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Living thrifty

Images of the recycled life

jenna issacson

During summer 2011, Jenna Isaacson, BJ ’01, of Washington, D.C., drove a 19-foot camper through 29 states to photograph thrift store shoppers and good finds.

To celebrate their fourth wedding anniversary on June 23, 2011, Jenna Isaacson and Ed Pfueller exchanged gifts. From Isaacson, Pfueller received a personalized leather belt and western shirt. From Pfueller, she got a few tops and a Route 66 wall sign. All were purchased from a St. George, Utah, thrift store — a symbolic idea considering that their anniversary fell in the middle of Isaacson’s cross-country thrift shop tour.

During summer 2011, Isaacson, BJ ’01, of Washington, D.C., drove a 19-foot camper through 29 states to photograph thrift store shoppers and good finds. She hopes the project, which she blogs about at, will raise awareness about excessive consuming habits and change the perception of many who believe thrift stores are places to donate, not shop.

“When I got my first job making money, I quickly realized that I could buy one shirt for $40 or go to the thrift store and get 10 shirts for $40,” says Isaacson, who buys most of her wardrobe secondhand.

Isaacson has long been a thrifty shopper. Growing up in Kansas City, Mo., she accompanied her now 97-year-old grandfather to secondhand stores in Quincy, Ill., where he’d buy her something with his senior discount.

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“It was a cool way to be introduced to thrift stores,” she says. “He taught me to appreciate secondhand goods, and I carried that lesson with me through weight gains and losses, buying clothes for my first job and getting furniture for my apartments.”

In 2010, Isaacson, a laid-off newspaper photographer now working as an independent visual journalist, began taking photos of items in various thrift stores during her visits to friends and family in 10 states, including Virginia, Maryland and Texas. The personal project combined her three loves — photography, people and thrift stores — and allowed her to learn the personalities of the communities she visited.

Isaacson began posting the thrift store photos on her blog, and in September 2010, she learned about Kickstarter, a website that allows people to pledge money to fund creative projects. Isaacson had no idea whether others would be interested, but she proposed a plan to document thrift stores in all 50 states. The response was overwhelming. By April 2011, she raised $7,600 through Kickstarter, and in July, she secured a $6,400 sponsorship from Goodwill.

Isaacson, who inherited “trucker blood” from her truck-driving father, used the funding to embark on a 9,000-mile journey through 29 additional states in seven weeks. She averaged 200 miles a day. Her work continues.

Among her favorite thrift store finds: A bowling pin fashioned into a lamp, a $10 print of Where Have All the Flowers Gone? by Judith Hahn (the original hangs in the Smithsonian) and a T-shirt with the slogan “Sponsored by … Your Mom.”

“I usually go to the T-shirts first,” she says. “What people will wear on their chests says a lot about who they are.”

Isaacson, who is still raising money to visit the 11 remaining states on her list, hopes to turn her photography project into a documentary, book or traveling art gallery.

After seeing rows and rows of items people have discarded, she has found easy ways to cut down on waste. For one, don’t buy new gift baskets. The majority of the secondhand shops stock unwanted baskets that have been cast aside after the Easter candy, fruit or canned nuts have been consumed.

Also, skip the kitschy souvenir shops. “You can find a Las Vegas souvenir in every thrift store,” she says, “except those in Las Vegas.”


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