibes, with Cuban music in the background and smiling owner Diane Phillips behind the counter. "The name of my store, Bloom, was inspired by this beautiful poem by Anais Nin: 'And then the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was greater than the risk it took to bloom,'" says Phillips, who collects clothes from women from Bolinas to Inverness, and often travels to Santa Barbara, where her son goes to school, to bring in chic finds. Due to its coastal location, Bloom has a good selection of coats and boots, as well as elegant dresses and stylish shoes for every occasion.
San Anselmo: Georgi and Willow
Truth be told, this is the smarter, more chic and upscale venture by the mighty Goodwill—and an interesting social experiment in consumer behavior and branding. While holding on to its nonprofit premise, the corner store is bigger, brighter and better looking than your average Goodwill. Accordingly, the selection is priced at a $20 average and carefully curated with everything from H&M to Trina Turk. Three racks of almost-designer dresses, an excellent shoe selection, enough sweaters and coats to dress a stylish, all-women book club and—gasp!—a well-stocked men's section, make this inviting store a worthy destination for stylish couples and budding fashionistas on a budget. A side note: the styles tend to cater to the younger crowd, as in sheer paneling, bold prints and sky-high heels.