by Judy Gonyeau, managing editor
Not too long ago, buying good used or antique items in person was the thing. If you didn’t see it with your own eyes and handle it with your own hands, you would not buy it. Taking a Saturday morning buying trip meant hitting the tag sales, visiting a few thrift shops, and stopping by an antique shop or two. Today, many turn to their computers, but in-person buying is the best way to immerse yourself in the experience.
Stop #1 – Garage/Tag/Rummage/Yard Sales:
Buying Other People’s Stuff at Their Home
This is where buyers can find fresh-to-market selections of antique, used, and nearly new items in a calm, relaxed atmosphere. Generally, the owners are looking to get rid of items that are now outdated or no longer wanted as they move, grow as a family, or combine/divide up households. These are not Estate Sales, where someone has passed and the family is divesting of the person’s household, but is often representative of a good “clear-out.”
What to Look For: Relatively new but gently used goods that may or may not be worth having. New-in-box items that were either forgotten or were gifts left unused. You can pick up trendy items and clothing that are no longer trendy. Great way to pick up home goods like glassware and décor, but it is advised that you stay away from soft goods like comforters or stuffed animals unless you plan to sanitize them thoroughly or they are collectible and in good condition.
You may luck out and find a soon-to-be-vintage collectible-in-the-making. Remember when parents were getting rid of all your old miniature figures from early Star Wars and Marvel characters? Look for these and the next level of pop culture.
Pricing: Low prices are the norm for these sales, but be sensitive to the items that have meaning to the sellers. These tend to come with a “that was my favorite” fee attached, but that may be negotiated away.
Variety: If you see 10-year-olds running around, expect to see a lot of things meant for 6-9 year-olds. If the sellers are in their 40s+, expect to see many DVDs, VHS, and sometimes a Blu-ray or two. If the sellers are elderly, expect to see a lot of books – especially cookbooks that can be a great bargain. Also, expect to see those Bradford Exchange or similar collectibles like plates, figurines, etc. Know what you are looking at and you may find a gem or two (or three).
Stop #2 – Thrift Stores
An Economic Way to Shop
Back in the 1970s/80s/90s, shopping at a Thrift Shop typically meant going to a local nonprofit store where you could pick up clothing and household items that had been donated and were extremely inexpensive. Today, these shops are big business – and more often than not they are for-profit. The owners tend to be a bit fussier about what they are willing to take in on consignment or purchase outright and then resell in their storefronts. There are plenty of nonprofit thrift stores to visit, as well as home-grown single-owner and franchised shops.
Savers, Inc. is one example of an international privately held thrift store retailer with over 315 locations in the United States, Canada, and Australia. Savers was founded 68 years ago in San Francisco and is owned by private equity firms Ares Management and Crescent Capital Group. Savers is also known as Value Village and Village des Valeurs in Canada. And although they may partner with local nonprofits, some stores have been called out for continuing to take donated items after breaking with a nonprofit and not sharing that information with the public, thereby misleading shoppers. They do purchase items outright.
What to look for: This is the place to find what is on trend if you are visiting a privately held thrift store. At a nonprofit version, look for unusual household and decorative items that are sometimes overlooked. Don’t be afraid to pick up something that may look dirty and see if a little soap or shine will bring it back to life.
Pricing: While pricing tends to be extremely low, at times those online “asking” prices may have a negative effect on the person doing the pricing. Don’t be afraid to make an offer.
Variety: Thrift Stores are more popular with vintage finds rather than antique finds. They also offer a quick turnover of goods – sometimes on a daily basis. If you are looking for something specific, don’t be afraid to ask if they may have something that has not yet made it on to the sales floor yet. Often, they will know one way or the other.
Stop #3 – Estate Sales
A big step up from a tag sale with quality goods typically held in a home
Estate Sales have turned into a place to buy that is the next best thing to an Antiques Shop. For so many professionals, Estate Sales are where you go to buy higher-value items that can range from leftover detergent to a high-end dining room set with all the fixins’.
One thing to be aware of: because Estate Sales are known for higher quality and higher priced goods, some people will hold what they call an Estate Sale that may turn out to be a glorified Garage Sale. In that regard, if you are looking for the real thing, you may want to go to one that is managed by a professional. The benefit is often they have helpers working who can assist with bringing things out to your car, will hold items as you look at other things, and price or get a price for unmarked items. The manager tends to know their “stuff” and knows how to negotiate. They tend to promote upcoming sales that may have what you are looking for so it is worth getting to know them and sign up for their mailing list.
Estate Sales let you delve into the home and the lifestyle of the owner, allowing for a deep dive into their era of collections, furniture, smalls, soft goods, and maintenance items. Look not only at the featured items, but those tucked away in a corner such as personal things that may fit right in with your aesthetic.
What to look for: Pick a room and dive in to all things dining or kitchen, or bedroom-related. Go to the basement and garage for tools and crafts along with stored items that can be surprising. Look for older books in great condition. Jewelry is almost always near the cashier, along with other valuables. Bring a loupe!
Pricing: The price you pay will be more in keeping with the value assigned by the manager or the owner. You may want that side table for $30 but it is priced at $50. If you are willing to take the chance, furniture and other unpurchased goods will go for a much lower cost toward the end of the sale. It is a risk, but there can be a reward if you are lucky.
Variety: This is where variety is king, although it does tend to be a thorough selection of things that were popular within a certain era, depending upon the age of the owners of the home. If you find a lot of LPs from the 1970s and ‘80s, chances are that was “their era” and you will find many other categories of things from that time period. Everything from flatware to dishware, to beds and bedspreads, to clothing and personal items, to tools and books all encompass a lifetime of accumulation now fresh to the market. (If the owners were antiques dealers, you may have hit the jackpot!)
Stop #4 – Antique Shops
Walk into a place designed to delight buyer and seller
Antique Shops are where people go to see, and be seen. Keep your expectations higher and your eyes peeled for what is “hot,” what is unique, and what is in your wheelhouse.
It doesn’t hurt to do your homework before shopping at a shop or show. Talk to friends who have visited in the past and learn about what types and eras of goods are sold there. Is it more vintage or modern or antique in nature? Is the staff friendly and helpful? Are the prices what you expect? Google is great, but in-person discussion is always best. Maybe one person did not like the shop because it was too “primitive” or too “Mid-Century Modern.” But, maybe that is just what you’re looking to purchase.
If you are a frequent buyer, look for new stock that is added to the inventory, and be aware of what items do not seem to move – is it the price? the condition? or just out of style? Stay aware of trending items and the changing pricing that goes along with popularity.
If you are looking to resell, visit areas of the shop or individual booths that feature sales. You can always ask for the best price and let them know you are buying to resell. Dealer-to-dealer negotiations can bring out the best in both interested parties. If you are at a multi-dealer brick-and-mortar shop, the employees know how to reach the seller and relay your offer to them.
What to look for: Be on the lookout for great furniture, antiques with provenance, hand-hewn goods from craftspeople as well as folk art goods from native artists. If you are looking for something specific and see other related items, talk with the dealer to see if they have the item or if they could keep their eyes out for what you want – an extra set of eyes is always good to have on your side.
Pricing: Expect to pay more for high-quality items. While the market prices for antiques and collectibles are always on the move, this is where you find investment pieces along with not-quite high-end auction pricing.
Variety: Antique Shop owners may choose to center around a particular style or era of vintage or antique. If you are interested in 18th century furniture, there is probably a shop for that. The same applies if you enjoy industrial, mechanical, and “useful” goods; if you swoon over architectural elements; or if you want to see a great variety of things and explore the sheer quantity of decorative arts and crafts.
Antique Shops can also offer the widest and best selection of ancient, antiques, collectibles, vintage, space-age, and modern goods you have—and haven’t—seen. It is all out there waiting for you. Meeting others who share your interests, and learning about or teaching others what you know, is always wonderful. Shopping in person: priceless.