7 Things You’re Not Doing When You Thrift Shop—but Should Be

published Jan 17, 2020
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Who doesn’t love the thrill of walking into a flea market or a vintage store and heading home with a major steal? Secondhand shopping is an excellent way to score amazing pieces for the home—both furniture and accessories. But the process can seem daunting if you aren’t all about the hunt. Well, that’s where I come in. As an avid secondhand shopper myself, I decided to up my own game by chatting with Amy Hughes, the owner of Salvage Style, a vintage furniture and design shop located at Maplewood Mercantile in Maplewood, NJ. She shared her secrets on how to make the most of your next secondhand shopping adventure, and now I’m paying it forward by passing them on to you.

Don’t Judge a Book By Its Cover

“Look past a piece’s flaws, as long as it has good bones,” Hughes advises. “Part of the fun is uncovering a gem and bringing it back to life.” If you find something that you’re sure would look stunning if it just got a makeover, don’t be afraid to bring it home for a little TLC. Hughes says that a little bit of Howard Feed-N-Wax will revive dry or dull woodwork, and some extra fine steel wool will majorly improve a neglected piece.

Similarly, note that furniture can easily be painted, so if you come across the perfect campaign dresser but aren’t jazzed about the color, don’t be deterred. I’ve spray painted many secondhand pieces over the years and have always loved the process of personalizing them to best fit my aesthetic and color scheme at the time.

Be Prepared to Make Snap Purchases

When buying secondhand, deliberation generally isn’t your friend. “If you love it, don’t leave it—not even for five minutes,” Hughes says, noting that if you spot a piece that’s calling your name, it’s best to act quickly rather than leaving it behind and wandering across the room to scope out other options.

It’s easier to feel confident in your decision when you already have a strong sense of your personal style and know what specific brands and items are made well and worth bringing home. I personally can’t resist caned furniture or anything faux bamboo, so I’m always keeping my eyes peeled for such items when out thrifting. Hughes notes that Knoll, Herman Miller, Lane, Drexel, Thomasville, and Baker are all excellent furniture makers that produce classic, quality pieces, so keep an eye out for such manufacturers’ logos or signatures during your next treasure hunt. (And if you want to get started, there are several pieces from those designers over on Apartment Therapy’s Bazaar!)

Leave Wiggle Room in Your Budget

While you don’t want to throw all budgeting rules out the window, you may want to allow yourself some flexibility spending-wise just in case you come across that perfect piece. “It’s better to love something and spend an extra $25,” Hughes says. Plus, per her piece of advice above, you probably won’t find the exact same item again, so this may be your one chance to snag an investment item or modern heirloom. Also, note that some vendors, particularly at flea markets, are cash only. So make sure to stop by an ATM while en route, just in case!

Always Keep Your Eyes Peeled

There’s no need to limit your secondhand search to your neighborhood or town—you may find gorgeous pieces while traveling all across the country and can often ship them home for a couple extra bucks, Hughes explains. She herself once purchased a piece of art for $100 in Palm Springs and mailed it back to her home in New Jersey for just $40. I, too, have followed the “keep an eye out when you travel” rule, maybe a bit too much. While in Charleston a few years back, I came across a brass bamboo coffee table that had been left out on a sidewalk. After determining that the item was indeed free for the taking, I was able to disassemble it and mail the pieces to my apartment in DC for just $60. And to think I almost didn’t turn down that particular block!

Credit: Heather Bien

Know What to Avoid

While Hughes feels that most secondhand home items are fair game, she does note that upholstered furniture will most likely need to be redone, which can be costly. That said, “Leather is fabulous to buy vintage,” says Hughes, as long as it isn’t ripped.

Buy What Makes You Happy

Follow your gut when thrift shopping and allow yourself to gravitate to the pieces that speak to you—rather than the items that are the most on trend, Hughes says. “A lot of secondhand shopping is all about finding things that represent your personality, evoke a memory about a place that you’ve traveled, or remind you of a person that was important to you or an experience that you’ve had,” she reflects. “The beauty of vintage and thrift is finding something that’s unique and personal.”

Get Social

Many vintage sellers these days (including Hughes’ Salvage Style) are on social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook. Following their accounts basically gives you a scoop on inventory. While they don’t post everything—meaning it’s always worth swinging by a favorite shop to browse, you may spy a marquee piece or two that they’re acquiring for their store or flea market stand before the rush. If you’re serious about something you see, don’t be afraid to comment or call the store about it. The secondhand shopping community is a friendly one.