Until recently, Christina Jenkins had never shopped in a thrift store, never even considered it. Then gas prices sailed past the $4-a-gallon mark without even blinking.

Until recently, Christina Jenkins had never shopped in a thrift store, never even considered it. Then gas prices sailed past the $4-a-gallon mark without even blinking.

"I am now!" says the White City woman, laughing.

Holding a camping tarp she'd priced at $69.95 in a retail store, she was delighted to have found it for $6.99 in the White City Goodwill store, which recently tripled in size to 7,400 square feet.

"It took me a while to get up the nerve to come in here" and buy used, she acknowledges. But the difference in the cost of the tarp is "going right in my gas tank," she says, delighted.

Spending is flat at their Rogue Valley stores, say officials at both Goodwill and the Salvation Army, but interest is growing broader with declining disposable cash and soaring gas prices.

Gas prices are definitely driving the increase in sales at the two area Salvation Army thrift stores, and buyers are focusing on smaller-ticket items, especially clothing and kitchenwares, says supervisor of stores Debbie Hawkins.

"By the time people fill the tank and buy food, they have no money left to buy a couch. But everyone needs clothes," says Hawkins. "It's gas prices. People can't afford to go anywhere. They have to make cuts where possible. They can't cut food and they need gas to get to work."

Some thrift stores are off the beaten path, further crimping the gasoline budget. The White City Goodwill is out of the way for many, though it is served by a bus stop.

Kathy Ironside, manager of the new store, says shopper interest is high, donations have improved (over the old store) and "a lot of people comment that things are tough everywhere and this is the only place they can shop — plus it's fun looking for treasures."

Jimmie Sue Robinson of Phoenix justified her trip there recently because her favorite hairdresser works near the store — and the trip netted her a sharp-looking beach mat for $2.99 (likely $7 retail, she says), a lawn sprinkler, still in the package, for $2.99 (likely $8 retail) and scrapbook supplies still bearing the retail tag at twice the Goodwill amount.

"You have to try to get as much done on one trip as you can," says Robinson, who just bought an older Honda Accord for the good gas mileage and has semi-retired the gas-hungry family pickup and SUV.

Susie Lewis, Goodwill vice president for retail operations, says that while many people have been committed to thrifts for decades, many more are learning the habit. A recent TV show detailing how to buy thrift-store clothes, often with designer labels, helped.

"We've got lots of Liz Claiborne, Franco Sarto, Tommy Hilfiger and, if you look, you get them for $4.99 or a few dollars more," she says.

"Instead of $50 or $60, you're paying 5 or 10 percent of that," says Erin Williams, Goodwill marketing manager, "and 75 percent of retail revenue goes directly into funding programs (for the disabled)."

Still, Lewis notes, pointing to gas prices, "we used to have customers that would come every day because new things go out on the floor every day, but now it's more like once a week. It affects us."

The ARC (Advocates for the Developmentally Disabled) of Jackson County has noticed that trend in the store it operates on Medford's Central Avenue as well, says Trish Pelzel, executive director. Customer traffic is down because donations have dropped, she notes.

"If you're not buying new things, you have less to give away," says Pelzel. "We get about the same number of customers, but they're buying only what they really need, not the cute knickknacks."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.