Nifty, Thrifty, Gifty

One person's junk can be a little kid's treasure.

If you have nieces, nephews, godchildren, or other significant small people between the ages of 3 and 9, you know how hard they can be to shop for. Kids this age are too old to be charmed by cute baby accoutrements, too young to be bought off with cash or gift certificates. They have strong passions—Bionicles or Barbies or Bratz—but manage to procure these things at such an astonishing rate that unless you're in daily contact with the kids, you can't be sure what they already have and what they still want.

You'd like to find something one of a kind and sure to please, but not wildly expensive. Forget Toys R Us; it's a mind-numbing dead end. Instead, consider one of Seattle's many thrift shops, where you can assemble unique presents little kids will appreciate for $10 to $25. As a bonus, these gifts come without all the landfill-destined packaging attached to new toys, and often (as at Goodwill and St. Vincent de Paul) their purchase contributes to a good cause.

One rule before you start: Think in sets. A feather boa, a Hawaiian shirt, a lab coat, and a fedora may be four random items on their own, but put them in a suitcase and you have the beginnings of a costume trunk. Preschool and school-aged kids love things that go together and things that go inside other things. It gives them the joy of discovery, and the delightful prospect of adding to their "collection" as time goes by.

Here are five ideas sparked by a one-hour trip to Seattle Goodwill. But go yourself to your own local thrift shop—Goodwill, Value Village, St. Vincent de Paul, or one of the many neighborhood charity or independent stores—because you'll never know what treasures you'll find till you get there.

Teddy Bear's Picnic

"If you go down in the woods today, you're sure of a big surprise." Lots of kids know and love this Jimmy Kennedy song and would like nothing better than to act it out with their friends, siblings, or a particularly indulgent adult. Finding the requisite items was a snap: a red-gingham-lined picnic basket ($3.99); two espresso cups and saucers (just the right size for little hands; 99 cents apiece); a brightly flowered tablecloth ($1.99); and two like-new teddies (one Gund and one Beanie Baby, the latter with the tag still on; two for 99 cents). Price: under $10.

Costume Trunk

Grab either a suitcase ($5.99) or a trunk (a particularly bright and shiny one can be had for $14.99), and stuff it full of the most bizarre items you can find on the clothes racks. In just a few minutes I located a Victorian queen costume ($7.99), a bunch of hats (Mickey Mouse ears, a bridal hat with a veil, and something vaguely Tyrolean; 99 cents to $5.99), and a fringed flapper dress ($19.99). Don't overlook the pajama rack, where I found a beautiful white kimono with red flowers ($5.99). Your items don't have to be the right size (big is more "grown up"), but be careful, because the prices can really add up. The find of my day: an honest-to-God rabbit-fur bolero in a super-small size that any girl without an animal-rights issue would love ($59.99). Price: $20 and up.

Sports Duffle

A lot of the sporting equipment at Goodwill is well used, but I spotted enough gems to fill a small black duffle ($2.99). Look for especially small items that kids have grown out of and abandoned quickly, such as baseball mitts ($2.99) and tennis rackets ($1.99). I also found a kid's golf bag in mint condition ($2.99), though all the clubs were banged up. If you live anywhere near a Play It Again Sports, you might be in business. Price range: $10–$15.

Book Bag

Children with older brothers and sisters are fascinated by school; it takes some of them almost an entire year of kindergarten to figure out that attendance is not optional (and not always desirable). So if your little someone is under 6, consider a school bag filled with "homework." I found an adorable miniature black vinyl backpack with flowers and ladybugs on it for $1.99, and, for boys or no-frills girls, a brand-new bike-messenger-style shoulder bag in bright green and blue for $3.99. Board books—many in perfect condition—are only 79 cents apiece, so you can afford a handful. Price: under $10.

Little Lady's Purse

Even older girls (like, in their 30s) would like one of the black patent leather or leopard print handbags I saw at Goodwill, just for fun ($5.99). Stuff one full of $10 worth of shiny costume jewelry and make a little girl's day. Price: $15–$20.

Other ideas

In a pinch, thrift stores can also be good stops for grab-and-go kids' shopping: Books, videos, DVDs, and jigsaw puzzles (many unopened) are dirt cheap. Also look for seasonal clothing—skiwear and raincoats that kids have only worn for one season before growing out of them. Finally, consider giving your charge a thrift-store shopping spree—10 bucks and a promise that you will ferry them to the nearest one, where they can pick out anything they want in the toy aisle. Just be prepared to wait while they inspect every last thing on the shelf. Unlike most stores, there's no "hands-off" rule at most secondhand shops—just one more reason they're the perfect place for kids.

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