Thrift Store Shopping: Reap the Rewards of Reuse

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Photo By Joe Coca
An old coffee percolator finds new life as a planter.

When you bring home a beautiful antique table, its patina made rich by decades or even centuries of use, your first thought isn’t, “I’m recycling!” When you find a copy of a cherished childhood book at an out-of-the-way rare bookstore, you’re probably not thinking about walking lightly on the earth. Yet in both these cases, you’re traveling in the great circle of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

The antique circuit

Most cities have at least a couple of charity antique shows held in schools, churches or museums. Highlights of these shows often include furniture, meticulously patterned and stitched quilts and “primitives”–the old tools, utensils and handmade implements of America’s rural past. Dealers come from all over the country to set up elaborate booths at these annual events. Don’t be intimidated–even if you’re a novice. The dealers collect and sell out of love for fine old things, and for a few dollars’ admission fee you have access to their expertise.

Don’t buy anything on your first walkthrough. These shows are usually small, with 25 to 50 booths; there’s plenty of time to look, reflect, look again. Remember, your primary purpose at this stage is to learn. These shows will be your benchmark for the merchandise and dealers in less rarefied circles.

There are other kinds of shows: those held on the grounds of historic houses or big, sprawling affairs where bargains abound and dealers rush around to buy from other dealers before daylight breaks. These huge shows, including Brimfield in Massachusetts, are not the place to begin– too overwhelming!

Seek out antique shops and antique malls, big cooperative spaces with scores of booths. Keep the standards of the best shows in mind as you peruse the “collectibles” and “retro” items that may be nothing but yesterday’s mass-market consumer products.

The line between antique shows and flea markets is blurry. Generally, the “better” shows are those where the organizer/promoter carefully selects dealers and regulates the merchandise (no reproductions, nothing too new). However, very fine merchandise dealers sometimes do “lesser” shows because they’re cheaper or closer to home.

Private sales

Estate and yard sales, along with auctions, offer the highest ratio of quality to price, especially for furniture. Upholstered pieces, especially chairs and sofas with beautiful wooden frames, shouldn’t be passed up. Reupholstery is an investment, but the results, with your choice of fabric, are a bargain compared to a new piece of similar quality.

The auction circuit

From the great houses such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s to the truly folksy farm and house auctions, these are events. Auctions are held either in permanent locations on a regular schedule or as one-time, on-site events. At fun, friendly house or farm auctions, everything comes up on the block, sometimes even the house itself. Regularly scheduled auctions usually include pieces from several different owners or estates.

Budget plenty of time. Auctions often go on all day, with one “lot” coming up at a time. Always arrive before the starting time to register, get a bidder’s number and preview what’s for sale. Once the auction starts, you usually can’t get close to the items.

At the preview, identify things you’re interested in. Set your top price firmly in your mind and stick to it. Bidding is a scary process for the unseasoned. Remember, if your top price for an item was $50 and it went for $55, that doesn’t mean you’d have had it for five dollars more. The bidding may have gone on and on–with you driving the price way up.

Thrift stores

The true postmarket devotée doesn’t despise thrift stores, especially the ones run by service organizations such as the Salvation Army and Goodwill Industries. My most rewarding finds at thrift stores have been, surprisingly, art. Among the truly terrible lurks the worthwhile, such as an excellent, original, signed charcoal drawing or exhibition posters from great museums. Have fun, obey the cardinal rules and don’t forget to donate your own castoffs when the time comes.

Don’t get carried away

1. Collect large linen and linen damask tablecloths–they may be in less-than-perfect condition. Look for pieces of crochet and lace trims, even if they’re on larger pieces that are imperfect.

2. Wash pieces thoroughly and store them in a cool, dry container or drawer.

3. Once you’ve collected a batch of things, match up cloths and trims in any combination you find pleasing. Cut out sufficient cloth for a pillowcase and stitch it up by machine or hand. Attach trims with careful sewing or crocheting.

Online buyers, beware

Shopping for antiques and collectibles on the Internet is fine for very experienced collectors; everyone else should avoid it. The Internet is a poor place to get your education in old things. You need to see the things, touch them and talk about them with people who know and love them. Once you’re in the know, you can judge websites intelligently.

• At informal shows, private house sales and flea markets, feel free to ask, “Would you accept $XX for this?” Be reasonable! Don’t assume that all prices are inflated or that you’re expected to haggle.

• Be prepared to buy an item if the seller accepts your price.

• It’s the seller’s prerogative to set prices. The buyer’s prerogative is not to buy the item if the price is unacceptable.

• Enter into bargaining only if you have some idea of the usual price range for the merchandise.

• Don’t insult the merchandise, the seller or the price in an attempt to appear a great bargainer.