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My Hometown Thrift Store, the Worst Thrift Store

Where we shop when we go home for the holidays.

A woman looking at a sweater in a thrift shop Photo: Pawel Gaul/Getty Images

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According to Yelp, the first thrift shop I consistently shopped at in high school is a total shithole.

Two stars for Charitable Heart in Natick, Massachusetts, which more than one reviewer has compared, unfavorably, to a hoarder’s home. The store is an actual house, an externally cute one with a chimney at one end and some bushes out front, that someone plunked onto a small asphalt parking lot next to a Subway on the side of the highway. For years before I ever went into Charitable Heart, I’d drive past it on the way to the mall with my mom, see the red sign outside, and think, “I’ve got to go there.”

Make no mistake, I loved the mall. An avid window shopper but reluctant buyer since day one, I felt acutely the wintry magic of a Bath & Body Works peppermint lip gloss and the transformative potential of a graphic tee from Delia’s. But I also sensed that down the road from that bastion of commercialism, the mysterious store that looked like an unassuming suburban residence contained gems far more interesting than anything I could find at a mass market chain. By the time I was in high school and living a baby hipster life in wide-leg tweed pants and suspenders, I was convinced it was the retail equivalent of Narnia.

In my eyes, it was. Floor-to-ceiling racks of clothing, belts, and bags crowded each room. To navigate the place was to feel as though you were passing through a musty, creaky car wash that left you dingier than before. The changing room was a tiny bathroom on the first floor that was also filled with merchandise, thereby making it practically unusable. I was in heaven.

I bought a pair of navy blue shoes there that looked like Keds but were not. I purchased vintage gold jewelry that could have been sold at Anthropologie, a key find circa (500) Days of Summer. Late in high school, I got a little spaghetti strap sundress in a black floral print. I didn’t fill it out then, but when college rolled around and I developed a butt, I wore it with ripped tights, lace-up boots, and a black leather jacket until it literally snapped at the shoulder. Then I put a safety pin in it and kept the party going.

Each time I returned home from college for Thanksgiving or Christmas, I’d find myself thinking, “I should hit up the place on Route 9.” On one such occasion, I picked up one of my all-time favorite pairs of sneakers: olive green high-top Nikes with strangely pointed toes and no logo on the side. They looked like a cross between a skate shoe and a hiking boot. The edges have frayed and I’ve had to glue the rubber soles back on, but they’re still with me today.

The scornful Yelp commenters are absolutely correct. It is a miracle that the city hasn’t shut down Charitable Heart as a fire and health hazard. Customers should take allergy medicine before entering if they’re sensitive to dust and mold. Most of the product is “overprice [sic] crap.”

Today, I could recommend dozens of secondhand and thrift stores better than this one, and I recognize that bagging five excellent pieces over the course of a decade is a weak success rate.

And yet this week, I know that dropping my bags on the floor of my parents’ kitchen is going to trigger a fierce impulse to return to Charitable Heart. Maybe that’s because visiting a childhood home — sleeping in a twin-size bed under the watchful gaze of various stuffed animals — forces a regression to a teenage mindset. Maybe it’s nostalgia, plain and simple, because you never forget your first love.

One Yelper calls the shop “a joke of a thrift store.” Sure is, but I’m glad to be in on it.