A $25 Chanel suit? Coco would cringe. "We also have Chanel shorts sets and Jones New York and Donna Karan suits for 25 bucks or less," says Mary Cochran, Goodwill's vice-president of contributed goods, about Goodwill Stuyvesant Square (1704 Second Avenue, near 88th Street; 831-1830), a label lover's haven with Calvin this and Lauren that at prices that skim the single digits.
Fresh stock pours in almost daily, much of it Upper East Side drop-offs -- hence the fine frocks. "Starting September 1, we'll be full of furs," Cochran says. "Priced from $100 to $3,000." (Anything over $1,000 comes with an appraisal.) And if your new find has an unseen flaw, return it within five days, receipt and tags attached, for a store credit. "We want you to be a happy customer," Cochran says. You will be. Because on any given day, you could have a $9.99 Bill Blass blazer, a $3.99 Vittadini sweater, and a Geena Davis sighting.
Forget your standard shopping scene, where dazed men sit, slumped, while their wives frolic through the racks. This is a co-ed sport, where he or she with the most discriminating taste -- and quickest reflexes -- wins. On two floors, roughly 10,000 square feet, near-new designer duds are neatly sorted: shirt row, slacks row, suit row. Nestled between two flammable Fred Sanford suits is an unscathed $24.99 Barneys glen plaid so perfect you'd frisk it for tags. Or assemble a prep-school-ready outfit for all of $20: a Paul Stuart charcoal wool blazer ($6.99), Perry Ellis khakis ($7.99), a white Brooks Brothers oxford ($2.99), and a $1.99 red Dior tie -- sans soup stains. Shoppers of all stripes are advised to come on a sunny day. When it rains, the city will be swarming with recovering retail rats.
"I don't even retail-shop anymore," says a twentyish gallugging a Louis XVI-style antique settee, white with burgundy velvet, up Tenth Avenue, snatched during her weekly jaunt at . . . the Salvation Army? (536 West 46th Street; 757-2311.) Price: $80. Clutching her furniture find, she begs me not to write about the store: "Now my bargain hunting's ruined."
To antiques aficionados on a budget, it's the antidote to pricey dealers. Strike it right, and acquire a decent baroque bureau ($119.99), a charming roll-top desk ($189.99), or twin marble-top end tables with gilded bases ($299.99 for the pair). In a sea of orphaned couches -- velvets, leathers, cottons -- a blue-and-white pin-striped Sealy sofa bed and a matching love seat are tagged at $259.99 for both. Rove through a clutch of tables and chairs, all near $50, and rugs, like a twelve-by-sixteen yellow floral needlepoint ($219.99), one sixth the cost of its sister hawked at a recent estate auction. Prices plummet 25 percent after 30 days for furniture, 50 percent for clothing; regular specials are negotiable.
An otherwise squeamish rack-shopper, I comb, giddy, through a maze of $4.99 DKNY blouses and $34.99 Armani suits, and snatch a $10 Tahari -- overstock, fresh from a retailer, with tags attached. Amid timeless items -- a pearly wedding gown lurks in one corner, Gulden's-colored retrowear in another -- are comfy 501s ($6.99) and evening dresses ($14.99). About 3,600 items arrive daily, and selected goods drop in price by 50 percent every week. Here, you could even get away without checking for spots and rips -- store manager Willie Tevenal assures me that if it's torn, "we wouldn't even put it on the floor."
The 46th Street store is the largest Salvation Army site in town (4,500 square feet), above the organization's warehouse, and the only one that takes furniture drop-offs, so it gets first dibs. Some pieces may need a little TLC -- a missing cushion replaced, a jagged edge fixed. With wear and tear, however, comes authenticity -- which is why movie sets (Carlito's Way; She's the One) are often furnished here.
After Derrick Kardos scoured his local thrifts to replace a recently deceased desk chair, he arrived here a bruised skeptic. "All the local stores had were pantsuits, flip-flops, and an old Atari game," he says. Eyeing a black leather Charlie's Angels-esque throne ($34.99), he smiles. "It's exactly what I envisioned," he says. "Really cushy." And how does it look at home in his 3rd Street pad, furnished with red shag rug, velvet couch, and disco ball? "I lounge in it constantly. It looks like a drag queen walked in here and exploded. People think I'm subletting from Cher. When my friends come over, they envy me because I look like a king." Salvation indeed.