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Left You a Note

Writing a Note to Attach to your Thrift Store Donations - and help to boost sales.

Leave a note for the next owner of your thrift store drops — and help to boost sales.

Jacquelyn Ottman's book, If Trash Could Talk, inspires a new consumption culture in NYC.

Jacquelyn Ottman’s book, If Trash Could Talk, inspires a new consumption culture in NYC.

I’ve always thought the experience of buying things in a thrift shop or consignment store could be made appealing — even fun — if the previous owner left you a note. Think of the possibilities. “I’m Jackie O and I wore this Givenchy gown when the Queen came to dinner at the White House.” “I’m Liz Taylor and I wore this to my fifth wedding. Michael Todd just loved it!”

Now, many notes won’t be that exciting. But what if a sofa came with a note from a previous owner saying “This was my only piece of furniture during 4 years of medical school. Please take care of it.”?  Or, a note accompanying a pair of shoes came from the widow of a man who happened to own your favorite restaurant”?

Stories are cheap. It doesn’t cost a thing to attach one to a sweater or sofa. Stories add value. Enhancing the value of something that might otherwise go to waste.

About the Author
Jacquie Ottman is an advocate for zero waste. She is the founder and editor of WeHateToWaste.com She is currently writing a book about Leftovers as a solution to food waste. Read more about Jacquie HERE, and check out her other posts.
  1. Mark Eisen Reply

    I bought an espresso maker at a thrift shop once for $25 because I liked the way it looked. It turned out to be collectible and I sold it years later, thanks to ebay, a thrift shop in itself, for $225. You can now shop Goodwill thrift shops all over the country online.

  2. MIke Reply

    Hi Jacquie,
    What a great idea! Apart from the “Too much information” notes on could imagine…., finding out the history of a new treasure, a really special thrift shop find or even a “Googie” (A Mrs. Fischer term for a quirky “whats-it” only Mrs. Fischer could love!), is fun. And what a delightful way to do it.
    At the same wonderful vintage clothing shop I mentioned in an earlier post, I noticed a beautiful deep blue dress covered in sequins in one area and then a “scarf” of the same material elsewhere in the store. I asked the owner about it. She told me the dress was an original by a famous designer, (forgot who) and the scarf had been made from the extra fabric removed from the dress. The reason she knew this was there were two labels sewn into lining of dress. The first told the designer, when and where the dress was created, etc.. The second label covered the information when the dress was later altered. The seamstress who did the work sewed and the details of the alteration. The dress had been shortened and relined.
    And on a similar note….Hope I have this story right…..
    When my brother Andrew decided to reupholster and rebuild a love seat, he found he had two other friends who wanted to learn the process. They each had their loveseat and everyone worked in his living room on each of their upholstery projects. What upheaval! Stripping the furniture down to the frame, rebuilding the upholstery back from the ground up. Before he and his friends completed their loveseats, they added a note about the piece so the next person who reupholstered it would find message as a surprise! I think they may have included a scrap of the original fabric and in some cases, extra little treasures to be discovered!
    And Andrew took scraps of each new fabric and made gift bags for me, which I’m still using today!
    Now I’m all psyched! Can’t wait to have something I’ll be donating to a thrift shops which has a history or “history” and cries out for a note!

  3. Hetal Reply

    How about – “I was Janet Jackson’s once. Please don’t blame the wardrobe for malfunctions. It’s just not nice.”

    What a great idea, Jacquie! It’s a spin on a message-in-a-bottle, but instead of futile attempts at creating love stories across time and space you are consciously changing the way people feel about buying second hand. Another kind of love story if you will. The notes can help remove the skepticism element from shopping at a thrift store. I know I’ve often heard people say they enjoy shopping at thrift stores, but never for clothes. “You never know what they’ve done to it!” Honestly, what could possibly have been done to it? But adding a note to each article of clothing is an extra step to show that you have loved it, and you are only giving it up because it’s time with you has come to an end. The note lets the next owner know it was special dress, hat or blouse that was treated with the utmost respect and care. And then the love story continues…

    • Jacquie Ottman Reply

      You’ve gotten my point precisely! Yes, adding a message should make the item all that more desirable — and special to the next owner, too. After all, every item of clothing has a story. Why not tell it!

  4. Bonnie Halpern Reply

    What a wonderful idea – warm and personal, providing a sense of mystery and feeding the imagination.
    Having a daughter who was an ardent Francophile, my father would roam around thrift shops and antique stores searching for French treasures. He gave me a book when I was a child entitled “How to be Happy in Paris Without Being Ruined” by John Chancellor, published in 1927. The book must have been given from one friend to another. The inscription: “Dear Agnes – Be Happy Everywhere. Yours, Katherine.” This book is one of my most treasured possessions. How I would love to know Agnes and Katherine!

    • Jacquie Ottman Reply

      I know just how you feel! I have a small collection of antique post cards, many of which which actually sent. It’s beautiful to read the greetings sent back and forth so long ago.

      (and see, incidentally, that not only do they not include zip codes, but many don’t even include a state! My mother once received a letter addressed to her telephone number! Those were the days.)

  5. Fredrica Reply

    Shortly after reading this post, I came across one of Rob Walker’s “Consumed” columns that I had clipped from the New York Times (yes, with scissors!). In “The Back Story” (9/3/2010), he writes about technology-enabled ways to communicate stories and information about objects, including Totem, Itizen and StickyBits.

    With the first system, the user can take a photo, record a story, and link it to a QR coded sticker placed on the possession before giving or donating it to someone. (See demo on TalesofThings.com.) This hi-tech alternative to a written note may appeal more to Gen Y.

    As Jacquie suggests, such stories may enhance the value of objects. Walker writes “…Totem researchers worked with an Oxfam thrift store in Manchester, recording stories by stuff-donors, for a spinoff project called RememberMe. Shoppers could hear short back stories for about 60 pieces of secondhand merchandise. The used goods with stories were swiftly snapped up…”

    By the way, the Consumed columns were discontinued, but are archived on the NYT website. The “Back Story” article is here: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/05/magazine/05FOB-Consumed-t.html?ref=consumed&_r=1&

  6. Jacquie Ottman Reply

    Thanks, Mike, Hetal and Bonnie for sharing your own wonderful stories about leaving notes on possessions. I think it would be a great idea for a consumer behavior class to actually work with a thrift store to see if items with notes get scooped up faster (or for more money?) than those without notes.

    Mike and Hetal — you have me wondering if there are any “notes in a bottle” in any of my furniture. I do remember the very first Macintosh computers having the signatures of everyone who worked on it embossed on the underside of the case.
    Frederica — perhaps the invention of QR codes will allow us all to sign our work as well as our passalongs! Surely, as Bonnie has found out, signed copies of books are worth more than unsigned!

  7. Sam S Reply

    While stories may be cheap, they’re easily communicated and can be very important for a consumer making a purchase decision. If we’re not able to imagine someone wearing a vintage suit, a pasture raised cow roaming the field, or rainforest teak being crafted into a coffee table, it’s likely that a lot of products would suffer some value loss. A mental picture is worth a thousand words.

    For green products, it’s possible that an anecdote can quickly communicate the added benefit one gets from making a more sustainable choice. Those familiar with the television show Antiques Roadshow will need no introduction to the coupled power a background story can have on purchase decisions when someone finds a deal.

  8. Chelsea Kaplan Reply

    This is a great Idea. I frequently shop at goodwill and wonder about the past of the items I buy. Learning about an items history and its importance to its previous owner gives a new piece of your wardrobe such character for no cost. I would love to get a note like this!

  9. Emily Saltz Reply

    Hi Jacquie,

    I love this idea! I think it’s a fantastic way to shift consumer value from the new and back to the old. Ultimately, it’d be ideal if people began to place more value on the story behind the object than the object itself. Will it be the new dress that makes me happy or the fact that I feel some personal connection to the woman who wore it before me? There’s a lot of talk about why the environmental movement matters at all! Some say it’s to preserve the earth for our grandchildren and their grandchildren. Perhaps more people could connect to this argument if they began to buy goods from the generation of their grandparents. Closing the loop of consumption is a tough task, but a worthwhile one. This is a fun and inspiring way of bringing past and future generations together with the goal in mind that we are all inhabiting the same planet and using the same resources.

  10. Sara Mears Reply

    Great idea Jacquie. We did something similar when we left a note behind built in shelves when we de-installed them to paint. Someone sometime will find our message. You should forward a story to go with your piano bequeathed to Smith!

    • Jacquie Ottman Reply

      Sara — how did you know! I actually just last week sent a framed letter to the residents of Sessions House giving them the background on the piano. It meant so much to my family, and I wanted them to feel part of that history as well.
      The letter also let me send along some care instructions. I told them when I come to my reunion in the future, I’ll be bringing some rags and lemon oil and (cotton balls and alcohol for the ivory keys), but hinted that they could fill in for me in the meantime!
      I can’t wait to hear what the folks say when they find your letter — kinds of like finding a letter in a bottle!

  11. Alexis Gothberg Reply

    I really enjoy finding things that don’t belong with the things that I get at thrift store. Its like rediscovering a little forgotten piece of history, a small, exciting treasure.

    I volunteer at a local thrift store (a deadly thing because of my love of books), and I always love finding bookmarks or various scraps that people find to mark their places in the book. Its always interesting to see where the books came from and trying to figure out why people put some very strange things into books. They are just as interesting as the personalizations within the front covers. The books seem to gain more substance if there is a story behind that particular copy.

    Put a found thing in a book and create another story along side the printed one!

  12. Jacquie Ottman Reply

    I’m with you, Alexis, finding things in books is like finding a message in a bottle.
    When I wrote the post, I was thinking about intentionally preparing a note to accompany thrift shop items. But there’s something special about finding treasures in a pocket, too!

  13. Wendy Brawer Reply

    How about a label that stays in the garment/book/etc with room for a few words from each owner?

  14. Alisha Reply

    What a great idea, Jacquie!
    I actually just experienced this a few weeks ago, while moving out of my college apartment. My roommate and I were just about to donate a chair that had been passed down from our seniors, however, no one we knew wanted it. We stood there reminiscing about all the memories we shared with this inanimate object. A younger class-man whom we hadn’t met before happened to overhear our conversation, all of a sudden she goes, “I hate to see you guys throw away all the memories, do you mind if I take it?”
    For a second, I didn’t know how to react but inside I felt a sense of relief. “Of course” I yelled before she changed her mind. We stood there for the next twenty minutes sharing stories.
    I did not think much about our little encounter before reading your post, but thinking about it now, it’s such a great idea, specially for graduating students who are never want to let go of their college memories as well as younger class-men who have a limited budget and rather not waste money. It’s a win- win!

  15. Laura Chambers Reply

    This idea is near and dear to my heart because I have many objects passed down to me from my grandmother and great aunt, and I often wonder about the history of each item. Although I know a little bit about most of these things, I wish that they had left behind a memoir of sorts. I think, as humans, we connect with each other on an emotional level even if we don’t always agree with one another’s opinions. Having a heartfelt note (no matter how simple) attached to someone’s old belongings makes the item invaluable. This, in turn, establishes a human connection–and that is something that can’t be destroyed. From a sustainability standpoint, this idea is genius because in a way, you’re almost guilting the new owner into caring for the item and re-purposing it however possible (as long as they have a heart! haha!)

  16. Jacquie Ottman Reply

    Here’s something new: Wearable Collection has a Social Show Project that lets the first and second wearers of the smae pair of shoes connect with each other. Just contact them to download a tag. http://www.socialshoeproject.com/

    What is it about shoes that is so emotional??

  17. Sam Katz Reply

    I love the idea … and when I do sell something on ebay, I always write a personal note about the item and it’s history with me. I also buy a lot at thrift shops and resale shops … and one time I bought a champagne gold leather jacket where the tag said it had once belonged to Lisa Pliner, the fashion model wife of the designer Donald Pliner. I figured it was just urban legend, but the shop owner insisted it really did belong to her. It ultimately didn’t matter, because the jacket was incredibly made and beautiful, and I knew I was getting it at a tiny, tiny fraction of a retail price, had there ever been a retail price. I took the jacket home and decided to test the claim. I found Lisa Pliner on Facebook and sent her a message. She told me to send her a photo. I couldn’t get the photo through the Facebook message system, so I asked for her email address. She sent it to me and I sent her the picture. She confirmed that her husband did, indeed, custom-make the jacket for her and that I should “wear it in good health.” It’s one of my favorite “recycling” stories and an “only in New York!” tale.

  18. Cristina Russo Reply

    One of my favorite items of clothing came from L Train Vintage on 1st Ave on the LES. It’s a beautiful varsity jacket with the athlete’s name embroidered at the bottom, A. Lugg. There’s also a patch on the sleeve donning the athlete’s jersey number, 10, which was also the number I wore when I played volleyball and basketball in high school. I always wonder who this mysterious A. Lugg is and what school they went to. The colors are navy blue and a golden yellow color and the mascot seems to have been the Spartans. It would have been really amazing to have a note from A. Lugg with perhaps a piece of the jacket’s story. I hope a trend based on this idea starts up.

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