Mother Earth Living

Thrift Store Shopping Tips from a Pro

Stylist Chad Sophia Suiter has been hunting and gathering in thrift stores and flea markets since she was a child. Follow her tips to thrift like a pro.
By Chad Sophia Suiter
November/December 2010
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Give a simple treat class and style by presenting it on lovely vintage china.
Photo By Dan Sidor
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As a kid, I excelled at scavenger hunts. I parlayed this early hunting and gathering talent into an illustrious career with the 4-H club. I would scour flea markets and dig through thrift shops for antique fabrics and pretty trims to make my craft projects bold and memorable. With that, my signature style of mixing old and new and my love for vintage things was born. As a dress designer, photo stylist and set designer, I’ve followed my passion for savvy shopping. It’s an integral part of everything I do—and an important part of my efforts to reduce my environmental impact and stay within my budget.

Thrift Store Shopping Tips from a Seasoned Shopper

Have a plan. Google the best thrift stores in your area (or ask an experienced thrifter for recommendations). Call ahead to find out what days the stores re-stock in the departments you are interested in and what days they put items on sale.

Size it up. When looking for furniture, measure your space at home beforehand and bring a small tape measure with you.

Be decisive. If you’re on the fence about an item, put it back. If it speaks to you, buy it! You may never see another one.

Bring a friend. Find someone likeminded, with a good eye (and, preferably, who doesn’t wear your size!). In large stores, the two of you can start at opposite ends of long rows and meet in the middle.

Stay satisfied. Stop for lunch before you’re exhausted. Pack a few snacks (almonds, carrots, raisins) and lots of water.

Bring cash, not credit. When it’s gone, you should be too.

Be prepared to dig. The perfect vintage Chanel jacket could be waiting in the next aisle! Look through all sizes; items get moved and misplaced.

Dress for success. Wear fitted clothing you can leave on while you try on other clothes. (Fitting room lines can be long, and many places don’t have them.) Bring a messenger bag or tote for carrying home treasures.

Avoid the crowds. Get to stores early or go on weekdays.

Always bargain. Typically, sellers build negotiating room into the asking price, and they prefer not to pack up items at the end of the day. They’ll often take something off the price if you’re pleasant and ask politely. Try visiting favorite sellers at the end of the day; you may be able to strike deals on excess merchandise.

Tip: The easiest place to educate yourself about prices, value and availability is eBay.

Watch for Counterfeits 

Determining whether a find is an authentic antique or a reproduction can be difficult. Copies, fakes and reproductions flood the market when a particular piece becomes sought-after. Consider the following before you purchase your newfound treasure.

■ How does it compare? Study the item next to a photograph of an original, looking at every small detail for discrepancies.
■ Does your find look handcrafted or factory-made? Most originals are slightly imperfect because they’re handmade.
■ Is the maker’s mark present and in the correct place?
■ Are the materials used consistent with the era in which it should have been made?
■ Is the amount of wear in keeping with the item’s age and expected use?

When to Bypass Thrift Store Finds

Clothing: Put it back if it’s stained, significantly torn or smelly. Factor in the expense of alterations and repairs if you choose something that needs major refurbishing.

Housewares: Don’t buy dinnerware or glassware that’s been repaired. It won’t be as strong as new and may leak.

Collectibles: For high-ticket items, hire an appraiser.

Be Careful with Cloth 

Before you lose your heart completely to that vintage dinner dress or linens, slow down. Carefully check it inside and out, and inspect trim, pleats or ruffles for small holes, delicate webs or areas where the fabric looks thin. These flaws may indicate moth or other pest damage. Pass on it and find another frock that doesn’t carry the risk of unwanted guests.

Wash all thrift-store finds in the hottest water that the manufacturer’s label recommends before wearing or storing. Check out the following websites for more information.

Bedbug.com 
Fashion-Era
The Vintage Connection 

Resources 

Interested in something specific? These references will help.

Antiques & Art 

The Art & Antiques Dealers League of America 

The National Antique & Art Dealers Association of America 

Antique Trader: Antiques & Collectibles 2010 Price Guide 
Edited by Dan Brownell

Antique Trader: Guide to Fakes and Reproductions
by Mark Chervenka

Kovels’ Antiques & Collectibles Price Guide 2010: America’s Most Popular Antiques Annual
by Terry and Kim Kovel

Ceramics 

International Ceramic Directory 

Cut Glass 

American Cut Glass Association 

Gems 

American Gem Society 

Jewelry 

"How to Tell Antique Jewelry and Vintage Jewelry from New"

Warman’s Jewelry: Fine and Costume Jewelry Identification and Price Guide
by Kathy Flood

Sterling Silver 

Online Encyclopedia of Silver Marks, Hallmarks & Makers’ Marks 

General Resources 

Antiques Roadshow Online 

Collecting and Home Furnishing Directory
nationwide directory of antique and collectible shops

Flea Market Insiders
virtual showroom

Flea Market Style Magazine 

Flea USA
state-by-state directory

The Thrifty Chicks
green style tips

The Thrift Shopper
national ZIP code-based directory of charity-driven thrift stores

Vintage Renewal
click on “Sold Products” for ideas on re-making thrift store furniture finds


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