Thursday, May 5, 2011

Thrifted Thursday (Hard Core Edition!): Secrets of the Hunt, pt. 1

I've debated doing this post for quite some time. On some folks' blogs (this one included) many comments have been left about "not being able to find anything" thrifting or at yard sales. I've been fortunate to find myself in the position that I am able to find enough good stuff to slake my own vintage appetite and have some left over to re-sell. Hopefully this will eventually turn into a tidy little business for me (visit my Etsy shop!) and we can supplement my husband's income with a little extra $.

In this, part one of this series, we will deal with rummage and yard sales. Thrift stores will be part 2! I also know a lot of my fellow thrifters like to go to auctions and flea markets; at this point in my life I don't do much of that. With two small kids in tow, waiting around for hours until the auctioneer gets to a particular item or walking endless fields of fleas with over-priced vendors just isn't practical. But eventually I'd like to do the auction thing more; lord knows there are plenty of those around. I also shop at antique stores and the like, but if I buy anything it's probably just for myself and not something I would re-sell, because I can't get things cheap enough.

I've accumulated some tips and strategies over the many years I've been doing this. But do I want to share all my secrets? Well, why not! After all, most of you don't live that close to me to be any competition. ;)

And that is the first rule of the hunt: location.

Whether it is thrifting or yard/rummage/estate sales, the place to start is an area with an aging population. I happen to live in an area with a lot of older folks living in older homes. These individuals are likely in the process of downsizing and moving into retirement homes or their family is conducting an estate sale. The areas with older people still living in the house they may have bought as a young couple in the 1940s-1960s, are the most fruitful for vintage seekers. I usually don't waste my time going to yard sales in new developments or thrifting in trendy urban areas unless I am looking for baby/kids stuff or modern things (and that's very rare for me).

Rule # 2: Don't be afraid of volume- Be thorough!

My very favorite type of sale is the church rummage sale. By far, these places have the largest volume of stuff, excepting some of the larger thrifts. But chances are it's not that well organized or displayed. Most of the time I find things piled on tables, and just barely sorted, like "womens" and "mens". Many of the good things are on the bottom, either because the little old ladies that are running the sale put their personal donations out first, or because all the other scavengers like me didn't bother to dig all the way through the pile. Allow yourself plenty of time to shop, be thorough, and even if you're not the first one through the door, there will still be something there for you.

If you are an early bird and get in with the crowd, it's always better to take your time and work the sale "backwards" to stay away from those who follow the crowd through the established traffic pattern. Most people tend to turn to the right when presented with a directional fork; if you turn to the left you might get to some of that stuff before your compeition. Then work against the traffic and go around twice to make sure you haven't missed anything.

And forget about jewelry unless you are the first person in the door- with the price of gold these days people crowd around the jewelry table as soon as it opens. Even regular people have become sophisticated enough to know that bakelite and celluloid jewelry are worth $$, so chances of finding that at a rummage sale is not great; at a yard or estate sale it's a little better, but I haven't had much luck in that area for a while.

And that brings me to rule #3: Don't be afraid to think outside the box!

I'm usually drawn to the clothing first, but I find my best deals on things I may not plan to buy. For instance, I took a break in the middle of typing this up to go to a rummage sale ;) hoping to get more clothing for the shop. I did not find much, but I did come away with a neat vintage umbrella with lucite handle ($1)

and a cool vintage chrome and aqua iron ($2) which I've been looking for for some time.

It all depends on what is donated and what the shoppers are looking for; I doubt many people were there to buy a vintage iron, but I was.

Rule # 4: Dress appropriately!

Never wear wool to thrift. Even if you notice that that Woolrich coat has moth holes and leave it on the table, some of those moth eggs might hitch a ride on your pristine Pendleton 49er that you wore because of the great pockets... Wear clothes that can be washed as soon as you get home!

For me, I prefer not to wear head-to-toe vintage to shop. First of all, most of my vintage is not that practical for digging and carrying dirty/bluky items. Secondly, I don't like to telegraph to other pickers what I might be looking for. I've found that dressing in jeans and a sweatshirt while shopping with two small kids in tow really paints an image of a harried mom just looking for some good deals (which I definitely am!), and many of the cashiers at rummage and yard sales give them to me. What I bring to the checkout counter is really irrelevant at this point.

If you're digging through mounds of clothing, chances are some of it is not clean. I always carry baby wipes and hand sanitizer in my purse. Don't let the ick factor keep you away from the good stuff- just remember that most things can be washed (hands included) or dry-cleaned. And if you're going to be storing it for re-sale it will pay in the long run to take your items straight to the cleaners before you get home! If you buy anything like a vintage suitcase, make sure you air it outside and use your vacuum cleaner's crevice tool to get in all the corners. I'm deathly afraid of bedbugs (which can hitchhike even on brand new bags) and I am rigorous about doing this.

Rule # 5: Don't shop on the weekend

Around here, many rummage and yard sales are held Thursday-Friday-Saturday. I really don't know why this is, because you would think that a Saturday and Sunday sale would get more business. My only guess is that it's hard for churches to staff weekend sales. Nevertheless, going to a sale on a Thursday guarantees that you will see two types of people: stay-at-home moms and retired folks looking for cheap stuff and something to do, and serious dealers who are looking to score things for their stores, both of whom tend to spend some money.

You have to do what the other serious shoppers do and go to the Thursday sales. This is like a 9-5 job for some, and going on a Thursday morning at 8 or 9 reinforces that idea. I know as soon as I pull into the parking lot and see some of the dealers' cars I've come to recognize that it is going to be a good sale. And also that I'm probably late! (but see rule #2)

Many sales often reduce their prices, or hold bag sales by Friday afternoon. Problem is, the good stuff is already gone. I find it a better strategy to pay "full" price of a few dollars per item and get one or two killer items rather than pay $5 for a bag of second-tier clothes that aren't really what I'm looking for.

Whew! If you're still reading I hope some of these strategies work for you. I didn't realize until I re-read it how hard-core some of this sounds, but it's true. Good things are out there if you work to find them.

Stay tuned for Part 2: Thrifts!


  1. Great series! I complete agree with everything you've said, esp. church rummage sales. I went to our last week and got there on a Thursday and found a treasure trove of linens. I was in vintage textile heaven!

  2. I would have never thought of being sure to not wear wool. I'll definitely have to remember that, because I'm a bit of a wool-aholic.

  3. I honestly hadn't thought about bed bugs. Yikes!

  4. PS - the tweet button at the top just takes you to twitter... not an automatic tweet for your article... didn't know if you wanted it that way.

  5. A- I didn't know there was a tweet button; can't see it on my end. I don't do Twitter; presumably it's there for someone else to tweet about my post? (which is OK by me) Told you I have no idea what I'm doing tech-wise...hehe!

  6. Good post, Sue!

    Here's a bit of advice for being sure you didn't bring home "guests" in your new purchases: the freezer.

    Bag the new things securely, and place in the freezer for a few days. Take out, but keep the bag sealed (if anything hatches, you don't want it to get out).

    In two days or so, put it back in the freezer for about three more days.

    Then go ahead and wash, clean, etc. A vigorous brushing outdoors will also help, if the item is not one you want to wash.

  7. LOL- I think you got that tip from me years back on the old PH message board.;) That is something I learned to do back in museum school. I will try to mention in it in Pt. 2.

  8. Great advice Susie!

    I'm like you, I don't always wear vintage to auctions because of the fact I really like to try to blend in. I don't want anyone to really notice me until my bidding number starts to fly! hahaha

    I agree, I can still find cheap vintage but the competition now a days is fierce. I'm curious to see what the competition will be like up in north west NJ this summer. I'm guessing I will be driving into PA to get my auction fixes! However, I think they have a lot of rummage sales around there. So, I guess I'll get my feet wet with those! Exciting!!!


  9. Lots of great advice, Q! I never realized the fact that I shouldn't wear wool. I don't usually wear it anyway, because it itches, but it's good to know these kinds of things.