The Art Of Thrifting For Biker Gear


The Salvation Army has got a hold on me. It has its dirty hands around my throat. Its iron grip is squeezing me, pulling me, dragging me down. Its used but nicely clean clothes and quaint little knickknacks are like love, ceaselessly, sweetly, tirelessly tempting me. I tell myself I can quit anytime, but I’m an addict. I admit it freely and without hope.

I wasn’t always this way, oh no. It didn’t seem so very long ago there was a time I shopped at the usual retail outlets for my biker wear- bike shops, dealerships, that sort of thing. I was normal. There was the occasional excursion to a harmless flea market or yard sale, but that was just for fun, nothing serious, nothing I couldn’t handle. That’s what I told myself.

When I lived in New York City, there wasn’t the vast array of Salvation Army and Goodwill stores there are around here, or at least I didn’t notice them. Sure, there were some street markets and pawnshops, but like classy bars and big cars, I never found myself in them.

Salvation Army Boutique, Santa Monica, CA. There’s gold behind them there doors.
Photo: Santa Monica Daily Press.

I’m not sure what really happened or how; do any of us when a nasty habit takes over? Something went wrong. Somehow I was drawn into this lurid world of pre-owned shoes and pants, and most seductive of all, perfectly broken-in jackets. Lord knows what stories their well-worn leather could tell.

I’m sure you agree, a gentleman biker can never have enough jackets. You need one for cold weather riding, one for warm, and another for those blistering hot days. You need one for summer, one for fall, more for winter and spring. You need formal for distinguished affairs; casual for everyday; one with lots of pockets for scoots to the grocery; one for hanging at the local dive; one for working on the bike; one for just looking cool, and at least one of a slimming cut for romance. And, of course, one for the rain. And one more ragged-but-warm, don’t-care-if-this-gets-robbed bike coat. Special circumstances may demand a few more contingency jackets.

I can’t say exactly when I became a thrift shop fiend. My transformation, I think, was gradual and insidious. In the Arizona outerlands where I lived for a time, yard sales, estate sales and charity thrift shops of all denominations formed a thriving cottage industry. All some people do is collect other people’s junk and resell it weekend after weekend. If you see yard sale signs, it must be Friday. They punctuated the landscape like a Doris Day polka dot dress which, by the way, I got for my now ex for 12 dollars. I’m sure she still looks good in it, damnit.

Budget biker jackets, gently used. Sort of. Photo: Goodwill

These personal little salvage dumps co-exist with discount franchises that sell new and used clothes, specializing in the hip and discontinued. They are so irresistible. Like pure concentrated sugar to a starving sweet tooth, they entice and delight in a most pleasing way. But I am not entirely satisfied with these store-bought woolen and leather sweetmeats, so I have taken to spinning my own. If I can pry the old biddies off the coat rack, I can rescue an item that is not necessarily pret a porter, but offers many stylish possibilities.

I do a little custom designing in my head. If a fashion vision appears, I pluck a not-too-shabby coat from the hanger, slam down my five bucks and take it to the seamstress with specific, motorcycle-appropriate instructions. Some $50-$100 or more in alterations later I have a one-off bike jacket dripping with cool.

I have discovered that thrift shop shopping is the great equalizer. This is no frills, de l’etagere, baby. No tailors, no personal salespeople catering to your precise tastes—thrift shopping is not for sissies. Young and old, rich and poor ply the aisles of the secondhand and castaway. There is no room for condescending snobbery at the Sacred Mother of the Wretched Souls Thrift Shop, buddy. Attitudes are deposited at the door along with charitable contributions. Once you step through that discount portal, we’re all the same, rummaging through the piles of homeless fabric together, one people under the fluorescent glare.

They are here to help. Photo: Caring Magazine.

There are, of course, certain rules of etiquette to treasure hunting through the thrifts. It is, for example, considered déclassé to rifle through the racks like some wild caveman desperate to cover his freezing naked flesh. Good manners also include an unspoken non-aggression pact with the elderly, even if they never can get out of the way and almost surely no one would notice a little bump or elbow to the ribs; special patience with zombiefied sales clerks; and a certain tidiness in regard to how you dispose of the clothes you’re not purchasing. Re-racking rejected items shows great respect to the store and its underpaid employees. And, as with normal shopping, it is impolite to roughly grab for, say, a nice blue shirt that someone else is reaching for, even though it would work perfectly with your mauve suede, Sunday afternoon, if-it’s-not-below-74-degrees riding jacket. I hate that.

You also need an exit strategy. Just diving in there all higgledy-piggledy is going to get you in trouble. What first appears a treasure-trove of $3 shirts, $10 boots and $5 accessorizing baubles can be a trap, a money pit waiting to swallow you up. Before you know it, in your unbridled excitement and naïve glee, you’ve just dropped 80 bucks on weirdo stuff you have no more closet space for. Standing hip-deep in somebody else’s old clothes is not attaining some kind of fashion nirvana or crazy economies of scale; it’s just daft. Clutter is not cool. So, before you consider building a storage shed to house your habit, shop with critical discretion. Take it from one who sold his soul to the dollar bin.

Sure, it’s easy to listen to those voices in your head saying, “Save these clothes from the rubbish, recycle them, re-make them in your image, murder the overpriced, eat the rich.” Ok, maybe not that last bit, but voices don’t lie, do they?

Its a bonanza in there. Photo: Horizon Goodwill Industries.

The great thing about thrift stores is that you can walk in and smell the mighty purchasing power in your pants, after taxes and minimum credit card payments. For me, this usually amounts to somewhere around six dollars and 75 cents, but within those castoff walls, I am rich. Upon crossing the store threshold I have often felt, with much giddiness, a royal, “I-can-buy-any-damn-thing-I-want” rush.

But there can be a price to pay. In properly trained hands, these shops are a beneficial, sensible, controllable thing, offering a painless way to fortify your riding gear in the unexpected event of miserable cold or rain while on the road, or add a touch of tasteful retro to your seasonal wardrobe. There are other places to find that perfect piece of missing gear, but be warned, there are traps.

Looking good in budget biker threads.

Beware The Devil’s yard sale. If you can manage your bargain buying urges, moving and estate sales can offer a treasure trove of good stuff for practical motorcycle application. If you just give in to whim and whimsy, you’ll just hand your spouse a reason for divorce. A few of the things I have rescued: compact tools, tool boxes, Mexican wrestling masks (like a ski mask but more fun), bungee cords, canteens, gloves, various machine and human lubricants, sunglasses, rubber tubing (thread it through front wheel spokes for possible fuel siphoning emergencies), chaps, leftover camping gear, mismatched rain suits, the occasional useful electronic gadget (test before buying), lightweight or waterproof luggage, a couple of shabby-chic leather vests and jackets, and bubble wrap to stow my delicates in, among other less sensible stuff I should have left on the table.

Ride smart, stay suave, shop cheap, save money. Remember, there is no point in paying full-tilt retail for almost all your biking needs, unless you positively have to have it now. If you can’t find it in somebody’s garage or a thrift store, dig online. Parts, tires and bolt-ons can be found on eBay, Amazon and scores of other online sources. Hell, I even found my girlfriend on Craigslist. I later returned her.

J. Joshua Placa

For Joshua’s “Budget Biker” part 1, click here:
Budget Biker: Eat Right, Ride Cheap

*What nuggets has thrifting yielded for you? Let us know in the comments below!


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  1. Joey D

    Yeah, I know what you mean. I have been a thrift store, flea market, garage sale junkie for years. It is amazing how one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. I never buy anything new, it is a BIG WASTE OF MONEY. Everything from clothes to tools to electronics and everything in-between, you can even find BRAND NEW ITEMS at a fraction of the original price.

    • Rob Brooks

      We’ve found a few rare finds at the local Goodwill and Salvation Army stores ourselves- Some barely worn riding boots, an H-D cap or two, even a couple of authentic Lynyrd Skynyrd and Van Halen tour shirts from the 70s and early 80s. Doesn’t get cooler than that.

      • Joshua Placa

        Cool stuff, reverend. If you find anything in my size, ship it to me for, you know, inspection.

        • Rob Brooks

          If I ever come across a Helen Reddy or Karen Carpenter concert t-shirt, I’m shipping it to you.

  2. Joshua Placa

    Thanks for your comment, Joey. I never buy anything new unless I absolutely need it now. It feels like I’m doing my civic duty by recycling and re-wearing stuff that would otherwise end up in a landfill or burned at the pit. In fact, I’m feeling so civic minded I just may do a little more to save the world this weekend. Rummage on, Joey.


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