The allure of the dollar store first exerted itself over me during a brief stint in New York as a college intern. I was living in a cramped apartment during the boiling summer months with three other girls. To round out our metropolitan lifestyle, we did all our grocery shopping at the local dollar store: bricks of orange cheese, bags of pasta, cans of beans. Every dollar saved was a dollar that could be converted into forties of malt liquor. We discussed money in this manner: “Are you sure you want to buy that? It’s worth five forties.” It was like we were our own country and our currency was being stupid and drinking cheap beer.
When you shop at a dollar store for staples, you develop strategies: skip things like tools, pots, and pans, which are better thrifted. The corn flakes are almost always better than the other kinds of generic cereal. Buy toilet paper, paper towels, and aspirin, but forgo the hemorrhoid towel or pregnancy test in favor of an appointment at the local clinic. Never shop at the dollar store drunk. That’s when you end up buying 10 packs of toothbrushes that smell like gasoline.
These strategies served me well my first couple years in San Francisco – until I graduated to Trader Joe’s and boutique grocery stores that sell $14 chocolate bars and fresh produce. But whenever I pass a dollar store, I still find myself drifting in. I'm attracted by the pull of the bargain, but also the thrill of discovery. Because dollar stores traffic in volume – mixed in with the Technicolor laundry detergent and walls of toilet paper rolls wrapped in pink tissue – there is a lot of weird stuff to be found.
I recently ventured out to take stock of the stock at my favorite dollar stores by neighborhood. Here’s what I uncovered.
On Divisadero Street you will find two dollar stores within blocks of one another: the 97 Cents Plus store at McAllister and the Dollar General & Discount at Fulton. These shops represent your bare-bones dollar store experience. They exist to offer you everything they can for 100 pennies, including things that you should avoid buying that cheaply, like acne medication and saws.
At 97 Cents Plus, everything is, in fact, 97 cents unless marked otherwise. With tax, that clocks in at $1.05. I know, because I bought a miniature California state flag for this amount. You will also find thongs emblazoned with the legend “Sweet Whispers” and lots of socks. Wallet-conscious orgy hosts may appreciate the high volume of party decorations and Mardi Gras masks.
It is a sign of the times that at many dollar stores most things cost more than a dollar. At the expansive Dollar General & Discount, items ring up around $1.25. Upon entering, I was greeted by a treasure trove of dirt-cheap oddities, such as a Ronald Reagan biography on CD whose cover proclaimed, “In these troubled times, his easy charm and no-nonsense politics are a safe harbor.” I also found a dinosaur-themed bingo game and an oddly specific “Happy 90th Birthday” card. You can score a hot plate called the “Cookinex Better Lifestyle” here for $15.99, a giant pair of bolt cutters for $10, and Polaroid photo paper for $1.29. Safe bets include cute jar labels, cow-shaped bag clips, and tennis balls. Skip the homeopathic YeastGard vaginal suppositories. I live by few credos, but one of them is “If you are going to pay to put something in your vagina, it should cost more than a dollar.”
One attacks most dollar stores with a savvy pick-and-choose mentality, but at Japan Center’s Daiso and Ichiban Kan, the experience is much different. You travel to the brink of restraint and return clutching erasers shaped like sushi and salad-flavored snack sticks.
These stores peddle goods imported from Japan, and everything is so relentlessly cute that it’s easy to fill a shopping basket to the brim before you’ve even hit the back of the shop. On a recent trip I wasn’t the only shopper squealing over merchandise. A pink dustpan with a smiley face carved into it? Why not! A microfiber duster shaped like a hedgehog? Yeah, I probably need that. I can’t imagine when I would ever need to use whiteout, but if I was going to, I would like it to spew forth from the mouth of a tiny duckling. The stores offer more practical (but still adorable) items, as well: bookends shaped like apples, wrapping paper, ribbons, and tape that titillated my inner Martha Stewart, powerful kitchen magnets, and twee dishware. And, of course, there are the more eclectic items: “We’re just a heartbeat away,” reads the legend on a pack of disposable panties. “The touch could make it happen. We can reach the other side if we hold on to the passion.” Hold on to the passion – not the panties.
For sheer dollar store volume, you cannot beat Mission Street between 24th and 16th. These stores, like their brethren on Divisadero, truck in practical items: dirt-cheap office and school supplies, cleansers, and foodstuffs. But they also offer some of the most curious discoveries: at One $ Only, a patron can purchase a bejeweled black baseball hat (or 10). At the simply named One $ Store, I unearthed a piggy bank shaped like a giant beer can decorated with the image of a hundred dollar bill. At Giant Value, animal lovers can walk away with statuettes in the shape of Chihuahuas, roosters, parrots (one of which is perched on half a basketball that serves as a bowl for dip), elephants, horses, patriotic eagles, frogs (acting out the "See No Evil" pantomimes usually delegated to chimpanzees), and a giant scary blue teddy bear holding a tiny baby aloft. In fact, there are a lot of babies for sale on the shelves of Mission dollar stores: babies riding in humanoid cars, babies riding on elephants, babies playing in the snow, and baby angels, which seem a bit morbid. Mission dollar stores are also where pop cultural castaways wash ashore: Indiana Jones Valentine's Day cards (from the fourth movie), all the Cars items you could want, and Hannah Montana as far as the eye can see. In fact, the only one who is edging Hannah Montana out for shelf space is Jesus. Jesus manifests on towels, wall hangings, key chains, air fresheners, and clocks – He truly is everywhere, and for just (about) a dollar.
Don't be tempted by the extreme dollar store bargain: If it seems too good to be true, then it probably is. Stock up on the basics like paper towels and toilet paper. Need a last-minute gift? Ichiban Kan and Daiso are your friends. Never buy party supplies for full price again. And a word to the wise: The extreme smell of cheap plastic that hangs over many a dollar store can give you a headache.