San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Look who’s shopping at the ropa americana

Used-clothing stores, known locally as ropas americanas, are more numerous than ever. There are at least six around the bus station in Alajuela, northwest of the capital, to tempt those who have time to spend before the bus leaves. That’s how I found my nifty white fitted jacket and cargo pants. San José, too, sprouts new shops all the time, especially near bus stations.

Supposedly these stores cater to the lower end of the economic scale, but some draw in classy clientele with ropa seleccionada, or strictly first-class used stuff. Combo Combo, one of the “select” chains, has huge parking lots at its stores to draw in upscale customers. The truth is everybody shops in the “ropas.”

There was a time when used clothes or hand-me-downs were a source of shame. I remember the skirts and sweaters passed down from my cousin Marge; while my mother was busy thanking my aunt for her generous gift, cousin Marge was pointing out all the moth holes and stains. It was a long while before I overcame that image and felt comfortable entering a ropa americana.

I have since discovered the joy of finding bargains like a Talbots dress for $2, Abercrombie & Fitch pants and shirts, jeans with names like Jordache and Calvin Klein on the fanny, Gap T-shirts and other brand-name items. But shoppers, beware: Some items are well-worn or in bad condition, though one also finds new and near-new clothes, possibly with a small defect like a loose button or missing stitches. One is always assured of finding something to gloat about among the racks.

During the hot days of April, I went looking for a pair of shorts and found just what I wanted: Nike golf shorts. I brought them home, tried them on and behold, there was a U.S. nickel in the pocket. I later heard of someone who found a $10 bill in the pocket of some pants from a used-clothing shop, and also that in some stores the employees now check the pockets before putting out the clothes. Finders, keepers.

One lucky customer found my friend Rosa’s watch while going through the bins of bedding. It had slipped off her wrist while she was doing the same.

Everyone shops in the ropas americanas, and it has become a point of pride to display one’s success stories. When I went to meet a lawyer friend in San José, she strolled over from the courthouse in a royal blue coat-style dress that caused heads to turn. “It’s from a ropa americana,” she replied to my compliment.

Denise wore a beige pinstriped pants suit to a té de canastilla, or baby shower. “It’s from a ropa americana,” she announced to the gathered guests. Ana’s Madeira tablecloth? “It’s from a ropa americana.” Diego’s corduroy jeans? “From a ropa americana.”

The clothes are shipped from the United States and Europe in 100-pound pacas, or bales, that you can order right off the Internet. Stores announce ahead of time when they open up new pacas, usually on Saturday mornings when the shopping is at its peak. Eager buyers snap up the new used merchandise.

Customers frequent the ropas for many reasons. A regular visitor from New York extends her summer wardrobe in the used-clothing shops. An expat artist buys used clothes for working on ceramics. For camping or gardening, it makes sense to seek out oldies, and for bargain hunters, it’s a hobby. My all-time favorite outfit was a safari-type shirt and shorts that I proudly wore on a beach excursion. “It’s from a ropa americana,” I told everyone. Sadly, though, the black-and-white cat-shaped pillow I admired in a store window for a week went to someone else.

It’s no longer embarrassing to shop in used-clothing shops, when you spy your smart-set neighbor one aisle over mulling through the racks. It would hardly surprise us to hear President Laura Chinchilla at some top-drawer event explain to TV audiences that her dress is “from a ropa americana.”

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