Favorite finds from past excursions (clockwise from top left): vintage Dooney & Bourke leather satchel; textile-covered stool; metal Viewmaster with slides; canvas geometric-print bag; Kodak magazine camera; vintage dresses; jacquard mini-skirt.
I am often asked what the secret to finding cool stuff while thrift shopping is, so I thought I'd compile a basic shopping guide for new thrifters, seasoned thrifters, and everyone in between. Here we go, in no particular order:
One. Pick a destination.
Now, I know what you're thinking: "How obvious--next she's going to tell me to exit the house and open the car door!" I won't; I have more faith in you than that. I included this tip to get you thinking about places to buy affordable secondhand goods. Clearly labeled Salvation Army and Goodwill are good places to start--but never hesitate to branch out. Other places that you're likely to have luck include estate sales, auctions, church rummage sales, charity shops, vintages stores, consignment shops, antiques stores/antique malls, flea markets, garage sales/moving sales, and curb-sides on trash day. Shop around.
Two. Take your time.
I don't mean to say I've never had good luck stopping a thrift store for ten minutes on my way home from school or work. However, I've found that I'm a more discerning shopper when I'm not rushed. When I take my time, I find more things and I find better things.
Three. Go Alone.
If you have friends who have similar style or wear the same size as you, the truth is that it's probably best for you to thrift separately. This will help you to avoid the conflict of spotting a good find at the same time and all of the uncomfortable bargaining that will likely ensue.
Four. Wear a belt.
You might be surprised at how many seemingly ill-fitting garments actually fit quite well with the addition of an appropriately placed belt. Sometimes I plan ahead to wear a belt while thrift shopping so I can give myself a better idea of how something will look with a little tweaking.
Five. Bring cash.
You can bet that every garage sale and nearly every auction or estate sale will only allow you to pay with cash, so be sure to carry some bills with you in various denominations. Quarters are never bad to have on hand either, particularly if you're going to neighborhood garage sales. Cash can also be useful if you wish to haggle. Many a time, I've gotten items at local vintage stores for a few dollars less simply by offering to pay with cash instead of a card.
Six. Give up on stains.
Fresh (or rather, very fresh) stains are treatable. Twenty-, thirty-, and forty-year-old stains are not. If you find an item that's seemingly perfect except for the large, noticeable, suspicious stain, I think you've answered your own question regarding why anyone would ever give it away. If you buy an item thinking that a stain will come out with baking soda and/or Oxi-Clean and/or Shout, 99.99999% of the time you'll be left sorely disappointed.
More past finds: Painted leather handbag; Songs of the West (I used it as a wall-hanging); Ralph Lauren buckle boots.
Seven. Consider alterations.
Some people are purists when it comes to altering vintage garments, but I can't quite figure out why. If something would work nicely for you if it was shortened or taken in, by all means, have these things done. The cost of alterations may deter some people from having them done, but keep in mind that paying under $10 for a vintage cocktail dress from a thrift store, for example, and paying $30 to have it hemmed and taken in still keeps the cost well below what you might spend on a brand new dress for a similar occasion. [Also keep in mind that tasks like repairing ripped seams, replacing buttons/hooks-and-eyes/snaps/etc., and patching holes can be done at home by you, with or without the help of online tutorials.]
Eight. Look through the whole store.
Mini-dresses may be misplaced in the children's section. Silk scarves may end up on a rack of men's ties. Little boys' blazers or tee shirts may look perfectly cropped on you. And if not for any of the aforementioned reasons, wander through the whole store because someone needs to pay some respect to that pile of rotting suitcases in the corner; they've been through a lot.
Nine. Do your laundry.
I must confess that I rarely ever wash things first before wearing them. I included this tip because I probably should.
Ten. Be courteous.
I wish I didn't have to include this item, but after seeing the way that some customers treat thrift stores, in particular, I feel it's necessary. Use common sense. Don't leave the dressing room looking like a mess. Most stores provide empty racks outside of the dressing room for leaving unwanted merchandise; use them! If you change your mind about something before trying it on, don't misplace it. Either put it back where you found it or place it on the "reshelve" rack. Be kind to the other shoppers. Give them their space. Don't stalk people, waiting for them to change their mind about something they just picked up. Be kind to the workers or volunteers. If you break something, pay for it. The merchandise may be inexpensive old junk in a lot of cases, but treat it as if you were in any other "new" store.
Eleven. Grab a cart.
Some shopping strategists (i.e. Lauren Conrad in her book Style; terrible read) suggest that you take a quick sashay around the entire store before picking anything up. The idea is that if you really like something, it will catch your eye the second time around, too. This idea makes sense, but in the world of thrift shopping it doesn't hurt to claim something as soon as you see it. This sometimes means finding a little more than you can carry.
More past finds: Suede bag with fringe; wooden United States puzzle; unicorn bust; mixed media scarf.
A store may or may not be flexible regarding their prices, but if you're brave enough to haggle, it never hurts to ask. Just be sure to keep a few things in mind: As a general rule, always make an offer that is lower than what you think you'll get the item for. However, don't make an insultingly low offer. It's a delicate balance. Try to make a package deal. An owner will likely be more willing to lower their prices if you're buying a few items rather than just one. Be reasonable. If the price strikes you as appropriate right off the bat, save your haggling energy for something else. And finally, be prepared to be told "no." Don't be personally offended if the owner refuses your offer; they're not required to do you the favor of lowering their prices. If refusal bothers you, don't buy it. Move on.
Thirteen. Try it on.
Take advantage of dressing rooms; flat and hanging garments can be deceiving.
Fourteen. Wash your hands.
Always wash your hands after sifting through any used merchandise. At the very least, use a bit of hand sanitizer until you can put your hands through a warm and soapy mini-bath. Frankly, I sometimes like to take a shower after a long day of trying things on in thrift stores.
Fifteen. Go often.
Most thrift stores put out new merchandise daily. While I've already enumerated some tips for increasing your chances of thrifting success, the truth is that most successes in this department can be attributed to being in the right place at the right time. Simply put, the more often you go looking, the greater your chances of finding something cool.
Good luck to you on your next trip!