How to Score the Best Treasures When Shopping Second-Hand

Mar 17 2017

by Kate Spears

The Southern Coterie blog: "How to Score the Best Treasures when Shopping Second-Hand" by Kate Spears (photo: Kelli Boyd Photography for The Southern C + Visit Tybee)
One woman’s lime is another woman’s limeade. Sometimes you have to work a little to see the potential. (photo: Kelli Boyd Photography for The Southern C and Visit Tybee)

Some people like to travel to distant lands so they can eat delicious food, explore exotic places and experience the local culture. Those things are all wonderful, and yes they are part of any great trip. But for me, the best part of traveling is the thrift shops.

I’m a thrift store shopper from way back. As a kid, my grandmother, mom and aunt would pile all of us into the car and drive to the nearest town with a Goodwill (about seventy miles away) where we’d spend the day hunting for treasures. What can I say? I love looking through other people’s junk. It’s a good thing my husband doesn’t mind this about me, because it’s come to be part of any trip we take together. I have been to thrift shops everywhere from Charleston to Atlanta, Birmingham to Destin, Nashville to Asheville and beyond.

I get it, thrift shops aren’t for everyone. Some folks get grossed out by other people’s cast offs. They’d rather buy stuff brand new. But for those of us on a budget, with a penchant for the thrill of the hunt, thrift shops are our mecca.

And it’s not just thrift shops where you can find great items for a bargain. I also enjoy estate sales, antique shops and consignment stores. You just never know what you’re going to find.

For example, I once found a silk Chanel scarf while digging through a bin of scarves at a thrift shop outside Atlanta. Other treasures I have stumbled on include handcrafted sterling silver jewelry, fabulous leather goods, lovely antique china and pottery, and amazing mid century modern furniture. My growing collection of white ironstone pottery? All thrifted. My like-new Kate Spade purse? Bought for a steal at a consignment shop on my last business trip.

If you’re not a seasoned thrift shop connoisseur like me, it might seem intimidating to dive in. That’s why I’m sharing some of my time-honored tips. Maybe you’ll feel inspired to visit a second-hand shop and see for yourself.

My first tip is “Shop Early, Shop Often.”

Estate sales and yard sales aren’t for the faint of heart…you must get there early to find the best selection. There are some great community sales in my city put on by local churches and other nonprofit organizations and folks line up before the doors even open. The Knoxville Junior League has an annual fundraiser event called Bag-A-Bargain, which I attended a few weeks ago. Some of my loot included a really cool piece of folk art pottery and a classic LL Bean canvas tote for a couple of bucks.

In the case of yard sales, estate sales and church/community sales, the early bird gets the worm.

The second part of my first tip is “Shop Often” and this particularly applies to shopping at thrift stores. Thrift stores have inventories that are always changing. You may not find exactly what you’re looking for the first time you visit. My secret for success is to drop by frequently to increase your chances of stumbling upon treasures.

Not only that, but you can’t be afraid to dig. Second hand stores are rarely organized or merchandised like traditional retail stores. Often you have to dig through boxes and bins to find the good stuff. My Chanel scarf was dug out of a box…and it only cost $.99 (yes, that’s 99 cents!). But if I hadn’t rooted around, I would have missed it.

My next tip is to do your homework and plan ahead. Think about what you’re looking for before you shop and do some homework on how to identify particular items. Maybe you want to start collecting mismatched vintage flatware. Go online and read about different makers and their marks. If you want sterling silver, you’ll want to look for pieces marked with 925 (a code for sterling). Pieces marked “EPNS” are electroplated nickel silver and not sterling, but you can get them for a great deal. It all depends on what you want when shopping second-hand.

When I started collecting ironstone pottery, I spent some time learning about the various pottery studios like Johnson Brothers and Meakin, so that I’d recognize these marks when I ran across certain pieces.

My final tips for finding second hand treasures involve asking yourself a couple of questions before making a purchase:

1) Does the item have value?


2) Does the item have potential?

When I say value, I don’t necessarily mean monetary value. It’s just about what kind of value it has to you. Maybe the item is something you need or something you’ve been wanting to find for a long time. Perhaps it’s something a friend would love to receive as a gift. We can’t buy everything we come across just because the price is right. And this helps to keep that in perspective.

Same goes for thinking about an item’s potential. Everything you see in a thrift shop or at an estate sale might not appeal to you at first glance. But it’s important to think about what the potential might be…maybe with a coat of paint or a little updating, it would be something really great. A great example of this is a recent purchase of mine, a lamp at a thrift shop. The color was kind of drab and the shade didn’t look like much but I loved the shape of the lamp itself. With a coat of paint and a new shade, it got new life and has gotten many compliments since finding a home in my living room.

I wish we could all go thrift store shopping together sometime! But until then, I hope these tips, from a serial thrifter, will inspire you to seek out treasures of your own. You might really love it. And if you’re already a card carrying member of the thrift store coalition, share your best tips in the comments!


Kate Spears View More Blog Posts from this Author

Kate Spears is a self-proclaimed Southern belle who grew up in a tiny town near Nashville, but now calls Knoxville home. She graduated from the University of Tennessee (Big Orange Country!) with an undergraduate degree in art history and a master’s in public relations & advertising. In 2009, she started her blog, Southern Belle Simple, with the simple hope of giving herself a creative outlet. She continues to be amazed each time it leads to a new opportunity and cherishes the relationships that are formed along the way.

Kate is passionate about family history, time-honored traditions, and her Southern heritage. Her people hail from across the South, from the Lone Star State of Texas to the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. She grew up spending summers on her great-grandparents’ Tennessee farm where she developed a deep appreciation and admiration for people who could coax beautiful and delicious things out of a mound of dirt. She comes from faithful men, devoted women, hard workers and wickedly good cooks.

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One response on “How to Score the Best Treasures When Shopping Second-Hand

  1. Carol

    I too am a thruster from ” way back”, half my home came from thrift stores, flea markets and auctions. Love a good bargain, thanks for the article! Thrift on!

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