By Michael Dirda
Last Saturday morning I visited Antiques Row in Kensington, Maryland, my mission being to accompany my wife to the farmers’ market there. But as my beloved spouse began to check out the organic produce and baked goods, I naturally enough wandered away to the Prevention of Blindness thrift store across the street. I believe I whistled as I did so, and my step was jaunty.
I am something of an aficionado of thrift stores. In my youth, I regularly searched their shelves for old books. In fact, Clarice’s Values in my hometown of Lorain, Ohio, supplied a sizable portion of my early reading matter. There I bought science fiction and mystery paperbacks for a nickel apiece and sometimes unearthed finds such as the second American printing of Ulysses. A price of 45 cents was scribbled on its front endpaper with a crayon, but I may have talked Clarice down from that. Once, in a fit of utter madness, I purchased a complete set of the novels of Sir Walter Scott for $5. Getting them home—I was a 15-year-old on a bicycle—was a bit of a challenge.
Here in D.C., the major secondhand emporiums—Goodwill, AMVETS, Value Village, and their ilk—only seem to stock fairly recent bestsellers, cookbooks, and the complete works of Stephen King and Charlaine Harris, in short, the sort of titles they feel are “salable.” I, by contrast, am mainly interested in books published before I was born, largely by authors who are now virtually forgotten. What I like to see on bookcases or steel shelves are lots of pre-World War II fiction, most of it looking just slightly better than shabby.
Despite my rather eclectic taste, one fateful day, at the Georgia Avenue Thrift Shop, I couldn’t find a single book of interest and so decided to look around the rest of the store. For some reason I meandered down a row of men’s shirts, just fingering them idly until I noticed a half dozen dressy ones in a row. They were obviously by the same maker and two were white, two were cream, and two were blue. I soon observed three further salient details: 1) the shirts had French cuffs; 2) the initials LES were stitched just above the holes for the cufflinks; and 3) they had been made in France by a company called Charvet.
I knew nothing then about men’s fashion or tailoring, but I could tell that these elegant garments were a cut above your ordinary J.C. Penney’s wash-and-wear. They were also my size—15 1/2 neck, 33-inch sleeve—and each was marked $2. Since I bought all six the cashier let me have the lot for 10 bucks.
Through the wonders of my computer search engine—this was before Google was ubiquitous—I learned that my new acquisitions were really, really good shirts. Expensive shirts. The kind of shirts that Gatsby would keep in his closet to impress Daisy Buchanan. As a result, on those rare occasions when I’m invited to a classy dinner or semiformal event, I tend to wear one of these Charvets. People sometimes ask about the monogram LES on my cuffs, since they’re obviously not my initials. Putting on a conspiratorial air, I quietly hint that Michael Dirda is just one of many names I use and that there’s far more to my life than just sitting at a keyboard writing book reviews and columns for The American Scholar. If only.
But every blessing, it’s been said, is also a curse, and today I’m not entirely sure that my discovery of those Charvet shirts was an entirely good piece of luck. Mine is not a temperate nature. A little too much is just enough for me.
I soon started to read GQ and Esquire, acquired copies of the complete works of Alan Flusser, the leading authority on men’s clothes, studied websites like Will Boehlke’s “A Suitable Wardrobe” (very upmarket) and Giuseppe Timore’s exceptionally lively “An Affordable Wardrobe.” At the same time I took to stopping by thrift stores everywhere, seeking other ritzy garments at bargain prices. I now own enough shirts from Thomas Pink, Burberry, and Brooks Brothers to outfit a Wall Street brokerage house or major law firm. My attic is packed tight with suits by Armani, Brioni, and Canali, as well as the rest of the alphabet, all the way down to Zegna. There are Harris Tweed jackets, cashmere sweaters galore, and a collection of shoes that the late Imelda Marcos would have envied—though none of mine boast stiletto heels.
Had I begun this “hobby” 20 years ago, I might be able to justify all this sartorial excess. Do I go to an office every day? No. Do I attend lots of fancy parties and receptions? No. Do I work as a banker or professional escort to women of a certain age? No. Do I really need more than three or four good suits and the same number of sport jackets? No.
This past spring I loved teaching at the University of Maryland in part because I could dress up for class. I didn’t repeat an outfit the entire semester. The only other time I tend to wear a jacket and tie—did I mention my tie and pocket square collection?—is when I give a talk. And even then I often feel overdressed. Authors these days are expected to wear jeans, work shirts, and an old blazer.
Having three sons—now all in their 20s—I’ve been able to pass along some of my thrift shop treasures. But my strapping offspring are taller and skinnier than I am, so a lot of my “pieces” don’t work for them. But I’m happy knowing that if they need to be dressed up, they own the clothes to do it with.
Friends tell me that I should sell the designer suits and Sulka ties on eBay. That sounds like a lot of work—taking pictures, figuring out measurements, packing and shipping, keeping records. Once I did try a consignment shop, which took some of the better jackets, sold half of them, and never paid me a penny. The check was always in the mail.
No, I suppose that what I’ll do is reseed the thrift stores of greater Washington. One of these days some idealistic young bookworm will be browsing through Value Village, on the lookout for a first edition of The Great Gatsby, and instead he’ll come across some Charvet shirts … There won’t be six of them, though. I’m keeping at least two, maybe three, just in case I’m asked to the White House for a long weekend.
Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and the author of the memoir An Open Book and of four collections of essays: Readings, Bound to Please, Book by Book, and Classics for Pleasure. His most recent book, part of Princeton’s Writers on Writers series, is On Conan Doyle. Dirda is also a frequent lecturer and an occasional college teacher.