Big Deal: Priceless Bargain Hunting

Outside a Big Lots in Illinois. | Photo: Castaway in Scotland/Flickr/Creative Commons License

I'm a career bargain hunter, mainly a prowler of upscale haunts like Kitson on Robertson and American Rag on La Brea, always in search of markdowns that let me walk away with a $200 item for forty bucks or less. I usually find them. Nothing feels quite as satisfying as rooting out deals that tend to be tucked away on a couple of racks or shelves in the back of a store; these things are totally unadvertised, as if the store is too genteel to let its customers know that a few of their high-end goods can occasionally be had for the price of a clearance sweater at Marshall's or TJ Maxx. I patronize those places too, but getting deals there is like shooting fish in a barrel. To truly beat the system you have to go into the heart of it, do some serious hunting and emerge with a kill. Then you go back home and tell the story of your conquest. Or better yet, wear it.

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That's my favorite kind of bargain hunting. But in the last four years, as the great recession has spread economic gloom across the state like coastal fog in May, I've developed a new favorite: Big Lots. Yes, it's a discount house like TJ Maxx and Marshall's, a place where 75 percent off is the whole point. There should be no thrill of the hunt. And yet there is. That's because Big Lots, despite being a chain, is a hodgepodge, general-store kind of place that requires you on every visit to sift through the junk to get to the gems -- the opposite of upscale bargain hunting, in which you have to sift through the gems to get to the final-sale "junk." But finding what you need at Big Lots is just as fulfilling. The whole place is like a flea market with a roof, with a crazily diverse, ever-shifting inventory that ranges from brooms to breakfast cereals to bedroom slippers and Croc rubber clogs in strange colors and sizes that couldn't sell anywhere else.

Big Lots began life as Pic'n'Save, and it retains the common-man appeal that name suggests. It has none of the kitsch/hipster quotient of the 99-Cent Store or Target, or those places' bright interiors and neatly arranged displays that speak to their essentially suburban market. Big Lots are in modest neighborhoods like Hawthorne and Inglewood and the flatlands of Hollywood and Culver City. Their idea of displays are giant wire bins of bath towels and racks of B-movie DVDs set up at the checkout line.

It goes without saying that I find everything there that I need: cotton rounds, mops, dog beds, leashes, tuna, greeting cards, fair-trade chocolate, mascara, throw rugs. My local Big Lots is also a kind of social center, with folks hanging outside the entrance peddling causes as well as stuff like skin cream to bean pies -- an extension of the Big Lots marketplace spirit, really.

Maybe that's why I never see any security running them off. I go on regular expeditions to the Culver City store with my very good friend Ed, a fellow Big Lots aficionado. But we worry about it. Probably because Culver City has gotten so trendy, this store has consciously cleaned up its act. It's bright and neat, with real aisles and friendly salespeople. It's moving away from its Pic'N'Save past and falling in line with the 99-cent store and Target. Ed and I agree that it's too streamlined and lacks that singular do-it-yourself feel that defines Big Lots. It doesn't let you scavenge or feel the triumph of scoring gems among the junk, of beating the system in a store that itself is an outsider, or at least like a relic of our retail past, like Woolworth and TG & Y.

But that's fine. The Culver City BL may be clean, but compared to Kitson's or even the recently upgraded Westfield mall down the street on Sepulveda, it's downright grubby. And that's priceless.

About the Author

Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in L.A., with an eye toward the city's African American community, appear weekly on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.
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