Safari explores bargain-hunters' paradise Shopping: Guided tour takes "maniacs" to some of the best thrift shops in the Philadelphia area.

November 16, 1997|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF

PAOLI, Pa. -- The gentle hills of Pennsylvania are lush and inviting, but we are not here for the scenery.

Our tour guide ignores the black-and-white cows and red barns in green-gold fields as our van hurtles down the highway. Instead, she calls out prices: of houses that flash by, of merchandise glimpsed in store windows, of flower baskets that dangle on front porches.

Our heads swivel; our necks crane. She is telling us exactly what we want to know. From now until the end of the day, how much for how many is all we care about.

Other than our guide's commentary, there's little talk inside the van. Though most of my fellow travelers and I have just met, we already share a sense of purpose: We are on a road trip to shopping heaven.

Our leader is Nancy Berman, a no-nonsense entrepreneur and author of a book titled "Thrift Shop Maniacs Guide," a paperback filled with maps, how-to information and rankings of second-hand stores and thrift shops in the Philadelphia area. With her help, we are going to do as much shopping in one day at as many second-hand stores as possible.

So there's little time to lose. "I could hardly sleep last night," one woman says softly to the person sitting next to her. "Is this not paradise?"

The answer to her whispered question is yes. Yes, that is, if you love a bargain, and you don't mind making a little extra effort to get it.

A long-time thrift shopper herself, Berman had a hunch back in the early 1980s that there were others around like her. People who loved to shop. Who shared her abhorrence for paying retail prices. Who had a taste for the chase.

"I noticed that whenever I brought up the topic it drew an assortment of people: unmarried, married. Poor, or close to it. Lawyers. Doctors. Ph.Ds. You name it," Berman says. "The thing they had in common was wanting to get more for less or wanting to circumvent the system."

Guide published

Berman, who has had previous careers as a microwave-oven marketer and as a chef, tested her theory by teaching at Temple University a how-to class about shopping in secondhand stores. Then the Chestnut Hills, Pa., resident wrote and self-published a small guide to Philadelphia-area thrift shops. "I started selling them out of the back of my van, and miraculously they sold," she says.

Indeed, within six months she had sold 5,000 copies. And her business based on bargain shopping was born.

A few years ago, she and her husband, Marvin, a psychologist in private practice in Chestnut Hills, began leading tours on weekends in the Philadelphia area and in New Jersey. Now the third edition of her book is about to be published, and tours to New York City thrift stores are being offered. "The dream goal is to go national," Nancy says.

For a $29 guide fee, Nancy and Marvin will drive the 15-member group -- divided between two vans -- to about eight area secondhand stores. Each shopper also gets a discount on the guidebook. (The New York tours, which are being offered in December, cost $47 and include book, breakfast, transportation and guide.)

"We do tours in the spring and fall, when the weather is good and I can promise that we are able to get to the stores. That's also when the stores have the best inventories," Nancy says.

"I want to be able to deliver the goods."

Starting out

We meet for today's shopping expedition at 9 a.m. at the Palm Tree Resale Shop, a secondhand store in Paoli, about 20 miles northwest of Philadelphia. Located on the grounds of Paoli Memorial Hospital, the store is run by volunteers and boasts two floors of merchandise from women's evening gowns and men's shirts to knapsacks and already opened boxes of "Just Moved" notes for $2.

Store manager Grace Perry plies us with bagels, coffee and juice, and we are issued a stick-on name tag. ("Worth cash money throughout the day!" Nancy says -- and sure enough, some stores offer us discounts.) We browse and make a quick purchase or two, but it's still early and there are many more shops to come.

In some ways, we're a diverse group: There are college students, an engineer, an accountant, a journalist and a few stay-at-home moms. There are colleagues introducing colleagues to the joys of thrift shopping. There are neighbors, bowling partners and best friends. There are even representatives from three generations of one family.

Other than Marvin, however, there are no men. "We do go to stores that sell secondhand electronic equipment, but you rarely see men unless they are here in support of their wives," says Nancy.

Then she announces the two rules of the day:

Return to the vans at the appointed time. The longer we dawdle, the fewer stores we can hit.

And above all: "Thou shalt not whine!

"If you need a dressing room, we'll get you a dressing room. If you need a bathroom, we'll find a bathroom. If you need cash, we'll get you cash, but if you sulk, we won't know what you want."

We nod obediently and pile into the vans.

Day of adventure

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