I’d been to the mall looking for a one-size-fits-all duffel bag for an upcoming trip and found a decent one. For 50 bucks. Sorry, but I couldn't bring myself to pay that much, considering all the other expenses involved with travel, the horror stories I heard from people whose luggage never arrived and, yes, our struggling economy. (You should know by now that a good newspaper must remind you several times in one out of every three stories that we're all broke.)
On came the light bulb: Why not buy used?
That's where my journey began — a much more crowded and, at one point, stranger endeavor than anticipated.
At the big Goodwill store on W Hillsborough Avenue, drivers were tailing people to their cars, vying for precious parking spots in the spacious lot. I had to park my Mazda on the grass.
At Second Image on Kennedy Boulevard, then the Spring Vintage Boutique on Swann Avenue, faith in God was restored as a space miraculously opened, preventing me from parking in a downtown lot and taking the bus. And this was on a weekday.
Why are area secondhand stores so busy these days?
Kat Alley, retail operations manager for the Spring, said business has been up about 20 percent in the past four months. The reasons, she mused, are changes in staffing and the e-word. "People can't afford to go into the mall."
With today's budgets, even so-called middle-class buyers might be relieved to find 99-cent videos, never-worn suits for $12.99 and even the $399 solid, cherry wood buffet and china cabinet set at the the Spring's Willow Avenue thrift site.
The uptick in sales may be offset, however, by the apparent increase in need. The Spring's domestic violence shelter and programs — where thrift store profits go — have been at capacity lately, Alley said.
Pam McCoy, store manager for Second Image, said sales there usually go down in the summer, but not this year.
From June 23 through 29, the store had a total of 1,179 buying customers. During the same week last year, there were 1,060.
Said McCoy: "We are definitely getting some new faces in here that we haven't seen before."
Routine mall shoppers like me are exposed to a different world at thrift shops and, sometimes, to "different" people, as well.
While perusing the racks at Second Image, a deceptively sane-looking man nervously asked, "Are you Obama? Oooor, uh, are you related to Barack Obama?"
It took a few seconds to register that this guy actually thought I was Michelle Obama, shopping alone for hand-me-downs, not far from a McDonald's and a YaYa's chicken joint in South Tampa.
"No," I told him, managing a fake smile before walking away.
But as I headed to the checkout with a barely used $6 leather satchel, I caught him watching me with lowered eyebrows …
No duffel bag yet, so the search continues. I'll keep trying thrift stores, since their merchandise can change daily.
Of course, I wouldn't be going through all this thrift store drama, if not for the horrible economic state this country has gotten itself into.
At least that's what Michelle Obama might say.