Small-Town Secondhand: A Tribute to the Elk Island Thrift Store

The last time my mom made the drive from our small prairie town to visit me at university, she brought some bad news.

“Hailey,” she said, gravely. “The thrift store is closing.”

Witnesses say the look on my face would have made the devil himself feel sorry for me.

* * * * *

I have a serious attachment to the Elk Island Thrift Store. It opened the in the spring of my Grade 11 year, in the midst of a particularly awkward phase of my existence. Being sixteen in a small town is difficult in that your pool of peers is very small and fairly homogeneous. Sometimes it seems like the only way to survive is to try to be like everybody else, and even if you’re not called out for being different, the tiniest deviation from the norm is painfully obvious. For a girl who had little interest in the jeans-and-t-shirts norm, but who was also fairly shy and uneasy with attention, getting dressed felt like a struggle between wearing what I liked and trying to blend in. Until the thrift store opened, my decisions were simple in that my fashion resources were scant. But then -

It started with a small collection of secretary blouses. These became a staple in my high-school wardrobe. I wore them often with jeans and a pair of fairly enormous boots. I began, also, to build a collection of oversized sweaters, usually with crazy patterns. One of my favourite items was a cream-coloured cardigan, crocheted (I think?) with an intricate pattern around the collar. A year after I bought it, I wore it to my art class and got paint smeared on the sleeve. It wouldn’t come out, but I wore the sweater anyway – and even now, I cannot bear to part with it. Sometimes I push up the sleeves and hope nobody notices, and other times I wear the sleeves down and hope nobody cares.

The following summer, the store decided to hire an employee (only one), and I got the job. I spent every day sorting through bags of donations, dressing mannequins and talking with the regulars. The owner, understanding my love of clothing, began to save me things she thought I’d like. At the end of the summer, she presented me with an enormous bag full of dresses – most of them handmade, and mostly from the 70’s. She had doubts about whether or not the clothes would sell, and could trust that I would appreciate them. She was one of the first in a large web of people in my life with whom I could share an understanding of the necessity of good clothing going to good homes.

When I profess my sadness at the thrift store’s closing – and I do it often, and without much reservation – my despair falls on bewildered ears. “It’s just a store,” people say. Or, “It sounds like a great place.” And it is a great place, but I will miss it for more than just that. The Elk Island Thrift store taught me how to be cool. Whether I was finding secondhand dresses or oversized sweaters or my first instant camera, so many of the things I’ve come to love – the things that make me feel like me – came first from this quiet little shop. The thrift store was the beginning of my appreciation for all things secondhand and vintage, but, more importantly, also of my understanding that being cool didn’t mean being like everybody else – wisdom that has made getting dressed in the morning far more fun.

- Hailey Siracky

5 thoughts on “Small-Town Secondhand: A Tribute to the Elk Island Thrift Store

  1. RIP Elk Island Thrift…
    The right thrift store always feels like it has a bit of magic – a link to aesthetic destiny – as though it’s hoarding clothes just for you.


  2. Great post! Isn’t it funny how one store can set you on a style trajectory that carries you through adulthood? In my small midwestern town there was a resale shop underneath a pharmacy, with two ladies who sat down there smoking. If you didn’t mind the nicotine aroma, there were racks and racks of awesome 60′s and 70′s dresses in that musty basement. Once my mother bought me a 1970′s snowsuit, which I both hated and loved.

  3. i swear, i could have written this myself. i never ended up working at my favourite thrift stores when i was a teenager (this life-long dream only recently came true in québec city) but aside from that so much of this rings true for my own experiences. i even had a sweater that had a paint stain on the sleeve from high school art class.

    the thrift stores i spent hours in as a teen have all met various ends; in belleville, value village opened up and the little goodwill i found amazing amazing things in (including a book called real women don’t pump gas) closed its doors due to lack of traffic. the salvation army i would bike to in trenton burned down two years ago.

    ah! mourning places that provided us with hours of entertainment, sources for identity building and style development…

  4. Hey! I have the same sweater as you! I love it so so much. I wear mine with the button at the neck done up! I got it from my favorite vintage warehouse in Scarborough, Toronto called Buy the Pound. If it ever shut down I would cry forever. In the warehouse there are rows and rows of bins of wheels containing vintage dresses, Samsonite bags, pots n pans, hair scrunchies, ice skates, buttons, smelly bedding, VHS recordings of Saved by the Bell, Chanel purses, Wacky belts, Useless shit I buy and never use, and O-M-G everything. Best part: The price is determined by how much it all weighs. Great post! I’m sorry for your loss.

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