Forget Thrift Stores — This Hidden Gem Is Where You’ll Find All the Best Old-School Home Decor

published Mar 29, 2023
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When it comes to decorating your home, there’s a lot to be said for online shopping. It’s fast and often budget-friendly, and you can easily buy both staple pieces as well as trendier items. But if you want to add something to your home that’s truly off the beaten path, something with a little more soul — well, friends, it’s time you hit a salvage store.

Architectural salvage yards, as well as markets that offer treasures curated from these places, are a direct ticket to a one-of-a-kind home, and they are my happy place. Anytime I’m designing a space — whether it’s a 200-square-foot studio for my hospitality venture, a sprawling Victorian that I’m renovating to sell, or my own home — you’ll find me sifting through the enticing dust of a salvage shop. 

Shopping this way can be time-consuming and difficult, but the hunt is part of the fun! Like thrift stores, architectural salvage yards sell secondhand finds — but here, these include fixtures like tile, grates, corbels, molding, doors, hardware, fireplace mantels, and more. They’re often taken from demolished buildings, or from residential and commercial buildings that are being modernized. An architectural salvage store is where you’ll find character-rich details to add to your home, as well as items that you can use in unexpected ways (the tile I used for my staircase, for instance, could have also been a lovely tabletop).

If you’ve yet to venture into the world of architectural salvage, we’ve got some tips from Kim Turner, a principal and designer at Kim Turner Design as well as the advancement director at Dwell with Dignity, a Dallas-based nonprofit that works with single mothers escaping homelessness and poverty by providing free interior design services and installing complete home interiors. Besides being a great way to bring pieces with character and history into your home, Turner says shopping salvage means you’re keeping items out of landfills and saving money — win-win.

“But, more than that, it’s an opportunity to have a home that is a true reflection of you and something that won’t be seen anywhere else,” she says. “Factor in the adventure of treasure seeking and you might never shop at a big-box store again.”

Ready to dip your toe into salvage shopping? Here’s Turner’s best advice for newcomers.

Start local.

Scout out local options by searching “architectural salvage” in your area. You don’t even have to be in a big city; my town of Louisville, Kentucky, has supplied me with many a fabulous find at our Architectural Salvage (including tiles for this amazing staircase!).

Once you’re there, just dig in, Kim says. Need a front door? This is no big box with neatly organized and clearly labeled items, but you may be surprised when you start looking. And keep an open mind: I once found an incredible door from an old church at my haunt. It was too tall for the opening I needed, but that was remedied easily enough with the right tools and a few minutes’ work (courtesy of my carpenter dad, but if you’re not handy and don’t have a friend or relative to lend a hand, there’s always Thumbtack to find help). 

Take your salvage shopping on the road.

I’ve been known to plan a trip to Chicago just for their architectural salvage shops. But there are large events around the country well worth traveling to, says Turner. Among her picks? “A perennial favorite for decades has been the Round Top Antiques Fair in Round Top, Texas,” she says. Held every spring and fall, “there are fields of everything antique and vintage, including salvaged items from around the world,” she says. 

While “different states across the country have venues where you can shop for antiques and/or salvage,” Turner adds, “Brimfield, Massachusetts, probably has the granddaddy of them all: Brimfield Antique Flea Markets. The shows are held three times a year with the number of dealers and exhibitors that set up booths there numbering in the thousands!”

Prepare for your salvage expedition.

Grab a measuring tape before you leave home. “Not only should you measure the space that you are searching for the perfect item for, but you should also take a picture of the space where you will use it and bring that with you when shopping,” Turner says. “The photo will help you when trying to make a decision.”

Then, “it’s important to have a specific list and laser focus,” she says. “You need to go in with a clear head, no distractions. Take a tape measure, a note pad, and a camera. Have a need to have,’ a ‘nice to have,’ and a ‘pie-in-the-sky’ wish list.”

Yay, you’ve found the perfect piece! Now what? “Take a breath and take a photo and measurements and jot down whatever details you need to remember the piece,” says Turner. “Don’t forget your budget when you find something — it’s very easy to get carried away if you think you’ve found the perfect thing. If you feel like you have the time, keep walking and come back to the item and see if you still have the same visceral feelings towards it as when you first saw it.”

Know how to bargain.

Good news: Prices are definitely negotiable a lot of the time! “Be polite and kind, and don’t insult someone with a ridiculously low offer. The best bet is usually to ask ‘what is the best you can do?’ Also, if you’re buying more than one thing, the discounts may get deeper,” Turner says

Make sure you know ahead of time what type of payment options they’ll take, Turner cautions. Stores may take credit cards, but “dealers and vendors at antique shows may have more limited options,” although more often, they’ll take e-payments like Zelle, Venmo, or PayPal. (If you’re headed to a large-scale market, it’s worth stopping at an ATM ahead of time — if only to have the option of cash to help you negotiate a better deal.)

While you’re looking at the cost, always “be aware that transporting it might be more of an endeavor than you anticipate,” Turner says. That said, “if you find the perfect piece for your project, it may very well be worth the additional time, effort, and money.” 

Make a plan for getting your treasures home.

Unless you happen to have a truck, are super strong, and have a circle of very accommodating friends and family standing by, you may need to hire some wheels and muscle. Start with asking the store owner if they have recommendations or people they work with, Turner says. Whoever you hire, “make sure they are reputable and have insurance!” 

Also be sure you can have the item picked up in a timely manner. I’ve found that some places will only hold an item for a day or so, but that’s also sometimes up for negotiation. It never hurts to ask!