Mother Earth Living

Thrifty is Nifty: How to Make Smart Thrift Store Purchases

Second time around doesn't mean second rate. Have fun with your thrift-shop finds.
By Misty McNally
March/April 2006
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Old brooches add character to bulletin boards.
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Shopping for used merchandise can be overwhelming. The stores may be less than organized, the finds unpredictable in price and quality. A few simple guidelines will help you make smart purchases—and turn them into one-of-a-kind treasures.

Digging for green

If your number one desire is to recycle a home furnishing, heed these bits of shopping advice.

• Unless you have an environmentally friendly dry cleaner nearby, avoid items such as pillows, upholstery and linens that can’t be thrown in the wash.

• Steer clear of older painted pieces if you have children or pets. Lead-based paint, common before 1970, is a serious health risk.

• Consider upholstered and other “stuffed” items carefully; they’re difficult to sanitize. You may need to completely refill and re-cover them to eliminate allergens and pathogens.

• Have a problem with plastics? Is leather off limits? In these more personal choices, let your conscience be your guide.

Junky or funky?

One way to avoid impulse purchases is to plan ahead. Carry only the amount of cash you’re willing to spend. Focus on one or two desires at a time—don’t just forage. If you’re looking for large items such as dressers or fitted ones like curtains, know the dimensions needed and take a tape measure when you shop. Inspect all furniture for quality crafting and solid structure. Take a long, hard look at the piece’s flaws. Ask yourself:

• Can I clean it up with nontoxic cleansers and a good scrubbing or oiling?

• If the grime, stain or smell doesn’t disappear, will I still want it?

• Do I have the tools and skills to fix it?

• Do I have the time or enthusiasm for this project?

If the answer to any of these questions is no, walk away. A seemingly good bargain will end up being a raw deal.

Rethink and redo

Not all secondhand stuff is truly useful, but sometimes a piece will call to you, just because. Don’t be limited by its initial appearance or traditional purpose. Turn a shelf on its side, and it becomes a game table. Hang an iron grate as a pot rack. Envision a table with sawed-off legs sitting in front of the sofa or dirty, torn upholstery refurbished with your favorite apple-green color.

You don’t have to be a carpenter or upholsterer to achieve amazing results. With simple supplies such as staples, a hammer and nails, or a needle and thread, you can try one of the following ideas.

Give it a new purpose

• Use bracelets as rings to hang shower curtains, drapes or towels.

• For an interesting planter, use a shoe, a trophy, a mop pail with a wringer, a retro percolator or even a toaster.

• Cover a footstool, blanket chest or piano bench with rug, kilim or tapestry pieces.

• Use doorknobs, upside-down wooden hangers or old bolts to hang things.

• Sew a few pillows from old leather coats or wool blazers; leave the buttons and pockets on as trim.

• Punch holes through the bottom of mixing bowls or metal colanders—one or several—and hang them upside down as shades for hanging lamps.

• Take the drawers out of a dresser, add shelves in their place and make the chest into an entertainment center.

Try on a new look

• Re-cover the vinyl seat of an old metal chair with scraps from an old sweater.

• Frame the unexpected: old cutlery, pieces of architectural trim, vinyl records or an old board game.

• Découpage a tabletop, dresser drawer fronts or desk sides with postcards, maps or copies of old photos. or use cool thumbtacks or brads to attach them.
• Cover an ugly lamp base with broken terracotta, puzzle pieces, dominoes or a burlap rice sack tied around the top of the base.

• Make a lampshade out of a hat (as long as it doesn’t hang too close to the bulb).

• Hang cut-glass saltshakers, mismatched chandelier pendants, rhinestone jewelry or other glimmery objects from a lampshade or light fixture.

• Group a few unusual pieces together: colored pitchers, wooden toys, sewing notions, lunchboxes.

• Use metal trays, serving platters, fruit crates, mirrors or clipboards as frames.

• Skip the frame altogether and hang photos using women’s brooches or binder clips


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