Spring is nearly here, and that means garage sale signs will start popping up in yards like dandelions. Spring flea markets and vintage sales are scheduled to perfectly coincide with nature’s pull to feather our nests. As a curator for my own home and also my retail store, this is a time of year where I am doing a lot of hunting for those perfect treasures. Here is my top 5 tips for successful shopping this spring:
1. Know what you are after.
Flea market and yard sale shopping isn’t like walking into a box store to pick out that one thing. There really isn’t a guarantee that you’ll find exactly the piece you’re looking for. Instead, I start out with a list of things I’m hunting (I use Wunderlist on my phone for this). Sometimes, for me, it is a broader category because I love to offer collections of items in the store and build an inventory of finds around a story I'm trying to tell - a look. I also feel like a collection has more impact in home décor as well. For example, I’ve been picking up a lot of antique beekeeping and honey items recently. As my collection grows, I'm loving how the items compliment each other in ways a single item might not. The look starts to feel pulled together. I am always drawn to kitchen scales with beautiful patina. Remember groups of threes as the start of a "collection." If you are shopping for a specific piece of furniture, have the necessary dimensions with you and a tape measure so you can be sure if a piece is the right size or not.
2. Bring your own bag.
There is nothing more frustrating while I'm at a big sale than finding a beautiful pile of green handled vintage kitchen gadgets while not being able to grab them all because my hands are full. The solution: canvas shopping totes. While some folks allow you to pile things up by the check out table, I find keeping my stash in a bag allows me to end up with more of my horde than if I just pile it up. And if I need to set down a bag and go back for more my treasures are safely tucked into my tote. Having a bag lets me sort back through the items as I take them out to purchase giving me an opportunity to decide if I really want that item or not.
3. Disregard color and prioritize lines.
You can paint nearly anything, so try not to the color of a piece dissuade you from buying it. Most people can tackle a DIY paint job. The Hoosier cabinet pictured above was a terrible color before I repainted it using milk paint. The door was not salvageable, but a burlap curtain fit the spot with a tension rod for a quick, cute fix. More important is the material – avoid water damaged veneer or furniture made of mdf. I once had a drawer replaced on a tigerwood dresser and that drawer cost me twice as much as the dresser. Paint, however, is a simple fix. Paint can transform a piece, so try to imagine the piece painted a different color. As you walk around, try to make yourself “color blind” and instead consider the form and shape of a piece. Look for unique details like cute latches, a curved front, or molding which makes the item special. A little wear can add to the appeal of a vintage or antique piece. I like a little flaking, cracking paint. Even tricky drawers can usually be remedied with the help of a hammer and a sander. Some of the best finds are ones which require a little help putting back together, but don’t overspend on project pieces.
4. Head to the back.
I once attended a farm estate sale where folks had signed up to “enter” the farmyard in order of arrival. I applaud the organizers for attempting some form order from the impending chaos of the hundreds of people who had gathered. It was an amazing sale. The gates opened at 8 am.; the earliest signature was written at 2:45 am. People were literally camping out for this sale; trust me it happens! In the end, those sleepy shoppers didn’t really get more than two minutes of extra shopping time. A purpose a better strategy; one that allows for a morning coffee at least. If a market event offers an early shopping pass, I pay the money. This is the only way to find the most amazing pieces and the best deals. While the crowd surges to those first few booths or items at the entrance, head to the back. You’ll be able to look in peace and have a chance to see some things before others look. As a side note, I figure there are thousands upon thousands of old coffee tins and vintage linens, none of which is more important than another human being. Nothing at a tag sale is worth a fight to me.
5. Pay what it’s worth.
I have lucked upon some incredible deals and finds while out shopping at thrift stores, flea markets and garage sales. My home is filled with these wonderful treasures and it is the basis of my shop Red Barn Designs at the Shops at Station 8 in Columbia Falls and at the Market Beautiful. That being said, it matters to me that the folks I am buying from are treated with respect and are getting what they want for their cast offs. I am often able to negotiate a better price on items when grouping things together, but I feel like it all works out best when everyone is happy. Building relationships, especially in small communities, means people send me to their friends or call me up when they have wonderful treasures because I have treated them well. I have to be the judge if I think I can make a profit on a piece in the store, so I am ok saying no to an item I don’t think I can mark up. Often times people are unaware of the value of their possessions. For example, a sweet woman contacted me recently about some antique enamelware she wanted to sell. I had bought a number of things from her, and was glad she called me. Her collection was incredible, but she had no sense of the price she could ask. I asked her what she would like for it as a starting place. Her price was significantly less than what I had expected to pay, even allowing for a markup for the store. I felt it important to be fair to her; I offered her double what she wanted. Because even at that price, I should be able to make a profit on the items and it is important to me that I honor and respect this lady. For me, one of the joys of being a vendor at a market is the camaraderie among vendors and the opportunity to interact with shoppers who love vintage and antiques the way I do. I’ve been on both sides of the coin, and when it comes to negotiating prices, I advice that folks follow the good ol’ Golden Rule.
Photos by Leah Lamberson Photography - Selah Farm Sale 2016