It was past midnight re-cently when Al Hoff awoke to a commotion downstairs in her Pittsburgh home. But she only thought the noise was an intruder for a moment. Living in a house full of "junk" -- that's her word -- she knows boxes full of stuff like HMO ashtrays, T-shirts from dead sports teams or jigsaw puzzles featuring 18 wheelers, are apt to come tumbling down. Since she was a kid, Hoff has rummaged through rejected goods in the fluorescent world of thrift stores. Even with a bloated bladder, the result of the coffee that fuels her and the lack of bathrooms in thrift stores, she's patiently and even deviously scored products ranging from hand-painted paper lanterns to a Loni Anderson, tube-shaped trash can. She started thrifting in the early '80s to find clothes that would establish her as the "class weirdo" at the Catholic school she attended in her home town of San Francisco. But the more she shopped, the more she needed to shop. On days she couldn't thrift any cool clothes, she'd buy a blue frosted glass to make herself feel better. But buying one meant she had to complete the blue set. Having the blue set meant she had to have the orange set. And their matching pitchers. You get the idea.Buying a dice footstool meant she had to find another. Couple that with what she calls "thrift karma," like finding the second footstool lying on the side of a highway (free is the best price), and her mere interest evolved into an obsession.And now Hoff, at age 33, may well become the country's foremost thrifting expert. Prodded by friends, she started a zine, "Thrift SCORE," in 1994 despite an initial reluctance. "I told them I don't want a tattoo and I don't want a zine," says Hoff. But she did want to form a network of thrifters, so her writing (and publishing) career began.Her heavy use of italics, exclamation points and all-capital-letter words reflects her enthusiasm and knack for consumer humor. "The Denim Issue" includes two different photos of a male pelvis in tight jeans. One caption reads "Can you identify this '70s teen idol?" and the other, "I feel like bustin' loose!" But she alerts readers about an article she saw tracing low sperm count to wearing tight jeans in a special piece about the health risks of wearing clothes from the '70s.Within a few issues, the zine was going to Europe, El Salvador and Mexico. Rumors of its existence were circulating in Ireland as well. It was after Tower Records started distributing it that it was spotted by an editor from HarperPerennial."The word was that I was underground," she says, slightly amused with the confusion thrifting causes the upper classes. "The suits [at the publishing house] were like crazy. So I was briefly underground." The book that Hoff subsequently penned for the publisher carries the same name as her zine: Thrift Score.In Thrift Score Hoff documents trends, like the saga of the polyester shirt ("filled with near-death escapes and hair pin turns"). The book also includes advice, including how to use a muumuu as a portable dressing room, or how men can put on a skirt and try on pants underneath (thrift stores don't always have dressing rooms). And she offers encouragement by repeatedly reminding thrifters that they'll never see the other customers in the store again.Hoff herself has collected everything without the benefit of a drivers license. Buying a weird lamp is one thing, carrying it home on a bus is another. The book's dedication reads: "To everyone who's ever laughed at me."The Vicki Lawrence show recently came with an entire film crew to shoot her house, and in thrift circles Hoff has become a celebrity of sorts. She describes a recent trip to a thrift store she's been to many times before: "The clerks all kinda gathered around me with these really weird smiles. Offered to let me use the bathroom and everything."Hoff doesn't talk much as she shows you around her house, knowing everyone gets pretty quiet trying to comprehend the sheer volume and variety of junk she has, but like she says, "Any hard-core thrifter knows, six is better than one. I don't need 400 glasses but I have them."There's a stack of polyester shirts hanging over a banister. But if they're good enough for the Museum of Modern Mythology in San Francisco (in a show titled "100 % Polyester: Shirts of Art From the Palette of Science"), they're good enough for her front hallway.They say clutter swells to fill the available room - Hoff's imagination has expanded to find ways to use things. An old General Electric television functions as an end table. Herb Alpert album covers are used for ceiling tiles in the kitchen. Bowling balls sparkle on the back lawn. The "Hall of Sorrow" features wall-to-wall "big-eyed" paintings from the '70s. There are big-eyed animals, ballerinas and even two big-eyed kids playing guitar who look like Lennon and McCartney. But she's more concerned with buying than decorating. "I just want to be surrounded by cool things," she saysWhen anti-thrifters, who she also calls "nose-wrinklers," ask about how gross it would be to buy clothes someone died in, Hoff asks, "Even if someone famous died in them?" But in the book there's a photo of men's underwear with this caption: "This is ... quite frankly where many thrifters draw the line."There is some method to Hoff's thrifting madness: "Cool collecting means you'll accept things in any condition. You've gone too far if you'll pay any price." This hints at a dark cloud on the thrifting horizon - collectors. Hoff calls them "people with too much money." When they start obsessing over thrift items, Hoff worries.The whole point of thrifting is to find really cool shit really cheap. The creation of false collector markets (also documented in the book) or the sad resurgence of a trend like disco, drive the cost of certain items up. Hoff refuses to participate, "I'm not going to sell a stupid old beat-up lunch box for $200." But she and other thrifters often trade things, even hold swap meets.Thrifting is not about making money. It's partially about saving money ("so you can save money for things you have to buy new, like beer"), but to Hoff, thrifting embodies the realm of want.She never attempts to tell us what void she's trying to fill - only tips on how to do it cheap and have a blast in the process. She offers full instructions, including recipes and musical selections, to have a Bicentennial get-together so you can "Party like it's 1976!"The ultimate sign of Hoff's success will be that glorious day she spots her own book on the shelf of a thrift store. Until then, dedicated thrifters who want a copy of Thrift Score will have to do something they've sworn against: pay retail.Kathy Jo Kramer is a Pittsburgh-based free-lance writer with a predominately thrifted wardrobe.***SIDEBAR ONE:The Unbearable Lightness of ThriftingAl HoffPittsburgh City PaperTHIS SIDEBAR CAN BE USED ONLY WITH THE ATTACHED TAGLINE AND WITH THE PRIOR CONSENT OF HARPERPERRENIAL; CALL MATTHEW BALLAST AT 212/207-7587 FOR PERMISSION.In your life, you'll have to deal with the nonbe- lievers, those who don't understand something as "icky" as thrifting. Some shoppers downplay the fact that they thrift, and you're under no obligation to reveal where or how you got good stuff. I take the opposite tack. I don't wait two seconds to say I thrifted something. I'm proud of every piece of crap I've bought....We're clear on why we want to thrift, but look at these silly reasons other people give us not to thrift: "Thrifts smell." Big whoop, lots of life smells funny. Next. "Thrifts are full of weirdoes." Weirdoes are everywhere. "Thrifts are in bad neighborhoods." Some are, but most aren't. "Thrifts are noisy." So's the mall.We are all trained to consume and enjoy it. Folks aren't joking when they list shopping as a hobby. And what is thrifting? Why, nothing more than mass consumption at another venue! I've had visitors to my packed-to-the-rafters house admire how "political" and "antisystem" I am for rejecting consumer culture. Au contraire I say. I shop a lot. I probably shop more than the average American. And guess what: I hardly need any of it! I'm the worst kind of overconsumer. Just because I'm buying from the discard pile doesn't mean I've rejected the evil pleasure of acquisition. There is no guarantee of what may turn up, so it's foolish to keep your list [of what you need at the thrift store] too low. Let it spiral out of control! People who thrift with me for the first time are always stunned at how much stuff I find. My secret is not in my commonsense thrifting skills. No, my method is in my madness - I have a list a mile long. Essentially, I "need" everything (except miniblinds). My cart is always full, and some desire is therefore always sated.The more you want, the more you'll thrift! The more you desire, the more you'll thrift! The more you thrift, the more you'll desire and add to your list. If it sounds like some sort of self-perpetuating, self-delusional justification for filling your home with society's flotsam and jetsam - well, it is. So what? Let other people worry about your mental health and what a fire hazard your pad is. You've got stuff to buy. Each new dying fad brings another wave of crap ashore in thriftland. Thrifters get to scavenge among the remains, marvel at past folly, pick out what we wish to keep, and perhaps even use it for another round of fun. Thrifters can use the fad as a framework to search out various items singly that can be compiled in your home as a cultural unit. A fad will often cast its merchandising net across may spheres. The CB radio fad gave us clothing, books, records, glassware and toys. In the thrift store, each of those items would be found in its own distinct area, but in your home, you can assemble them on a shelf or in a corner and get the big wide-screen image of the fad.Excerpts from Thrift Score, by Al Hoff. Reprinted by arrangement with HarperPerennial, a division of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.By Al Hoff***SIDEBAR TWO:Thrift Karma: The Egg and IAl HoffPittsburgh City PaperEd's note: In her most recent zine, Hoff includes this story with the caveat that she had hesitations about telling the tale "because it involves (possible) large sums of money (truly that's not why I thrift at all) and it skirts dangerously close to the extra-dumb question too many non-thrifters ask me again and again, "Do you find anything really valuable? ..."I can't help but recall a fabulous score I made in the Winter of '96 ... a pal, new to Pitts- burgh, had his girlfriend visit for the weekend. He wanted to impress her and asked if we could all go thrifting, hitting some of our "secret" haunts. Our pleasure, and a date was set for Saturday. ... It arrived and was it cold. I mean, COLD. The expected high for the day was 4. Some 28 degrees below freezing. A major dilemma arose. Four of us and only three seats in our pickup truck. I, deferring to the out-of-towners, offered to sit in the back. I put on several coats, dug out an old sleeping bag and got as comfortable as I could on the flatbed of a pickup truck filled with greasy auto parts.I continue to "behave well" at the first thrift. I purposely held back, letting the visitors scope out areas first. (Actually I got pre-occupied looking for wool socks anyhow - my feet were really cold.) My karma points were up so high (I think, relative to the air temperature) that we were only at the second thrift when I scored big. An awesome looking outerspace swively chair with the kookiest amoebae patterned googie fabric. It was shaped like 2/3 of a cracked egg shell. These boomerang-type wings whipped around the occupant's head. $6.96. I was there.The chair went in the back of the pickup where I attempted to "nest" in it. When we hit the first steep corner, the ball bearings in the swivel base came to life and literally flung me across the truck bed onto a dead muffler where I lay trapped in my sleeping bag cocoon with this new chair pinning me from behind. I continued to remain game.I was pleased with the purchase, but the universe had not yet revealed the magnitude of the score. ... A month later I was at the library flipping through a copy of Metropolitan Home [and saw] the weird chair I'd recently bought. ... Close scrutiny revealed a small tag that confirmed was an Arne Jacobsen Egg Chair. Knowing I was risking future good karma by secretly gloating, I nonetheless could not resist calling up the furniture store listed in Met Home and asking them how much for an Egg Chair. The salesmen talked for a long time about the chair in general ... I knew the longer he prefaced the price with chatter, the more expensive it was going to be. Finally he delivered the money shot - he had an Egg Chair in stock - $1,600.00. I thanked him for his time and hung up laughing hysterically.OK - so I accidentally bought an expensive art chair ... I bought it for the purest of thrift intentions - I liked it and could and would use it.Was it a score? You betcha. ... I'll always believe I found a chair I liked cheap because I had to ride in the back of the truck in sub-freezing weather and that it turned out to be an expensive art chair only because I could have cared less if it was.From the zine, Thrift SCORE: issue 11. For a sample issue of Thrift SCORE, send one dollar (cash or stamps) to Al Hoff, Thrift Score, PO Box 90282, Pittsburgh, PA 15224.