The Good Eye: How To Score Big At Flea Markets And Thrift Stores (Without Exhausting Yourself)

To keep myself on the straight and narrow, and to ensure ongoing success at thrift stores and flea markets wherever I go, I now follow these basic rules.
Publish date:
February 11, 2013
thriftiness, budgeting, budget shopping, thrifting

I haven’t always had the fortitude to make good life choices at thrift stores and flea markets.

Case in point: Back in 2006, I was a 23-year-old living abroad. My German friend, Jonas, had recently become my German roommate. We were both beyond broke. So broke that getting the apartment deposit together pretty much depleted our bank accounts. Furnishing the place wasn’t going to be easy.

Besides our respective mattresses (frameless, on the floor), we decided that a kitchen table was our first priority. We scraped 50 Euro together and earmarked it for the upcoming Sunday flea market, where we were certain we could find a table that would “really tie the room together.”

I don’t remember what we got up to the night before. However, as it was a Saturday night in Berlin, I’m pretty sure it was nothing restive or wholesome. We probably stumbled home at twilight and didn’t stumble back out again until late afternoon, shortly before the market vendors started packing things back up.

When we did arrive, we were in poor shape. I was cotton mouthed and forgot my sunglasses. Jonas was wearing last night’s smelly T-shirt, inside out most likely, and drinking an Apfelschorle -- a beverage so simple and refreshing (half apple juice, half seltzer) that it still hasn’t cracked the US market. We tried to stay focused.

We darted toward vendors with the larger wares first. They had some OK pieces. There was a thin-legged Eastern Block table that we pawed at kind of listlessly, and I remember some solid wood desks that would have sufficed for dining, but also would have required a small tank to transport. Walking on, we came across something that we could not resist. Not in our weakened states.

It wasn’t a table. No, what stole our hearts that day was about the most impractical thing we could have lugged home on a hot August afternoon. It was a 1940s record player with old-timey knobs, a wooden body, built-in speakers and a prop-up lid. It was gorgeous. It was the size of a small oven. I had to have it. Did it still work? It did. Would he take 50 Euro? He would.

Only when we got home did we realize that we’d spent our only disposable income on a giant record player, which we most definitely did not need, instead of a table, which we most certainly did.

Making due, we ate cereal off the lid of that record player for a good month or two, all the while listening to old Foreigner and Talking Heads records. It made me feel young and alive! Then, suddenly, it made it me feel young and foolish, because I was eating off a record player instead of a real grownup table. I vowed to avoid such lapses in judgment in future secondhand transactions.

To keep myself on the straight and narrow, and to ensure ongoing success at thrift stores and flea markets wherever I go, I now follow these basic rules:


• Be rested: Do not attempt to find secondhand treasure on less than 6 hours of sleep. Do not go hungover. Or while slogging off remnants of a cold. Do any of these things and God will smite you.

• Be well fed: You can’t maintain a sharp eye while your stomach is growling. I like to eat something nice and heavy before heading out, like a burrito. Scavenging is exercise, after all.

• Go to the bathroom: They probably don’t have toilets where you’re going, and nothing kills the vintage bushwhacking spirit like having to track down a Starbuck’s bathroom.

• Have cash money: Am I the only one who finds those smartphone credit card swipers slightly suspect? Regardless, not everyone accepts credit cards, so be sure to have a big mix of cold, hard cash.


• Scan first. As you stroll down an aisle or through a booth, quickly analyze the fabric or material before giving an article of clothing, furniture or do-dad genuine consideration (i.e., taking it off the rack or picking it up). Does that graying black sweater have visible pillage? Don’t bother -- it’s overwashed and wasn’t a quality fabric to begin with.

Is that shelf made of solid slab of wood? Seems so, let’s take a closer look. This is the biggest time saver there is, allowing you to focus your energies on things you’d actually want to consider. It is a hasty method, true -- but your first instincts are usually correct.

• Look at labels: When it comes to clothes and furniture, older is generally better. Things -- even mass-produced things -- were simply made more durably prior to the 90s. Furniture dating before then is more likely to be made of solid materials and clothing is more likely to have clean cuts and reinforced stitching. Can’t tell how old it is from looking at it? Look at the label. If the typeface looks dated, it’s probably an older item, and will hold up well for you too.

• Use size inflation to your advantage: We all know that a size 6 today is substantially larger than a size 6 in the 1970’s, but vintage items will still be hung in accordance with the size listed on the label. Be sure to look at size sections one to three numbers above your normal size and you’ll still find things that fit you that you’d have otherwise missed.

• Look high and lo: You know how grocery stores put less-stellar deals on eye-level shelves, and the money savers on higher and lower ones? Well, the same effect happens somewhat unintentionally at secondhand stores—people pick over what’s in plain site, so stoop down to see what’s hidden on the bottom shelves and reach high to see what shorter people can’t get at.

• Forget what you came for: It’s Murphy’s law that you won't find whatever it was you set your heart on finding, so don’t waste all your energy on locating that retro Crockpot or perfectly broken-in Pendleton flannel. Keep an eye out, yes, but remain cognizant of all the other wonderful wares around you and hone in on the treasures lurking there.


• When to say YES: It’s not always readily apparent, in the moment, whether you need that mint-condition Elf lunchbox or simply want it. In general, you should buy a discovered item if you know you will regret it for the rest of your life if you don’t get to take it home with you that very day. Another good reason: It’s a good deal and you can think of an exact spot in your home for it OR a person you’d like to give it you. Also a valid reason: You know, for a fact, that you could sell it for at least double on Ebay.

• When to say NO: If it needs altering or refurbishing and you are neither a seamstress nor a handywoman, then forget it -- you won’t cherish it and it will only collect dust. If you like it, but would never pay the asking price for it, then you can probably live without it as well. Also good reasons to hold off: It smells (old smells die hard) or you’d have to adopt a totally new style to pull it off.