People often seem to think that there is some sort of hidden “secret” to finding the gems in thrift stores, garage sales and estate sales. But truth be told, the only secret is that it takes diligence! You cannot simply scan through a pile or rack and expect to strike gold, in the same manner that you cannot expect to find a hidden treasure in every cave. You have to have the treasure map… or at least a mental treasure map, and I’m giving mine to you for free. Use it wisely!
1) The best way to start anything is by doing research and several kinds of research. The first kind of research is, of course, finding the right places to shop.
To find thrift stores in your area, check online (try thriftshopper.com), but also don’t forget to to ask around. I’ve noticed that thrift stores are often not always listed online. Where do your friends thrift? Your mom? Your grandma? Surely you know someone who has some experience. There is more than one way to find out about these shops.
And before you go, plan out your route. It’s okay if you get off course, but be economical about your travel, or you probably aren’t saving any cash by thrifting anyway.
This list will be for thrift stores, but for listings of garage and estate sales, check craigslist or just about any local publication’s classified section. Also, I suggest taking a drive down major streets on Friday mornings. Look out for road signs to guide you in!
You’ll also want to do a secondary type of research. Decide what type of items you are looking for before you set out on a shopping spree. If you want to purchase clothing, check vintage fashion web sites, and consider what look you are going for. Or, skim through magazines (including online magazines) to discover fresh looks that you can recreate with old clothing. The key is to be open minded and creative.
2) Now get comfortable. If you want to find treasure, you might have to get a little dirty doing the grunt work. Thrift stores are often dusty places, and you might find yourself on your knees digging through shelves or piles. You wouldn’t want to ruin your latest vintage find. Remember vintage is invaluable, as it’s not easily replaced!
I also suggest wearing easily removable shoes with socks, jeans/sweats and a T-shirt, so you can easily try on items. Don’t wear anything bulky; you want to be able to try on things over your clothes if you need to.
3) You are now ready to start shopping! When you arrive at your destination, immediately dig into the area where you think you might find items you are looking for. Try not to get too distracted in other areas at first. You can check out these areas secondarily if you feel like you have the time. You do, after all, want to get what you came for.
4) Consider your options. I suggest using a cart or basket, if one is available, and picking up a few possibilities. That way, if you find something that you like and aren’t sure about, you can throw it in the cart for later consideration. Sometimes I find things that alone are not particularly outstanding in my size, but then I find the perfect compliment for it later that makes it amazing. For example, a top might not seem awesome until you find a stellar scarf and high-wasted skirt to pair with it. You can always discard items if you don’t find a good match. (Try to be respectful of employees at thrift shops, though; return items where you found them later.) Or, you could go ahead and take a gamble by purchasing it, and try to find something to wear with it elsewhere. And don’t forget that you have your own wardrobe at home that is certainly not off limits for mixing and matching.
5) Remember to be diligent in your search. I don’t know about you, but my favorite vintage items have never jumped out to bite me. In fact, I’ve found that my best finds are at the bottom of a pile somewhere, and that’s why they’ve been overlooked. I usually take great pains to dig through things that others won’t bother with.
6) One of the most important things about choosing your items is to carefully inspect the quality. First and foremost, check for rips and stains. Not everything will be in pristine condition. Unless you are a pro seamstress and want to do some handy work, I suggest moving on if the item fails this test.
7) Also, bare in mind how the item will have to be cared for. If you don’t want to take things to the dry cleaner, don’t buy dry clean only items.
8) Any item that has moved on to round two should be tried on so that you can get an idea of the fit. Fit is everything! Even if there is not a dressing room, you can always try things on over your clothes. This is why I told you not to wear anything bulky. Keep in mind that clothing sizes used to be different (and smaller than sizes today). You can usually find a full length mirror to check things out in the furniture section of thrift stores.
9) If you are looking for true blue vintage, there are several ways to identify it. Look at that tag. If it’s a recognizable brand, is the logo current? I’ve found some really neat vintage Gap before, for instance. Chances are you won’t recognize the brand, but you might be able to find a date on the back of the tag if you’re lucky. If you have an iPhone, this might be a good time to do some Google searching to identify a brand.
More than likely, your best bet for dating something is to really look at the cut, fit, stitching and obviously, the style. Certainly, this will take experience to learn the various eras of fashion, but over time you will learn if you put effort into it. If you’ve ever wondered why people shop vintage stores (like my vintage shop) rather than thrift, it’s because this is definitely a discipline to be learned.
10) Now that you’ve evaluated your primary merchandise and decided what you want, it’s time to dig into to the secondary items in the store that you overlooked earlier. I would suggest only doing this if you have the time. Remember, time is money! If you haven’t found what you want, move on to another store. Be choosey. Don’t buy something just to buy it. However, if you feel you do have some extra time, women should check the men’s section and vice versa. I actually find most of my t-shirts in the men’s section.