Remake Yourself for Less Than $20 

Thrifty resolutions for the Year of the Dog.

Raise your hand if you're a transplant to the Bay Area. Okay, now raise your hand if you thrift-shopped before you moved here, but gave up upon arrival because you'd heard about the lackluster, picked-over nature of local stores. Well, straighten your shoulders and pick your papers up off the floor, gentle thrift scorers of old: It's not as bad as they say. You can still remake yourself for the Year of the Dog in true bargain retriever style, and you can do it in a day. Sure, you may never find a beaded 1970s Bill Blass evening gown for ten bucks (as this reporter once did in Florida), but you may find a two-piece Jessica McClintock velvet suit for less than $20, or a mix-and-match pinstriped men's suit or BCBG prom number for $8. You also may find a plastic baggie of fake drugs, as this reporter did while researching this piece. But that's a story for Bottom Feeder.

Doggie Style Tips

First of all, guys: A suit is a great makeover, no matter what you wore before. Everyone looks smarter in a blazer and wool-blend pants. Add glasses (also available in quantity at thrift stores) and before long, folks will be pulling you into phone booths to see if you're a superhero under there. If you fear the suit, the easiest way for both gentlemen and ladies to change up their wardrobe is to simply pick a new color. Start by looking at your closet and figuring out what tone is underrepresented. Why is that? Are you afraid it'll make you look too ... something? Or did your least-favorite aunt wear it while you helped care for her incontinent boxer? Maybe it's time to leave personality prejudices and childhood trauma behind, and thrift stores are great places to do that, since many arrange their clothing by color. (If you're not sure what colors look good on you, copies of Carole Jackson's middle-school girl makeover classic Color Me Beautiful are available at most thrifts as well.)

Another use for this color-coding: Any hipster will tell you that clashing is the new matching, so homotoned racks can ease your passage into the subversive waters of red and pink, brown and purple, or navy and black. And if you're really brave, mix up a bunch of slightly off burgundies or blues.

If all else fails, thrifts are excellent places to get a jump on the mid-'90s resurgence that's bound to hit the Bay Area sooner or later. If you're patient and true, '70s and '80s gear can still be had, but why not start on the next trend now, when you can have your pick of lamé rave shirts, paisley rayon-blend baby-doll dresses, and overalls? When the first Madchester revival band hits the charts, you'll be fashionably front and center.

Thrift Tips Not Stolen from Thrift Score Magazine

A few tips to help you get started, if you've never been a serious thrift-shopper:

1. Thrift runs are preferable to single-store shopping trips. No way, nohow will you find everything you want at one store, so locate a minimum of three stores within a reasonable distance of one another. By the time you hit your third, you'll have hit your stride as well.

2. Beware of hipster employees, especially ones in your size. Even if they're not your same shape, an excess of snazzily dressed staff means a larger percentage of the good scores are being taken home at a discount and flipped for more cash at secondhand shops such as Buffalo Exchange and Crossroads.

3. If you're concerned about time, scan the racks for fabrics instead of going through the items one by one. Most folks can tell the difference between cotton blends and quadruple-knit polyesters without much practice. Messy, jammed racks make this difficult, but they can be more fun for the truly thrift-hardy.

4. Avoid most Goodwills; they're overpriced and most don't have any better selection than other stores of the same size. In general, the biggest chains -- Goodwill, Salvation Army -- are underwhelming, while the smaller franchises, like St. Vincent de Paul and Thrift Town, can be bonanzas.

Two Recommended Thrift Runs

For a quick and hearty run, start at Thrift Town in San Leandro. This is a great chain with several local branches benefiting the developmentally disabled. The San Leandro location is huge, with lots of shoes, jammies, and nice prices. Next up, head to Hayward for the Thrift Center, another massive outpost. It has a Rottweiler's share of coats and dresses, and an amazing men's selection. It's sloppy, which might turn some people off, while its partner-in-crime up the street, Generations, is so neat it may make the seasoned thrifthound uncomfortable. The store's many hats are on hangers, for pook's sweet sake. Both Thrift Center and Generations are near Cal State East Bay, which isn't the drag you'd think it would be, since there's as much disposably incomed college-kid detritus coming in as going out. Both stores also have understated or fading signs, which make them easy to miss.

For a longer, more spread-out run, head to the intimate stores of tony Lafayette. As you make your way through Contra Costa County, pick up one of the takeaway maps or lists of thrifts that many stores offer so you can continue your shopping into Pleasanton, Pittsburg, and Antioch. But in the meantime, Lafayette's Assistance League is a good starting point, cute and small (but not too small) with a "treasure box" containing cast-offs from the store's costume rental portion. Definitely some good finds here, as in any store in a prosperous neighborhood. From there, proceed to the Nifty Thrift, which is even tinier than the Assistance League, and in a converted house to boot. It has lots of designer stuff at not-too-high prices, plus two spacious dressing rooms. Then to Walnut Creek, to begin at the Garret Thrift Shop: Knickknack bric-a-brac, give your thrift dog a boner at this medium-size spot, which has copious amounts of hatboxes, sheet music, kitchen tchotchkes, and bar accessories, all at high-end thrift -- not antique store -- prices. The Rainbow's End shop gets props for being down an alley and around a corner in the middle of downtown Walnut Creek's yupscale shopping district. Plus, the medium-size store has some good finds and deals.

Before leaving Walnut Creek, you could pop into the Hospice Thrift, which is overpriced but very well stocked, or just head straight to Pleasant Hill for St. Vincent de Paul, a true thrifter's paradise in that most stuff isn't priced, so you can get great deals at the register, including jewelry and antiquey items like a Barnum & Bailey breakfast tray. The Pleasant Hill Salvation Army has only one dressing room, and a poorly lit one at that, but the huge store is well stocked with lots of nice kids' stuff and a big "boutique" section, if you want to go that route. Finish up this Contra Costa run by hitting the P-Hill Goodwill, an exception to the Goodwill Sucks rule. It's overpriced, but incredibly well stocked. And it's open till nine most nights!

And remember -- you've got no excuse to be a dog this year.

Some Good Ones

Thrift Town 16160 East 14th St., San Leandro, 510-278-1766, 800-792-2274; 3645 San Pablo Dam Rd., El Sobrante, 510-222-8696.

Thrift Center Thrift Store 29498 Mission Blvd., Hayward, 510-881-0222.

Generations 30200 Mission Blvd., Hayward, 510-487-6212.

Assistance League of Diablo Valley/Wayside Inn Thrift Shop 3521 Golden Gate Way, Lafayette, 925-284-4781.

Nifty Thrift Shop 3467 Golden Gate Way, Lafayette, 925-284-5237.

Garret Thrift Shop of John Muir Medical Center

1530 3rd Ave., Walnut Creek, 925-932-9474.

Rainbow's End Upscale Thrift Shop 1389-D N. Main St., Walnut Creek, 925-932-8489.

Hospice Thrift Shoppe 1345-A Newell Ave., Walnut Creek, 925-947-1064.

St Vincent de Paul Society 2815 Contra Costa Blvd., Pleasant Hill, 925-934-5063. Mon.-Sat. 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Sun. 12-5 p.m.

The Salvation Army -- Thrift Stores 1806 Linda Dr., Pleasant Hill, 925-685-6900.

Goodwill Industries 1699 Contra Costa Blvd., Pleasant Hill, 925-676-7217.

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