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Treasure Hunting in Thrift Stores

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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.

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.

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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.