What motivates the thrift store shopper? Unusual finds: a $99 satin bridal gown, a Justin Timberlake action figure for $6.97. Buyers save money and shop "green."

Then there's the mystery element: Who glued the whirl of seashells onto the crown of the straw hat? What sort of child would play the Bug-Off game with real bugs?

These items were for sale recently at Village Thrift Store on Fort Meade Road in Laurel, but they probably won't be there long. People pushing carts among racks of clothing, books, appliances and knickknacks were power-shopping, grabbing things they didn't necessarily intend to buy but didn't want to relinquish yet.

A gorgeous Papell Boutique jacket, with gold and black bugle beads on a red silk background, was only $7.90. But let your eyes wander to the black velvet English riding helmet (a little much at $12.90 and you don't ride, anyway), and the jacket is gone.

Sam Holmes of Laurel was browsing through golf shirts, wearing a shirt, pants and shoes he had found on another trip to the store. The racing enthusiast found a red shirt with a black and white checkerboard collar from the Beckley, W.Va., speedway's "Last Lap Lounge Staff."

"Oh, yeah, I'm a demon for speed," he said. Holmes, who works in construction and is hard on his clothes, buys all of his work outfits, including boots and jackets, at thrift stores. He has 30 pairs of never-worn shoes in his closet. "Every time I see something I like, I buy it. I buy sweat shirts in the summer and summer clothes in the winter. I'll go home and wash it, put an iron to it, and I'm ready to go."

With 20,000 square feet, Village Thrift offers an abundance of clothing, shoes and accessories for men, women and children, much of it arranged by color. The men's golf shirts hang in their own little rainbow, from oranges to reds to violets. A scarlet block of women's socks clashes boldly with a dangling crowd of pink ones. Like the clothing, the bargains are color-coded. Each day, items with tags of a certain color are half-price. On Mondays, all merchandise is 50 percent off.

A sign on the wall outlines the store's policy: "Every Item in This Store Could Be Priced Wrong. If the price is too low, buy it quick! If the price is too high, come back next week as prices are reduced weekly. Buy it when the price is acceptable to you. This is the only way prices can be changed in this store. Thank you. The Management."

"I like having 50 percent off the different colors," said Lynelle Hyvarinen of Laurel, who buys clothes for her two little girls, herself and her husband.

Even at full price, some things are too cool to pass up. For about 90 cents and up, a baseball cap buys you status as a member of the Boca Raton Resort & Club or the National Organization of Black Law Enforcers.

Milagros Hernandez of Langley Park and her four children, ages 2 to 12, left Village Thrift clutching two bags of goodies. Her daughter, 8, also named Milagros, found a puzzle featuring the Walt Disney Pictures character Aladdin, and her younger sister found a "big, huge teddy bear. And it was only a dollar!"

Carl and Carla Sanders of Lanham, who admit they're "hard-core thrift store junkies," were checking out books and clothes for their four teenagers. Carl Sanders, who teaches theology at Washington Bible College in Lanham, said he looks for theology texts but his interests are "pretty wide-ranging." He also sells some thrift store books online. "It's a good place to get good value."

For his wife, it's a fashion thing. "We've bought a lot of clothes here. I don't like the styles that teenagers wear today. They're too skimpy," she said. She buys dresses for her two teenage daughters to wear to church and recently picked up five Pierre Cardin dress shirts for her sons, bargains all. "My 15-year-old loves shopping at thrift stores for 'funky stuff,' " she said.

Laurel is a hot spot for thrift store shoppers, with at least five shops. The Teen Challenge Thrift Shop is actually two stores, one with modestly priced items and another, Repeats, where they cost a bit more. Sales from the nonprofit store go to the Teen Challenge rehabilitation program in Capitol Heights, which helps men conquer "life-controlling addictions," said executive administrative assistant Jeff Hunt.

The men work in the stores and attend classes and counseling sessions. Teen Challenge was rated among the top nine mid-Atlantic thrift stores in "Dirt Cheap, Real Good: A Highway Guide to Thrift Stores in the Washington, D.C., Area" (Capital Books).

Across the country, there are more than 20,000 resale, thrift and consignment shops, according to the National Association of Resale and Thrift Shops, founded in 1984 and serving 1,000 member stores. Value-seeking shoppers have made resale a multibillion-dollar-a-year business, with Goodwill Industries generating $1.2 billion in U.S. sales in 2003, the association said.

In May, the group launched a consumer electronic magazine, Resale Details, with articles about spring fashion and vintage linens. Subscriptions are available through the group's Web site: www.narts.org.

Who's doing all this shopping? Lots of people. A consumer research firm, America's Research Group, has said that 16 to 18 percent of Americans visit thrift shops each year, compared with 11.4 percent who shop at outlet malls, 19.6 percent who frequent apparel stores and 21.3 percent who buy at major department stores.

"You'll see all kinds of people in this store. Everybody gets along," said Jay Huggins, Village Thrift Store's general manager. The for-profit store buys most of its clothing from the Military Order of the Purple Heart, which uses the proceeds to fund its programs. It draws customers from as far away as Frederick; affiliated stores are in Bladensburg and Camp Springs.

What odd things have washed up on the shores of thrift? "I've seen everything under the sun," he said. "We had a shrunken monkey head once."

That particular "bargain" never made it to the shelves.

Village Thrift Store's hours in Laurel are 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.

Some other thrift stores in Prince George's County:

Goodwill Retail Store, 12655 Laurel-Bowie Road (Crystal Plaza Shopping Center, Route 197), Laurel. The store is scheduled to open by the end of this month. Call 202-636-4225 for the opening date.

Laurel Thrift Center, 9880 Washington Blvd. (Route 1), south of Whiskey Bottom Road, Laurel. 301-953-0090.

Salvation Army Thrift Stores, 3304 Kenilworth Ave., Hyattsville. 301-403-1705. 7505 New Hampshire Ave., Takoma Park. 301-431-0042.

St. Andrew's Thrift Corner, 4512 College Ave., College Park. Open Thursdays and Saturdays; closed in August. 301-864-8880.

Teen Challenge and Repeats, 13919 Baltimore Ave. (Route 1), south of Cherry Lane in the rear of a strip shopping center, Laurel. 301-617-4956.

Value Village, 6611 Annapolis Rd., Lanham. 301-341-4646.

Value Village, 2277 E. University Blvd., Adelphi. 301-422-2406.

Value Village, 4917 Allentown Rd., Suitland, across from Andrews Air Force Base. 301-967-0700.

Village Thrift, 4960 Annapolis Rd., Bladensburg. 301-277-3093.

Village Thrift, 6307 Allentown Rd. at Old Branch Avenue, Camp Springs. No phone service for incoming calls.

Village Thrift Store, 9644 Fort Meade Rd. (Route 198), Laurel. 301-776-9819 (pay phone only).

Joe Chroniger of Bowie works in the Teen Challenge Thrift Shop in Laurel, where sales help a rehabilitation program.