HGTV's Decorating With Style Project Instructions
Segment #375

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:

Notebook  —  Get a little spiral-bound notebook and fill it with measurements and sizes.

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  —  A magnet wonít stick to gold, silver, copper, brass, pewter, or aluminum. It will, however, stick to thin plating over some kind of ferrous (iron-containing) metal.

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.

Small flashlight  —   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 furniture.

Tape measure  —   I have both a metal, retractable type (best for measuring anything big) and a cloth-tape type (best for measuring clothing or anything rounded).

Pocket knife  —   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.

Screwdriver  —   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.

Handy Wipes  —   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 places.

First-aid kit  —   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.

Gloves  —  These 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 magazine rack.

Binoculars  —  I 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.

Padding  —  I 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 or purse!

Fix-a-flat  —  Itís 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.

Polaroid camera  —   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  —   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 prices?

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
Nashville, Tennessee
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