On March 18, I was checking out of my favorite thrift stores when I asked Ya-Ya, my favorite clerk, if she was worried about the latest news on The Virus. “We’ve got hundreds of people who come through every day and we’re touching their stuff, their money, the pens they use to sign receipts ... I’m really getting nervous here.”
Three days later, the thrift shop closed and didn’t open again until May 4 (I live in Texas). For thrift shops that benefit local charities, a seven-week shutdown is a major blow to annual finances and the ability to help those in need. It’s also a blow to shoppers who are used to making daily runs to the shop, looking for the next great treasure or eBay windfall.
Just two weeks into the shut-down, I watched as our local Goodwill, women’s assistance thrift shop closed, and heard stories about people still dropping stuff outside the stores when no one was home. That’s about when my knee started to bounce. I realized I loved thrifting a whole lot more than I ever realized. I missed the hunt, the smell of old books, people’s poor decisions by giving away precious objects. But I missed fellow collectors the most.
These are the folks and clerks who make you smile the moment you see them. There’s David, who used to manage a high-end antiques shop in the chichi part of town, Joseph, the hairdresser, who is always fretting about how full his apartment is while holding a basket of new-found booty. Or that one woman who you forgot her name of after you first met and now resort to calling her “friend” whenever you bump into each other.
So, as my withdrawal only got worse, I did what you probably did, too: turned online. I have a love/hate relationship with buying treasures any other way.
1. In the case of online auction sites, you have to know what you’re looking for.
2. You can’t stumble across unusual smalls because people only post important items.
3. It’s just you, in your underwear, scrolling through page after page (boring!).
4. Garage sales went extinct March 1 (and for good reason).
So, to get my fix of hunting collectibles, I came up with a different approach: Collect Collectors.
eBay searches began with one word, say “antique” and the listings were immediately sorted by “Nearest First.” Hey, it was worth a shot, right?
Why hadn’t I thought of this before?
First, I found a seller in my city selling English Art Nouveau floral tiles from 1890-1910. Only one was listed and it was at a price, $33, which I would have happily paid if I had found a 100-year-old tile at a thrift shop. I bought the tile and asked the seller if they would meet me in a well-lit area in town to save on the $15 shipping. They agreed to meet in the parking lot of a local Target department store (close to the front doors).
When we met, I apologized for not shaking her hand. She was elderly, in her 80s, I presumed, and her name was Evelyn. She told me the tile was made in England by T. A. Simpson between 1900 and 1910. I asked her if there was a story behind it and she told me she had collected such tiles all her life. Tiles by Pilkington in England, others by American Encaustic Tiling Company of Zanesville, Ohio, examples of Scottish artist Margery Clinton’s work (whose lustre glazes are still considered the finest ever developed) and so on.
The next words out of my mouth: “Are you ready to sell other pieces from your collection?” Her face beamed with a broad smile. The next evening, we met again in the Target parking lot (close to the doors). When Evelyn popped her trunk, she opened a treasure chest. “The earliest ones are from around 1850,” she said.
We talked about where each one came from, how to decipher markings and even the history of some of the companies. She was a wealth of information and was delighted to share all she knew with someone else interested in her collecting. I gently asked her for her best price if I bought nine (to round out a collection of 10). She put her hand on her cheek and said, “For you, $10.” I refused at first and offered more. Nope. She wouldn’t hear of it. I picked out nine based on my taste. “And here I thought you were going to buy the expensive ones …,” she chuckled.
My next experience hunting collectors also paid off in spades. I turned more local: Facebook Marketplace (the greatest feature since sliced cheese). There I found the seller, Andy, offering a collection of segmented turning. It’s OK if you’re not familiar with the term. It’s a form of woodturning on a lathe in which the initial blank of wood is made by gluing several pieces together to create patterns and visual effects. The results are stunning. I reached out and we agreed to meet at his home about 35 miles away from me.
Tucked in two cardboard boxes were eight pieces in dazzling colors, sizes, and styles. Unique vases, bowls, and planters so skillfully made they made the leap from woodworking to pure art. They stood head and shoulders from the other turned vases on display in his home.
Once again, I asked the question about the backstory and Andy picked up an especially beautiful vase and began to explain that he purchased a set of nine at an estate auction of a woodworker named Gene Lee, eight of which were made by Lee and one made by an artist named Paul Thibodeau. Andy schooled me in the types of wood used, why the vase he was holding would be considered a “ring-constructed” vase, and so on. We spent an hour together, pulling out each one. I considered them masterpieces. This time I didn’t have to ask for a price. Andy looked at a bowl made in a tight swirling pattern and said, “I bought them as a box lot at the auction and didn’t pay all that much. How does $100 sound to you?” A C-note for eight pieces for quality craftsmanship came to about $11 each in my quick estimation – a no brainer.
I replied: “I’ll give them a good home.”
Now this method of finding treasures is probably not new to you experienced dealers reading this; however, meeting these interesting people and learning how they created their collections was the true treasure for me. Hearing Evelyn and Andy gush over why they loved these precious objects and why they kept them for so long and how one buy grew into an obsession was like sitting in a master class of antiques and fine art. I wish I had taken a notebook.
Texas is slowly opening the state to more and more businesses and thrift shops are among them. It was awesome visiting my favorite shop again and hearing that Ya-Ya took the shut-in period to relax, reconnect with family and friends and work around the house.
I didn’t find anything on the visit, which was OK since I kept my expectations low for a shop that had been shuttered for seven weeks. Looking over the donations, I knew that while I could have stumbled upon a treasure, I missed out on its history and how the previous owner came to own it and why they donated it to a thrift shop instead of selling it through Craigslist, eBay or Facebook.
When I got home that evening, I took a good hard look at my collection of tramp art, oddities and artwork of which I had no clue who owned them. I realized these precious objects just now started a new chapter in their history once I brought them home.
Some people say collectors are temporary caretakers of antiques. We’re more than that. We are history writers. We give every anonymous find a whole new story through circumstance, research and passion. Thrifting is more than just finding valuable things on the cheap. It is the start of a fresh, new history behind every piece, with the hope we can pass what we’ve learned along to another excited collector (at a special price, of course).