no, a fanatical -- thrift store shopper.

So avid, in fact, that the Fairfax County adult education teacher is now leading thrift shop tours to show other Northern Virginia bargain hunters where and how to get the best buys.

"It's addictive," said Meadows, who holds a master's degree in education and psychology. "Anybody who tries it gets hooked.

"The lucky thing is that it doesn't cost much," she added. "Any other habit like this you couldn't afford."

Meadows is one of what area thrift store managers say is a growing crowd of affluent customers spurning exorbitant department store prices for the bargain basement thrifts.

"Our clientele ranges from subsidized-housing tenants to people who drive up in chauffeured Mercedes and Cadillacs," noted Reginald Clark, assistant manager of a huge Amvet thrift store in Alexandria, where brand new crew socks were going for 94 cents.

"Thrift store shopping is no longer limited to the low income," said Meadows. "Now people start out shopping for antiques, household items and collectibles, and it's breaking down the stigma.

"At a thrift store, you sort, cull, take your time, and anything you find is infinitely affordable."

Experienced thrift store shoppers love to regale their friends with tales of their latest bargain finds.

Dorothy Stringer furnished her daughter's entire apartment in southern California for $850 from thrifts, including a $150 wicker sofa priced at $1,200 in a regular store.

"We stayed at a motel, rented a car and found everything she needed in two days," said Stringer, who also coordinates adult education for Fairfax County. The finds included an entire set of silverware for $1.

Pat Berlin, a fiber and print artist from McLean, gleans treasures -- buttons, fur, old postcards and bits of cloth -- for her collages and soft sculptures from local thrifts.

She also buys practically all her grandchildren's clothes at bargain basement prices. "The other day at Amvet's, I got seven hats, two pairs of gloves, six good tops, and a pair of flannel lined slacks. Total, $11," she said proudly.

Berlin, who's been shopping the thrifts for 30 years, has found some method to the madness. "You do have to develop an eye to get through all the junk fast, and since the little treasures don't come in every week, you have to go back at least once a month," she said.

"I used to feel a little embarrassed because it was only poor people," she added. "But, now, it's everybody. A new thrift store is a closely guarded secret, whispered among friends: 'You got a new one? Where, where?'

"I refuse to go in department stores anymore, the prices are so outrageous," said Berlin. "I found a Gloria Vanderbilt sweater at Amvet's for $4, and I'll be darned if I'd go into a department store and pay $80 for the same thing."

Jina Ames' favorite thrift shop purchase was an elephant hair and 18-carat gold necklace that she bought for $18 and later had appraised for $180.

"It came from Africa, and they didn't have any idea what it was worth," said Ames, a McLean carpet store owner who frequents her favorite thrifts at least once a week.

Ames buys much of her wardrobe at the slightly more upscale vintage clothing outlets in the area. But her home, she said, was furnished mostly from thrifts. "I think my house looks great, and it's full of junk."

Meadows has a strict series of rules that she imparts on her bus tour of Alexandria thrifts. (The class, at $9 tuition, was overbooked last month and will be offered again this spring.)

Among her thrift shop tips:

Bring a tape measure and measurements for all family members, since many thrifts lack changing rooms and size labels on clothes.

List needed household and clothing items "so the bigger thrift shops don't overwhelm you."

Check for a basement or attic markdown room. Prices often are slashed if the merchandise remains unsold for more than a month.

Orient yourself by surveying the perimeter of each shop, where accessories, furniture and appliances are found. Then "catch your breath and dive into the clothing."

Meadows notes that thrift store merchandise, which is donated, is generally not quite as good as -- but often much cheaper than -- clothing found at consignment shops, where the owner sets the price and gets a cut of the profits.

Once inside a thrift store, Meadows is an absolute demon of a shopper, picking over nearly every item with an almost fiery determination.

At the Treasure Trove in McLean, a consignment shop benefiting Fairfax Hospital, she quickly paced the outskirts of the store for jewelry, purses and household items.

"Always check the walls for prints," she said, moving rapidly down the aisles. "One thing you always find in thrift stores is yogurt makers. Nobody ever keeps them," she added, moving on to small appliances.

Downstairs in the markdown room she reluctantly passed over a Saks Fifth Avenue purple wool coat tagged at $8, gazes longingly at a wool and linen plaid dress made in Ireland and marked at $6.75. "Not long enough," she said, holding it up to a mirror.

"I can't believe it, 50 cents," said a fashionably dressed woman holding up an immaculate striped blue jacket. There was an L.L. Bean plaid wool shirt for 25 cents and, back upstairs, a Botany 500 three piece pinstripe suit for $16.50.

Managers of Amvet's and the Village Thrift Store, also in Alexandria, declined to discuss their annual profit level. But Rose Keene, director of volunteer services for Fairfax Hospital, said the Treasure Trove in McLean raised $83,000 last year alone.

As well as aiding good causes and filling her closets, Meadows thinks thrift shopping is just plain fun. "So what if you take something home and it's too tight. You can take it to a consignment store and at least get your money out.

"Realize you're gonna make some bummers, but don't get hung up on something you spent $1.50 for," she said.