"I tried to break away," he hisses. "I tried to go back to school this last term. But I just couldn't wait for summer break so I could get back... School got in the way of my digging."
To Scrappers (his pseudonym, not mine), they are "diggers," though you may know them better as "pickers." Both nicknames are apt. They are the ones you see in thrift stores everywhere, hunched over racks and crates of secondhand clothes, books, records, toys, electronics, and general junk. They "dig" through mounds of crap for buried treasure; they "pick" through locust-ravaged orchards for hidden fruits. They are looking for something, anything of monetary value--a vintage Nike T-shirt perhaps, or a first-edition of Salem's Lot in glorious hardback. Scrappers is, by his own account, addicted to this endeavor. You can tell his condition is in the advanced stages for two reasons: 1) He does it every day, and 2) he does it at The Bins.
DIGGIN' THE BINS
Technically, there are many versions of the Bins; four to be exact, scattered across the Portland area. These are Goodwill's outlet stores, which are different from your run-of-the-mill Goodwill thrift store. At the Goodwill Bins, merchandise on display is so abundant and unkempt, its been chucked into a highly functional system of, well... bins.
Scrapper's Bins lie in a more exotic locale than regular Goodwill stores, to the East, in an ancient warehouse on the desolate McLoughlin highway. The Acropolis strip club resides across the street and rickety trains rattle by daily, filling the air with piercing whistles. Inside this warehouse, the floors and walls are concrete, and the windows are painted over so that no natural light can seep through. Flickering fluorescents cast a yellowish hue over the already pallid shoppers, who sort through piles of dusty discards with fierce intensity and hallow eyes.
"When they opened the Hillsboro store last year," says Scrappers, "everybody started going [there]. It's a brand new facility; the bathrooms are clean, there's no poop wiped on the walls, it's air-conditioned and the bins are all brand new plastic on wheels."
"We didn't like it. It takes the fun out of it. You don't feel like you're roughing it or anything. But [the McLoughlin Bins] feels like a clubhouse. It's only for the hardcore people who aren't afraid to lose a finger digging for something."
Scrappers concludes this thought with a true anecdote about a Bins shopper who really did lose part of their finger--flaying it on a stray Cuisinart blade buried deep within one of the piles. It is these sorts of dangers that the regulars face daily. Besides sharp cutting implements, other extra special finds throughout The Bins' illustrious history include (but are far, far from limited to): syringes, insects, dirty diapers, dead rodents, a bat (not the baseball kind), a live snake, and a pair of pants full of diarrhea (found by Scrappers the day I interviewed him).
Some Bins shoppers wear gloves and surgical masks to do their picking, a visual symbol that begs the question, "Is it really worth it?" To answer that question, consider another list of things that have been found at The Bins (again, a mere sampling): vintage Nike T-shirts, antique dolls, the official souvenir book printed for the first Superbowl in NFL history, cash, a 22-oz. bottle of Rogue Beer, Pendleton jackets, a Rolex watch from the early 1900s, and--as described by Scrappers with tremulous excitement--"a taxidermied monkey dressed up in a circus clown outfit."
To put it bluntly, every one of those items is worth some serious cash (with the exception of the monkey, which is just really fucking cool), and it's all for the buying at remarkably cheap prices. The Bins are the dumping grounds for goods that don't sell at the other Goodwill stores--goods that Goodwill is desperate to get rid of.
According to the company's media spokesperson, Dale Emmanuel, Goodwill blows between $24,000 and $30,000 in landfill bills per week. The company doesn't want to hold onto this stuff, which means rock-bottom prices for pickers, and a huge profit margin when they resell. A book that can be resold for four dollars to Powell's can be purchased at The Bins for 25 cents. A pair of pants that the Red Light might pay $10-15 for will usually run you about one dollar at the Bins--clothes sell there in bulk, starting at $1.29 a pound, and get cheaper the more you buy.
Many Bins regulars post their purchases on eBay, where bidding wars inevitably ensue, pushing the resale profits to even higher levels. A certain female regular I spoke with specializes in linens, rescuing ratty scraps of the stuff and restoring it into valuable vintage pillows, quilts, and table cloths. One year she made $40,000 selling these restored linen products.
THE RUNNING OF THE BINS
The aura of commerce creates a palpable tension at The Bins. In the morning, just before opening, a crowd of at least 40 or 50 people hovers around the entrance, vulture-like. This crowd forms every day--no matter what the weather, holidays be damned. When the doors open it's like the gate releasing horses at the track. The throng surges through, a pulsing mass, then splits up inside, breaking off into the aisles and sections they specialize in. This phenomenon is called the Running of The Bins, and it's not particularly pleasant to watch--not because of any bad behavior on the part of the customers, but because of the cloud of ravenous greed that hangs over everything; the hungry glaze in everyone's eyes as they root through the mire like pigs after truffles.
Amazingly, the mood typically remains civil. For the most part, the regulars respect each other, often giving each other items they can't use themselves but are still valuable. But where there is money there is always some kind of trouble, and nobody ever gets too comfortable. Scrappers tells the sad, sad tale of Mango and Maria:
"There was this couple, Mango and Maria, and they worked The Bins like nobody's business. They were the best. They had a system: when one would find a vein of really good stuff, they would have a certain whistle to get the other's attention. If [the stuff] was really good the whistle was different than if it was just so-so. And they had Japanese buyers. Everybody has their own secret Japanese buyers, but no one will admit it. I've got Japanese buyers, and I'm sure as hell not telling anyone."
"Anyway, nobody liked [Mango and Maria] because they were so good, and Mango was kind of cocky, too. They'd camp out there all day, from when the doors opened to when the doors closed and were making a lot of money."
"I don't exactly know who did this, but one day one of their competitors told the management that Mango was going in the back room where the employees are, making friends, and digging through bales long before the rest of the public..."
Here Scrappers pauses for dramatic effect.
"And [Mango] got 86ed, whether it was true or not."
His voice lowers.
"It's like walking on eggshells there," he says. "You gotta be nice to everyone because you never know if they're gonna get you kicked out."
At The Bins, you must be dedicated and focused, quick, strong, and tough; but you must also be tender. You must treat your fellow pickers with friendship and courtesy while simultaneously darting in front of them to snatch up a Thriller-era Michael Jackson T-shirt they overlooked. One bad move, and it's like sharks at a feeding frenzy; your blood will trickle and everyone will turn...
HEAD DOWN, MOUTH SHUT
Like junkies, the pickers at The Bins are hooked more on the lifestyle than the drug itself. They may find a valuable object on any given day, or even several valuable objects, but when those objects are sold, the search begins anew. Items come and go, but the thrill of the hunt is permanent, and drives the regulars to sift relentlessly, forever looking for The Big Score, which when actually found, only makes them look harder.
"Once you hear about that $1000 pair of pants, and then you actually find it, it's hard to stop," says Scrappers. "It's an addiction. All those people you see in there are fucking addicts."
Paranoia is prevalent. The majority of the pickers just want to be left alone (not exactly an ideal environment for a journalist trying to "embed" himself), and the ones that will talk remain unflinchingly anonymous. All have trade secrets, and a fear of upsetting other pickers by saying something potentially offensive in print.
"I could get kicked out of The Bins for this shit," Scrappers whispers with sinister urgency.
More than anything, however, I believe the pickers have an inherent awareness of their own economic ecosystem (an "eco-ecosystem," if you will). Like any ecosystem, the thriving lifecycles contained therein is a delicate balance. The pickers are afraid to say or do anything that might upset that balance, so they keep their heads down and their mouths shut.
As it stands, there is a perfect symbiotic relationship between object and person at The Bins. There is just enough good stuff amongst the great glut of bad stuff for the pickers to survive. But the balance is easily upset.
What if this article brings a slew of potential pickers who want to get in on the action? What if my earlier mention of the "linens lady" prompts the current pickers to try to get in on her action?
In mid-September, Goodwill plans to close the current Bins and open up a new warehouse farther up McLoughlin. It's a good move for the average layperson who goes to The Bins for the occasional errant piece of furniture or a cheap pair of pants and doesn't wish to breathe in dust and ceiling particles. But how will this move affect the lifers? Isn't part of their survival dependent on the fact they stand strong day after day in a dungeon-like hell-hole that the average Joe avoids like the plague? Who knows what sorts of awful normal people will be streaming in once the place is spic and span?
JUNK'S LAST CHANCE
Perhaps one of the best reasons to shop The Bins is to keep our old objects out of landfills, returning them to life's gentle stream.
"This is the last chance for all these items," says Scrappers. "All these things that people used to hold dear to their hearts, or just bought on a whim, brand new... by the time they get to The Bins--that's it. There's kind of a guilt thing. You'll see it a lot. You pick something up and look at it, and it could be just a dingy old stuffed animal, but you're like, 'Jeez, if I put you back down right here, that's it. This is truly your last chance to make it back into the cycle.'"
There are so many, many great deals lurking amongst The Bins. There are dirt-cheap oak tables and perfect-condition armchairs from the '60s. There are first-edition hardbacks for a quarter, and 30-year-old T-shirts for less than a dollar. But the best deals of all are the stories. They're everywhere, inside every shopper, and behind every object. And what's more, they're absolutely free.