HGTV's Decorating With Style
Tips On Shopping For Old Things
By Maude Gold Kiser
I appeared on HGTV's Decorating With Style several times back in the 1990s, and this is the written version of the segment I did on shopping for old things. Click here to see what I'm working on now.
Whether at flea markets, antiques stores, junk stores, garage sales, thrift shops, or auctions, I'd rather go junking than just about anything else in life. It's my vocation, avocation, and therapy Over the years I've discovered a variety of useful tools that make my junkets more productive and keep these things in my car at all times. After all, you never know when an opportunity to shop might arise.
I keep all these tools (at least those that will fit) in a little 1940s overnight bag, but there are any number of other possibilities. The main thing is to keep them all together where you can easily lay your hands on what you need, without having to search all over your vehicle for it. If you're going to a flea market, transfer the notebook, magnet, measuring tape, knife, and other applicable essentials to a big cloth shopping bag (with a shoulder strap) or back pack large enough to also hold some of your finds (and keep another bag folded up inside your main bag as a spare).
What your kit should include:
a little spiral-bound notebook and fill it with measurements
Iíve asked professional estate-sale handlers what question they get
asked most often by shoppers, and it tickles the heck out of me how many of
them have said that theyíre regularly asked whether or not a piece of
furniture will fit a particular spot in a customer's home. Silly as this may
seem, they swear itís true. The obvious solution to this common problem is
to have all your measurements with you (of particular importance at sales
and auctions, where if you donít buy the thing now, itís gone), not just for those
places that youíre actively seeking a piece for, but full-room dimensions
and any spaces in your house where you might conceivably want to put
something, as well as door and window openings, and anyplace else you can
think of. Yes, it may take you a few hours to do all this measuring, but
itís worth it (especially when it saves you extra trips home or costly mistakes as
a result of miscalculations). This is a good project to get kids to help you
with, or, even better, to do it for you (as long as theyíre old enough to
understand the concept of accuracy).
Also handy to have in your notebook are the clothing and shoe sizes
of your family (I could never remember my husbandís sizes until I started
doing this) and anyone else you think you might run into an item of clothing
for (e.g. extended family, friends, neighbors, co-workers). For men, include
neck, waist, shoulder-to-shoulder (measure a jacket across the back from the
top of one sleeve seam to the top of the other), and chest measurements,
along with inseam and sleeve lengths, as menís clothes often donít have
sizes in them (although sometimes youíll find sizes hidden inside pockets
or flies, so be sure to check there just in case; fabric content and care instructions
are also sometimes hidden there, too). Depending on the number of people you
might want to include on this list, a couple of hours on the telephone will
get you all the information.
I highly recommend adding this idea to your list of things to do right now (or, at least, put a note about it
on your refrigerator right now), and do it as soon as possible. The longer
you wait, the less likely it becomes that youíll ever get around to it.
Then the next time you have to walk away from a good deal, or buy something
that fits nowhere or no one, youíll kick yourself.
magnet wonít stick to gold, silver, copper, brass, pewter, or aluminum.
It will, however, stick to thin plating over some kind of ferrous
Magnifying glass I
like the kind that has a built in light, but any kind will do. Use it
for reading tiny print on jewelry, silver, etc., as well as for examining
surfaces, for example, to see if a decoration is painted on or is a decal
(which are made up of a series of tiny dots).
Metal Polish I
keep a little tube of metal polish and an old sock with me, but a
polishing cloth (found at most jewelry stores) is a good alternative.
Keep either of these in a zip-lock baggie. Use this for revealing what might lie
beneath tarnished surfaces (polish up only a tiny spot, lest you inadvertently
drive up the price) and for making markings more legible.
I like those little Mag-lite type flashlights; they give off a lot of
light and take up little space in my kit. This is a must-have for
illuminating dark nooks and crannies in junk and antiques stores, as well as
in attics, basements, garages, and barns (my favorite places to dig for
buried treasures). Itís also useful for examining inside and underneath
I have both a metal, retractable type (best for measuring anything big)
and a cloth-tape type (best for measuring clothing or anything rounded).
Make sure itís sharp. Use this to reveal what lies beneath paint. Always
pick an inconspicuous spot, and scrape away only a smidgen of paint. Always
ask permission before attempting this.
You should have both a regular and a Phillips head screwdriver. You never
know what might need to be taken apart. Actually, a Swiss Army knife (the
Super Tinker is an excellent choice) has both of these screwdrivers, a knife,
and tweezers (about to be mentioned) included in the same tool.
For obvious reasons, carry either the small pre-packaged kind or a box
of baby wipes. To me, any shopping experience I have to wash my hands after
is usually a good one. Iíve found some of my best stuff in the dirtiest
You never know what youíll run into out there, so itís good to be prepared.
I keep Band-Aids, antiseptic/anti-itch ointment/spray (like Bactine or Lanacane),
tweezers, hydrogen peroxide (or alcohol if youíre braver than I am),
ibuprofen/aspirin, and anything else you can think of. Get the travel-sized
containers to save space.
Bug spray, suntan lotion, and a hat You can get a mighty good sunburn and zillions of bug bites during a day at a flea market, garage sales, or outside auctions.
Snacks I donít
like having to stop someplace to eat when Iím out shopping. I always feel as
though while Iím sitting there eating, someone is buying up what could have
been mine. Not only that, but if youíre going to a flea market or auction the
food can be a bit pricey, and, personally, Iíd rather spend two bucks on a
thing, than on a hot dog. Keep trail mix, candy/energy bars, peanut
butter or cheese crackers, and/or beef sticks, etc. in your kit at all times. Keep some bottled water in the car, too (I think it tastes
better at room/car temperature than other possibilities). In addition,
if youíre going on an all day shopping trip, bring along a cooler with a
picnic lunch you can eat on the road. Donít forget to pack drinks, too.
are useful when carrying heavy, sharp, rusty, or grimy pieces, as
well as for digging around anyplace where itís dark, dirty, buggy, or all
of the above. Wearing gloves Iíve dug through places that I never would have
considered bare handed.
Map Book I
like city map books much better than regular maps when Iím going garage
sailing. Theyíre much easier to handle and read, and can make all the difference
in being able to find a sale, especially in a part of town youíre not
familiar with. I wore out one a year until I decided to put a plastic cover
on the thing. Punching holes in it and putting it in a binder is also a good
way to keep your book intact. You can usually find these at gas station/quick
marts, grocery, drug, or bookstores, and anyplace else where thereís a
have a pair of opera glasses, but any kind will do. I keep them within
reach when Iím driving around looking for garage sales and use them to read
those hard-to-read signs. It also allows you to read a sign thatís on the
other side of an intersection, while youíre waiting at a red light.
Piece of red fabric
I keep a red bandanna in my kit. This is necessary for hanging on anything
thatís extending from your vehicle.
Rope and/or bungee cords
Youíll need these for tying your trunk or tailgate closed or, possibly,
to tie something to your roof.
keep a movers blanket in the back of my truck, but any kind of old
quilt, mattress pad, blanket, etc., will do. Having some towels and/or
bubble wrap with you is also a good idea (use them to wrap up larger
breakable or easily scratchable items like lamps, big vases, mirrors, etc.).
Spare keys You
pull up to a sale, and, in your excitement to get at the goods, you
lock your keys in the car. Now, not only do you lose precious shopping
time, but, if you have to call a lock smith, money you otherwise could have
spent on stuff. Donít forget to keep these spare keys in your pocket
a good idea to carry this temporary, flat-tire fixer (found in
auto supply stores and departments) with you wherever you go. You squirt it
in your tire when itís either starting to go flat or already has, and it
will usually get you to a gas station (or, depending on how far it is, home,
where you can change the tire after unloading your car. You havenít lived until
youíve had to empty out a full day's shopping on the side of a road and then
reload it all again).
Plastic tarp, tablecloth, or shower curtain
This is for covering up something tied to your roof or sticking out the
back of your vehicle.
Umbrella, rain slicker, and/or hat, and rubber boots
The umbrella and/or rain slicker are a must when you want to keep shopping
on those days that turn rainy halfway through. A waterproof collapsable hat is also a good idea. The boots are because you never know where youíre gonna run into mud (or other less-than-desirable substances such as those you might find in an old barn).
Hat, sunglasses, and/or umbrella In this case, to protect you from the sun. A hat also comes in handy to protect you from gross things hanging over your head.
Big shirt and old shoes
These are for when those chance opportunities to shop arise and youíre
caught wearing white (and the place is less than tidy), or you have on hose
and heels (and where you need to go requires something more substantial).
Batteries, light bulb,
blank cassette tape, cd, and/or dvd These are optional, but sure can be
useful, especially at flea markets and garage sales where you might run into
something that needs one of these items in order to test it to see if
it works. Iíve also brought along bread when shopping for a toaster or
toaster oven, and a record when shopping for a record player.
This is real handy if youíre shopping for furniture at antiques or junk
stores. You can take pictures of the pieces you like along the way. Write
the price, name of the shop, and phone number on the picture (and/or paper
clip the shops business card to it).
Empty boxes and plastic bags
I regularly run into a need for these both at sales where spare boxes can be scarce or, more likely, non-existent. I usually bring along at least a couple of them. Plastic bags are another good idea.
The rest of these things arenít part of the kit, but are just as important to remember.
Empty out your vehicle
Before leaving home, make sure to remove any and all superfluous objects
from your car/van/truck, lest they take up valuable space that might
otherwise be filled with treasure.
Cash sometimes talks when cutting deals. And sometimes cash is all theyíll
take. Make sure you have plenty of small bills, as change for larger bills
can sometimes be at a premium. By the way, unusual money (two dollar bills, fifty cent
pieces, Susan B. Anthony and silver dollars, all readily available at most
banks) can sometimes have the most amazing affect on prices if you hold it
where they can see it when asking if theyíd take that amount. In complete
contradiction to this: I write checks at garage sales all the time. Iíve
written them for as little as a couple of bucks. It helps me keep track of
what Iím spending and gives me a receipt. Even if I have money in my pocket,
Iíll still ask if theyíll take a check, and, more often than not, they will.
Shopping partners who like to shop
If, at all possible, when youíre out to do some serious or even casual
treasure hunting, go with someone who really enjoys it, or go alone. Those
who are uninitiated and/or unenthusiastic tend to be ready to leave a sale
or go home long before you are. Never talk a spouse into coming along for
the same reason, but, if itís unavoidable, suggest that he or she bring along
something to read or some tapes to listen to.
A friendly attitude
The most common complaint I hear from dealers is that theyíre constantly
confronted with people who, though they would never consider getting huffy
over prices in a department store or restaurant, get downright testy when
shopping for antiques and other second-hand goods. Some people even seem to
think that itís a necessary part of the game. This phenomenon is perhaps the
primary provocation for grumpy dealers. (Howíd you like to spend day after
day dealing with customers who get sulky and even downright rude over your
Can you imagine what theyíd say if you told a clerk in a department
store that you saw a blouse just like this elsewhere for a lot less, or told
a waitperson in a restaurant that youíll offer $5.00 for a steak priced
at $15.00?) While itís a perfectly acceptable aspect of this kind of shopping
to ask if a dealer or yard sale holder would be willing to take less for an
item (unless you know it to be priced fairly, in which case asking
if theyíd take less may work against you in other negotiations), itís been
my experience that the best results can be achieved by being friendly, fair,
and reasonable when haggling over prices (one catches more flies with honey. . .).
Itís also a good idea to chat a bit with the person before getting down to
wheeling and dealing. It warms things up a bit, gives them the opportunity
to like you, and often can increase your chances of getting the best possible
deal. If they wonít come down to a price youíre willing to pay, consider
leaving your telephone number and asking them to call you if they should
change their mind (often the case if the thing is still there at the end of
a sale or if a dealer still has the piece a few months later).
Copyright ©1998-2007 by Maude Gold Kiser
The Gold-Kiser Company
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