I started my love affair with op shops back in Grade 12, when I sprinted into our local St Vinnies to hide from some bullies. It was exactly like the scene in The NeverEnding Story, except that instead of a certain hardcover storybook altering my destiny, it was a burnt orange cardigan. The kingdom of my fashion was crumbling – after years of honouring surf and basketball brands, I felt the ‘nothing’ of realisation that I didn’t actually surf or play ball sports. As I buttoned up the cable-stitch wool blend of the home-knitted cardi, an aesthetic warmth flowed through my bones – finally, clothing that endorsed my real idols, Beck and John Lennon, and reflected my sensitive ‘raised by grandparents’ nature. I was home.

Ask anyone who was there, in the late nineties; the op shopping scene along the north-west coast of Tasmania was electric. We’re talking a strip of five small towns, four shops apiece, all brimming with Art Deco collectables fuelled by an army of fashionable seniors who were dropping like flies. It was a gold rush of vintage, before the word was even invented. Geometrical paisley ties – 20c. Press stud country shirts – $2. Three-piece pinstripe suits – not enough…AND you’d get change. Surpassing the financial ka-ching was the elation of pulling a chocolate-brown body shirt out of the rack and holding it aloft like a fisherman of thrift. After exposure to a swatch book of nineties vomit, the payoff of snaring a prized coat hanger of style was incomparable. The op shop held out its arms and wrapped me in a past more friendly and classy than my present, and spun me a rewards card of wholesome promise.

By the turn of the century I had moved to Canberra to study, and found the scene there to be weird, at best. While there was a plethora of deceased spinsters, there was also a leisure-trove of art-school hipsters protective of their ‘native racks.’ And now reports were flooding in about attacks on op shops back home. Tales of sharp-tongued fashionistas marching in, assaulting mannequins and bargaining down the price with such ferocity that retail biddies had to hide in the staff room for emergency morning tea. Rumour had it that garments were then being siphoned to big-city boutiques and given triple figure price tags. As incidents of metro-retro ram raids continued to swell, I kept my head and fingers down, landing myself the odd suit or Peter Russell-Clarke cookbook.

After graduating, I returned to my home village of Burnie for a brief holiday, but was rudely awakened. The normally chirpy ladies behind the counter were pale and edgy, their trembling hands wrapped hard around knitting needles. I only found one half-decent Bonds t-shirt and almost spat dust – they were asking $6! I used it to gently mop the tears that ran down my cheeks like liquid crochet.

Today, I find myself based in the indie dictatorship of Melbourne, where the streets are lined with a polyester plague of aggressively ironic scenesters. My last second-hand purchase was a seventies brown and white checked sports jacket. It cost $70. I stared into space as a humourless waif filled out my lay-by form. For a fisherman of thrift, this was how it felt to visit a trout farm, then sleep with a prostitute.

Our retro obsession has pushed vintage into the mainstream, putting an enormous strain on an industry that hasn’t produced anything since the late seventies. For now, op shopping in the city is dead, but there are still secret bargain ‘breaks’ out in the country. These little stores must now fight against a problem greater than any price rise – the nineties plague.