The envisioned future for our unwanted “stuff” often echoes an advertisement: clothes and toys, figurines and electronics, Walkmans and VCRs and tacky souvenirs from a road trip out West that disappear into the enigmatic land of donation where they will undoubtedly be claimed by another loving soul, one who bears a genuine desire for something we no longer see as anything more than old news.

An old picture frame lives to see another happy day. Photography by Wyatt Kostygan


A straightforward narrative: items donated, items claimed, items loved again and spared the depressing exile of the attic. The end. However, what happens to the items that are unclaimed. Three weeks—that’s it. With so many donations to Goodwill each year, each item is only permitted a three-week shelf life in a Goodwill store. And if left unsold, those misfit toys, clothes, shoes, knick-knacks, tchotchkes and thingamajigs are destined for “The Goodwill River,” the salvaging and sustainability stream of unclaimed items that flows out of the Sarasota, Manatee and Arcadia county donation stores and spills into the Goodwill Manasota Bargain Barn for one last opportunity for salvation.

And let’s be clear, the Bargain Barn’s items are not rejects, junk or the bottom of the heap, but simply donations that missed their chance. “Anything you’ll find in the stores, you’ll find in the Barn, and much more,” assures Donn Githens, vice president of operations for Goodwill Manasota. Sorted into categories—shoes, apparel, books, metals, plastics, etc.—items are placed into large plastic bins known as “boats” and wheeled into the Bargain Barn’s showroom. Six rows of nine boats fill the arena where shoppers sift through the hauls, select what they want and pay by the pound (with the exception of a few select items).

Unwanted items that never escape their boats are either recycled, like glass and plastics, or salvaged, sold to vendors who direct the remaining goods to developing countries and people in need. And with two to three full rotations of the Barn each day, turning over roughly 180 bins, the Manasota Bargain Barn diverted 43 million pounds from landfills in 2019—a sustainability stream from top to bottom. And just as this is no ordinary operation, this is no everyday thrifting experience . . . it’s a show, to say the least. A competition, to be more blunt.

A speed thrift-shopping, go-karting and treasure-hunting experience all rolled into one. A full warehouse at the Barn is one thing, with shoppers lazily sorting here and digging there. But once a row of nine boats loses popularity or nine new boats await their debut, the regatta begins. Shoppers step back as staff wheel the picked-through bins out one door and whirl in a fresh batch through another: a meticulous circus of pandemonium.

The scene echoes a fancy dinner where the waiter whips around the corner with a dessert trolley. Shoppers stretch their necks, contort their positions and keep their eyes peeled for what they want, asking themselves what looks good and what they need to nab before someone else has the chance. Items aren’t up for grabs until all nine bins have been wheeled in, set in place and a staff member with an emergency-only bullhorn counts down, then casually yet suspensefully utters, “Go.” If you lose focus, you may lose your prize.

“It’s a livelihood for a lot of them,” says Alexa Olivas, director of donated goods for Goodwill Manasota. Translation: These thrifters don’t mess around. Hands grab a shirt, fingers quickly weave along the hems checking for rips while eyes search for a brand name. Arms balance a bundle of plates and lamps, Christmas decorations and pin cushions, rushing to a cart to secure their findings before returning to battle. It’s a cartoon commotion of bodies weaving in and out and body parts whipping to and fro, eventually easing to a respite before a new round begins.

With many shoppers coming in five to seven days a week to scour the latest items, many of whom have quit full-time jobs or chosen salvaging as their main source of income, it’s no surprise that the Bargain Barn has transformed into a tightly knit community, a workplace for staffers and shoppers alike. So much so that Tara Phillips, the site’s team lead coach, can rattle off her regulars and what they do with their finds. A husband-and-wife team only sorts through books, reselling them online and occasionally digging out hidden gems.

One woman makes art projects with the so-called junk she collects, returning to show off pictures of her latest creations to the staff and fellow shoppers. One man specifically salvages electronics, cashing in roughly $6,000 a week after repairing his finds. And then there are the retail regulars, like 17-year-old Nicole Stratford, a student at Braden River High School who visits the Barn two to three times per week, thrifting found clothing through her Instagram account (@goodwill.girl) for a hobby turned lucrative.

With no limits on age, background or skill, the Bargain Barn has become the new hub for income, hobbies, curiosity and creativity, open to anyone intrigued with what lies just below the surface. “It’s now hip to redo things,” says Olivas. Redo, repurpose, reclaim, even redefine what is valuable and valued. “It takes a little work,” she says. “You’ll have to get your hands dirty, but it’ll be worth it.” SRQ