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Treasure Hunting in Thrift Stores

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Peg collects vintage treasures and has shopped thrift stores for four decades. Many of her most treasured items came from second-hand stores

Decorative windows, side tables, vintage pictures, glassware, toys and more

Decorative windows, side tables, vintage pictures, glassware, toys and more

Four decades of bargain hunting has been fun and productive for me. During the lean years, when I was a struggling college student working low-level jobs, there wasn't a lot of money to spend on household items. I learned to shop the second-hand stores for furniture, lamps, dishes, cookware, even clothes. Many times I found name-brand items with the original price tag still attached.

Knowing what to buy is important, but so is knowing what not to buy. Here are some of the things I've found and things I decided against buying.

Digging through dusty piles can reap items like cookware, kitchen utensils, picture frames, tools and even bicycles. One of my favorite things to collect is American Made dinnerware like Hull and Homer Laughlin, manufactured in the 1950s. Washed in sudsy water and soaked in a bleach solution, many items can be purchased for a fraction of their original cost and put to use.

But don't expect to find that treasured item if you wait and try to find it later. The time to buy an antique is now!

American Made Dinnerware

The mirror brown with ivory foam dinnerware is Hull House 'n Garden Ware made in a variety of colors like turquoise, green, orange. The sets were oven-proof, every-day ware popular in the 1950s. They made cookie jars, platters, mixing bowls, bean pots, mugs, teapots, pitchers, plates, saucers, salt and pepper sets and decorative items.

Mugs are plentiful at thrift stores and usually sell for a dollar or less. Stuffed with individually-wrapped candy, they make great office gifts at the holidays.

Hull Mirror Brown Dinnerware from the 50s

Hull Mirror Brown Dinnerware from the 50s

Auctions Can Be Fun

Auctions are a good place to learn the history of vintage items. A good auctioneer will tell a story to build interest from the crowd. You'll learn a lot from these stories.

  • It's important to arrive early and thoroughly check out the items you're interested in buying before the auction begins.
  • Bring a magnifying glass and a flashlight to check for imperfections and inspect hard-to-see areas.
  • Remember, items are sold as is and where is. That means any defects are the buyer's responsibility after the bid ends.
  • Ask how much extra you'll have to pay, called a buyer's premium. That can add to the overall cost of the merchandise. Most times it's ten-percent above the winning bid.

Most auction houses allow individuals to register and bid on items. Bidders are assigned a buyer's number written on a paper placard to be used when bidding. When the bidding gets intense over any one item the price tends to get higher and higher until one bidder stops bidding.

Don't worry if you scratch your nose that you'll end up buying something. If there's a question of intent, the auctioneer usually asks, "Are you waving at someone or bidding?" You'll know if you've bought something when they yell, "SOLD!".

Depression Glass

Etched green glass goblets from the depression era from a Thrift store

Etched green glass goblets from the depression era from a Thrift store

Where to Shop?

Thrift stores are rich with vintage items since retirees often donate their excess household items when downsizing. Goodwill, Salvation Army, Donation Station, Friends of Strays, and Junior League stores often yield treasures from dusty attics, barns, storage units and excess items left over from estate sales.

Antique stores in any town often have a bargain area where slow-moving items are marked down. Pawn shops and flea markets often have jewelry, guitars, clocks, planters, kitchenware, glasses, appliances, patio furniture and more.

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Watch for signs in subdivisions for multiple family garage sales. This is often a source for inherited vintage items and newer items discarded when home owners remodel.

Ribbon Candy Patterned Glassware

Ribbon Candy Pitcher from the late 1800s

Ribbon Candy Pitcher from the late 1800s

This patterned glass vase is from the late eighteen hundreds in a pattern called Ribbon Candy. It came from an estate sale where the seller's sage words of advice sent me into a land of discovery about items and their history.

Telephone from the 1940s

Rotary dial telephone with cotton cord

Rotary dial telephone with cotton cord

How Much Is It Worth?

Collector Series books were the source for values before the internet. They showed photos and market value along with the history of the pattern. Items can be easily researched on line these days. Remember, an item is only worth what the market will bear.

Fire, Fire Said Mrs. McGuire

The phone rang around midnight.

"You'd better get down here," my fellow merchant told me. "Downtown is on fire." Several of the business owners gathered on the sidewalk across from our stores. We watched while firefighters battled the blaze. Next door to Gemini Ranch Collectibles, Hampton cleaners suffered extensive smoke damage. The candle shop next to theirs was uninsured and it burned to the ground. A second fire broke out across the street the next day damaging several more stores.

The Fire Department determined the cause of the fire to be faulty electrical wiring.

Reconstruction was slow and with half of the stores on Ballard Street closed for repair, business suffered. A year later, I closed my doors and sold most of my inventory at an auction.

That didn't stop me from looking for vintage bargains. Most weekends you can find me checking out dusty goods at resale stores.

Gemini Ranch Collectibles and Furniture

Gemini Ranch Collectibles in Wylie

Gemini Ranch Collectibles in Wylie

10 Items To Avoid At Second-Hand Stores

Most of the following items I would NOT recommend buying second hand.

  1. Intimate clothing, like socks, panties, bras or swimsuits, unless tagged with original manufacturer's tags and in "new" unworn condition. Launder before using.
  2. Furniture with stains or odors that look hard to clean are best left behind. (I've watch too much crime TV and am suspicious of red stains.)
  3. Avoid books or paintings that smell of mold or mildew that will bring odors or decay into your home -- unless they have historical value or are long-lost family heirlooms, in which case professional restoration may be required.
  4. Pass on porous items like wooden spoons, wooden bowls, non-washable fabrics or other items that can't be immersed in a cleaning solution and disinfected thoroughly.
  5. Consumables like make-up, body lotion, perfume, edibles and other vintage food items are likely well past their best-use date and aren't safe to eat or use. Perfume bottles can be cleaned but the contents will likely be strong-smelling.
  6. Items that don't "feel right" when you pick them up. You'll know if you run across such an item. Maybe I'm just superstitious.
  7. Kitchen appliances that can't be tested at the store may run, but not on all settings. Some items like lamps can be rewired and made safer with new technology.
  8. Shoes are questionable purchases unless they show little or no wear or have a value as vintage theater props or decorations.
  9. Some items like baby car seats and baby cribs have been recalled due to dangerous or unsafe outcomes. Check for recalls on these items.
  10. Some items from years past were made with paints that contained lead or radioactive materials, like illuminated clock faces that were painted with radium. Avoid these.

Use good judgement when it comes to taking home items that come from unknown sources. If it smells funny or shows signs of water damage, think twice before buying.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2012 Peg Cole


Peg Cole (author) from North Dallas, Texas on October 07, 2020:

LaZeric Freeman, soaking a non-porous item for 20 minutes in a high level solution of 1/3 cup household chlorine bleach to 1 gallon of water will sterilize just about anything and render it germ-free. If you've ever eaten at a restaurant, you've probably sipped from used glasses and silverware.

In the old days, we ate dirt and drank from garden hoses. I believe it built up our immunity. LOL

Thanks for dropping in.

LaZeric Freeman from Hammond on October 05, 2020:

I've seen a lot of nice glassware, but I feel cautious about buying items that have touched others' mouths ... Ugh! Not sure I'd feel comfortable, no matter how much detergent I used.

Peg Cole (author) from North Dallas, Texas on June 09, 2020:

Marlo, if you're in the Dallas area there's a clock dealer in Farmersville who trades and buys old clocks. I have no experience with coin dealers other than a few sales on eBay. Thanks for stopping in and good luck.

MarloByDesign from United States on June 08, 2020:

Hi, great Hub. Do you recommend a place to sell old coins or clocks from 1910? Thank you.

Peg Cole (author) from North Dallas, Texas on June 08, 2020:

Although Goodwill has changed dramatically over the years there are still bargains to be found there and they do have some good programs. Thanks for your comment.

Carrie Lee Night from Northeast United States on June 05, 2020:

Thank you for sharing :) I love our area Community Aid and Good Will stores that fund different programs. You never know what u will find :)

Peg Cole (author) from North Dallas, Texas on December 01, 2019:

Glad you could come by, Devika, to check out these finds. What a shame there aren't stores like this in Croatia.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on December 01, 2019:

I love it! Shopping at antique thrift stores is-one of my favorite shopping trips. Haven't done that in Croatia they don't have such stores.

Peg Cole (author) from North Dallas, Texas on November 23, 2019:

Thank you, Susan. As you probably guessed, I also love the thrill of the hunt for dusty treasures. For me, it's about rescuing and appreciating things from past generations made with ingenuity and care. Thanks so much for coming by.

Susan Britton from Ontario, Canada on November 23, 2019:

Great hub Peg I remember most of the stuff here. I live to shop at thrift stores but have yet to find the diamond in the ruff that some people make millions on. That said I have found treasures that I still cherish and use today. The become keepsakes that have followed along with me on my journey. Have a good day. I enjoyed looking back to one of my favorite hobbies.

Peg Cole (author) from North Dallas, Texas on November 14, 2019:

Hello Kari, I also shopped thrift stores and rummage sales from way back when. My mom steered me toward bargain hunting, and I remember a dress she bought me for 35 cents.Thanks for coming by to check out this article.

Kari Poulsen from Ohio on November 14, 2019:

I really enjoyed this article. I haven't been garage sale'ing in a while. I love garage sales, thrift stores and antiquing. My mother started me on this road.

Peg Cole (author) from North Dallas, Texas on June 27, 2019:

Hi Virginia, I'm on the disposing side of collecting these days. I have way too many things that I loved and still do but am tired of dusting. Anyway, the thrill is in the hunt. Thanks for coming by.

Virginia Allain from Central Florida on June 27, 2019:

I used to love going to flea markets and auctions and thrift stores. My family encouraged collecting so I was always looking for something (antique quilts, Hall pitchers, valentines, miniature baskets, Tindeco tins, etc.). My hubby won't brake for yard sales, so my acquisitive nature has had to redirect into other hobbies.

Peg Cole (author) from North Dallas, Texas on May 16, 2018:

Hi Larry, I still enjoy visiting the antique stores and finding buried treasures. Thanks for coming by and for your kind remarks.

Larry W Fish from Raleigh on May 15, 2018:

A fascinating article, Peg. As the photos in your story shows many an unusual item can be found at those type of stores. My wife and I love going through and looking and looking. Sorry about your store having to close, that is sad.

Peg Cole (author) from North Dallas, Texas on August 23, 2016:

Hello Vespawoolf, Thanks for the kind words. I often think of the store and the fun I had setting up displays, going to auctions and meeting new customers. I was working a full time job at the time and it became too much to work seven days a week when I started traveling on business about 70 percent of the time.

You and I could have some fun sleuthing for treasures, I'm sure.

Vespa Woolf from Peru, South America on August 23, 2016:

I'm sorry your store had to close. That type of business was right down your alley! You have found some gorgeous items through the years. I also enjoy thrift store treasure hunting and do it whenever I have a chance. Thank you for sharing.

Peg Cole (author) from North Dallas, Texas on October 12, 2014:

Hi Merrci, thank you for the visit and comment on this thrift store hub. I'm also trying to resist, but I went to a store last week (bad idea) and found some melamine plates, a teapot, two Corelle platters, a lavender glass pie dish and other things that hopped into my basket. Oh, my.

Merry Citarella from Oregon's Southern Coast on October 12, 2014:

Very fun article to peruse too! Every time I go into a thrift store or stop by a garage sale I wish I had more knowledge of what has value and what doesn't. I'm in the simplifying stage now, so I try to resist these days. It is very interesting to see your finds!

Peg Cole (author) from North Dallas, Texas on August 07, 2014:

Hello Kaili Bisson, Thanks so much for checking out these treasures. I wish you all the best in your sleuthing efforts. Good hunting.

Kaili Bisson from Canada on August 06, 2014:

My goodness, you have been lucky! What a great hub.

I love Rookwood, so now I will have to start keeping an eye out at the local Value Village.

Peg Cole (author) from North Dallas, Texas on August 05, 2014:

Hi Suzzycue, Thanks for stopping by. I love these old things but I'm on the downsizing mode at this point. There's a lady coming to the house tomorrow to pick up a few furniture items I no longer want. She has a booth at one of the stores in Farmersville. I guess that will give me room for a few more old things.

Rebecca Mealey from Northeastern Georgia, USA on August 05, 2014:

Wow! It looks like you have a real knack for finding things in thrift stores. I haven't been in a while. This makes me want to go!

Dreamer at heart from Northern California on August 05, 2014:

I am so glad to meet you too, Peg. All of the short lived shop project experience taught me much about running a retail shop alone. Mostly, I so admired my neighbors next door who gathered used furniture and were partners in business. They could count on each other for ideas and help.

Peg Cole (author) from North Dallas, Texas on August 05, 2014:

Starstream, I would love to have visited your shop in OR. Whenever I travel, I try to find at least one collectibles shop to browse. Thanks so much for the generous comments! It's nice to meet you.

CrisSp from Sky Is The Limit Adventure on August 05, 2014:

I'll surely be dropping by Goodwill and other Thrift Shop in Florida on my next visit. I've got some good stuff (old books included) from my last trip to Boston and I love them. Thanks for the tips. I love vintage stuff and treasure hunting. It's fun and I enjoy digging some old stuff from our local thrift store. I think it's exciting than grocery shopping. :)

P.S. Beautiful digs you've got there and yes, I enjoyed this hub.

Susan Britton from Ontario, Canada on August 05, 2014:

I love thrift store finds and your finds are real treasures. I also have done this for years but my house is full to the brim. I found a handmade box this weekend thrown to the curb. It was beatifully made with a lid with chain. So it has become part of my collection. I often wonder how people can throw away hand made treasures of this kind of quality.

Dreamer at heart from Northern California on August 05, 2014:

Awesome finds! In fact they found you. Collecting these pieces adds to our understanding of history too.

Dreamer at heart from Northern California on August 05, 2014:

I enjoyed reading your article which is interesting and informative. Your little shop reminded me of the Angel shop I opened many years ago in Rogue River, OR. It only lasted less than a year because of the old building electric requirements and lack of foot traffic. I love collectibles and wrote a few articles about that at the hub.

Peg Cole (author) from North Dallas, Texas on August 05, 2014:

Hello Shyron, My Aunt Jessie had a Singer pedal sewing machine, too. She would let me work the pedal while she sewed. I have such great memories of her.

Thanks so much for reading, voting and sharing.

Shyron E Shenko from Texas on August 05, 2014:

I love collectors, they/you have such passion for the beauty you can find in great workmanship, and the pride in finding American made goods.

I love your pictures also.

My grandmother had one of those Singer sewing machines.

Thumbs up across the board and shared.

Thank you for sharing this with us.

Peg Cole (author) from North Dallas, Texas on June 14, 2014:

Prairieprincess, what a charming comment you've left for me to find! Thank you. These old things call out to me, and as hard as I try to walk past them, I just can't. It is as if I'm rescuing them from oblivion and restoring them to a place of dignity. I'm so delighted these things reminded you of wonderful memories of your Mom. Bless your heart, dear one.

Sharilee Swaity from Canada on June 14, 2014:

Oh Peg, your hub touched my heart, and was an absolute pleasure to soak in. I loved how you shared your adventures and experiences with these old objects. You obviously have a great passion for beautiful, old things, and I was definitely not offended at having to look at them. I loved it!

Some of the items you have remind me a lot of my Mom's stuff: the black t-cup and the bluebird dish. She also loved picking up these old treasures and once worked at an antique shop. Thank you for an enjoyable read, and wonderful memories of my Mom. Take care!

Peg Cole (author) from North Dallas, Texas on June 13, 2014:

You're right about the best time for garage sales, Au fait. During spring cleaning, people are clearing away stuff they've stashed away during the cold days of winter. With the kids out of school in June, it's a good time to hold yard sales to clear space for the upcoming school year. And the holiday season seems ripe for gleaning treasures both new and old.

C E Clark from North Texas on June 13, 2014: