At the upper end are specialty vintage clothing stores, such as Aardvarks and It's a Wrap, which sells studio wardrobe clothing at steep discounts, though at higher prices than a nonprofit organization would.
I steer clear of EBay, arguably the world's biggest thrift store. It's always a risk to buy clothing without trying it on first. A satisfying winning bid doesn't count for much if the jacket or slacks ultimately don't fit.
Next, you need to know the going rates.
Thrift store economies mean you should generally be able to buy a suit for under $20, a sport coat for around $12, pants for no more than $10 and shirts for no higher than $6.
At some thrift stores a high-end, brand-name suit can run $30 to $40 -- and in some instances even more than $100. But all the prices tend to work out to 10% to 20% of an item's value if purchased new.
A quick check lays out the savings. A new Brooks Brothers suit can run around $1,000; a new Polo herringbone blazer commands about $1,300; a new Hickey Freeman suit can sell for more than $1,500; and a J. Press suit is about $800. These are not newsman-friendly prices, especially if a newsman desires to own more than a single garment.
But I recently scored that herringbone Brooks Brothers suit for $12.95 at the Goodwill on Fairfax, and a J. Press chalk pinstripe for $29.95 at Out of the Closet in Glendale. If I didn't admit these facts in print, none would be the wiser.
There are also some land mines out there.
For starters, give the article of clothing a close inspection, looking for holes, tears and stains -- especially on those pinstripe suits. I'm still smarting from the time I paid $19 for a Paul Stuart seersucker suit only to discover a hole in the trousers the size of a quarter.
Questionable merchandise is usually not a problem at upper-end thrift stores, but pay special attention at the chains that stock everything.
The best days to find new inventory are Monday and Tuesday because that's when the weekend donations make it onto the floor.
And, between you and me, the best thrift stores tend to be located in upscale areas. You're more likely to find that $1,000 suit in Beverly Hills than in, well, you know where.
It's also important to be patient. If you're going to buy your clothes at thrift stores you have to put up with the sometimes frustrating task of inspecting racks brimming with discardable items to find the genuine, quality article. After all, 99% of the clothing in a thrift store is probably not something you would ever want to wear.
'Keep coming back'
"It's about the treasure hunt," says Arlene Ford, a manager at House of Return in Culver City. "It's not like shopping Ross or Nordstrom. You have to keep coming back."
"It doesn't work for the guy who has to show up tomorrow morning in a business suit looking perfect," Ford said. "That's part of the joy of people coming back day after day. Thrift-store shopping is more of an experience."
In my years of shopping secondhand, I've learned that the common perception that thrift stores are stocked with raggedy clothes meant for the destitute is just plain wrong.
The truth is, most of the men's clothing found in these stores is perfectly acceptable.
"Women are the deciders," says Ford at the House of Return. "They are the ones who go through their husbands' closets and decide when [their spouses] are done with it."