Thrift Shop Decisions Can Turn Into Real Brain Teasers

Writer and thrift shop junkie Eric Bradley is attracted to everything from vintage slot machines to Staffordshire porcelain to tilt-top tea tables to taxidermy.  But why? Turns out, the rush of finding a treasure has less to do with our heart and more to do with our brain.
Author:
Publish date:
This framed art from Peru is bound to make any thrift store shopper smile, but is that reason enough to buy it? The answer was yes for our intrepid thrift store junkie Eric Bradley.

This framed art from Peru is bound to make any thrift store shopper smile, but is that reason enough to buy it? The answer is yes for our intrepid writer Eric Bradley.

Collectors and resellers obviously have lots of love for their favorite thrift stores, overcrowded consignment shops and (maybe) even bulk garbage day in affluent neighborhoods. The hour or so spent browsing the wares that are already out and waiting for the next volunteer to bring out a fresh shopping cart stacked high with freshly priced goodies is a thrill we can feel down to our toes.

When I’m wandering a shop or show, I wonder why I’m attracted to everything from vintage slot machines to Staffordshire porcelain to tilt-top tea tables to taxidermy. Why? Why do so many of us find such a diverse selection of fascinating things, well, just plain fascinating? We collectors and resellers may think the rush of finding a treasure comes from our hearts, but it really comes from the center of our brains.

The emotional rush of a purchase can overpower the thinking part of the brain, which can lead to buyer's remorse once the thrift store shopper gets his treasure home.

The emotional rush of a purchase can overpower the thinking part of the brain, which can lead to buyer's remorse once the thrift store shopper gets his treasure home.

Just above the “reptilian” segment that controls automatic functions such as breathing and heartbeats, sits a multi-section part of the brain called the limbic system, just below the more sophisticated and rational “thinking section” called the cerebral cortex aka the neocortex. The limbic system has five parts, but in particular it features one key section that influences most collectors: the amygdala and the basal ganglia. Look, I’m no neurologist so please stick with me here. The truly interesting aspect of these sections is that they both play a part in learning, emotional responses, habits, memory and decision-making. These sections light up like a Christmas tree every time we go on the hunt, but especially when we find something we know is worth far more than Goodwill has it priced.

A four-foot-long trade sign in the shape of a fish seemed like a good purchase at the time. But once Bradley got it home? Not so much.

A four-foot-long trade sign in the shape of a fish seemed like a good purchase at the time. But once our writer got it home? Not so much.

I’m the first to admit I let my limbic system get the better of me. I was lucky enough to stop into a group mall that was going out of business. I felt for the dealers, of course, but that empathy quickly faded when my limbic system kicked in and I knew I could get great scores on the cheap. That’s when I get into trouble. The emotional rush overpowered my thinking part of my brain too many times. That’s why I have an outrageous, four-foot long fiberglass trade sign in the shape of a fish. “It’s $60 if you’re interested. It came from an old bait shop,” the dealer said. Boom! A rush of emotion and it didn’t matter where the heck I was going to put it when I got it home. It’s now on top of a bookcase and makes visitors wonder what is wrong with me.

The same thing happened recently at a thrift shop where I discovered (all in the same trip, mind you):

• An 1800s Chinese wedding box with a certificate from the original Hong Kong antiques shop that sold it 20 years ago. I snatched it up for $25.

• A brass dish given only to NASA employees in 1969 to celebrate the successful manned moon landing and never commercially available. I paid $1 and it sold at auction for $225.

• A vintage training crate used to transport racing pigeons for $15.

• A pair of goofy fish dishes for $3 each.

Like most of you would be, I was elated with my finds; on cloud nine.

This brass dish was given only to NASA employees in 1969 to celebrate the successful manned moon landing. It was never commercially available. Bradley paid $1 for it and sold it at auction for $225. Score!

This brass dish was given only to NASA employees in 1969 to celebrate the successful manned moon landing. It was never commercially available. Bradley paid $1 for it and sold it at auction for $225. Score!

That was, until I got home and my logical neocortex kicked it. Fish dishes? A pigeon training crate? Now, I want to make it clear that this was not a case of buyer’s remorse. This was a case of letting my emotions take over while the logical part of my brain took a backseat and just laughed and laughed.

What was I thinking? Well, the thing is, I wasn’t “thinking” at all. I was riding the beautiful, blissful wave of emotion produced deep inside my brain.

This, I think, is what separates a true collector and a smart reseller verses an accumulator. Balancing the rush of emotion and logic at the same time to make an educated (yet still thrilling) buy to enhance their collection or flip a profit. They keep a poker face: “Will this object enhance my collection? Is the price right? Will its rarity make my collection worth more in the long run? Do I know I can sell this piece before I even buy it?”

I’m an admitted accumulator but, every once in a while, both parts of my brain team up and help me make the right purchase at the right time at the right price. Same goes for you, probably.

My main collection is to recreate the great curiosity cabinets that were popular during the Renaissance. My curiosities occupy four display cases classified across three categories: Naturalia (items from nature), Artifactica (items made by man) and Scientifica (items made to understand how the world works). I’m also enamored by those 17th century collectors who filled entire rooms with objects meant to inspire, teach, respect and wonder. Without these collectors and accumulators, we would not have the wonderful museums we enjoy today.

So, it was on an average Saturday that I visited an antiques shop that was new to me. I spotted tables of Depression glass, beautiful bottles, vintage items exported from China and a nice selection of wind-up toys from the 1930s. Nothing really in my wheelhouse, so to speak.

But then I turned a corner.

Hanging on the wall was an honest-to-goodness seashell mask made in the style of Renaissance artists. During the Renaissance, Europe was fascinated with finds from the New World. Many of these included new creatures, plant specimens and objects from tribal peoples. In some cases, newly discovered seashells were arranged in a way as to put them on display (and boost the ego of their owners). One method was creating what are called seashell masks: faces made from shells not found in the region but displayed in a way that would inspire wonder and amusement.

An honest-to-goodness seashell mask made in the style of Renaissance artists. See that in a thrift shop and there’s no passing it up. Right?

An honest-to-goodness seashell mask made in the style of Renaissance artists. See that in a thrift shop and there’s no passing it up. Right? Right! The piece now hangs proudly in Eric Bradley's living room. 

Now, this type of artwork isn’t particularly rare. Contemporary artists make them for shell shows and can sell them for a couple hundred bucks. They sell based on artistic merit.

The one I found was fascinating. Immediately, my head began to swim with emotion. Here was a skillfully assembled representation of art that matched the curiosity cabinets of old. I marveled at every detail: its two-foot height, vibrant colors, composition, personality and the rather deep diversity of seashells. It also had age.

I looked at the price (which was within my budget) and took a step back. I surprised myself when I thought, “Let’s be rational about this . . .” I’m already in love with this piece, but will it enhance my collection or is this just a tchotchke made for Florida tourists? I took a photograph and searched the internet for similar pictures. There was the exact same mask listed on a website as one of the 50 greatest examples of seashell masks ever made.

I couldn’t yank that sucker off the wall fast enough. My heart was a bass drum and logic told me this was the right buy at the right time for the right price. Plus, I’m not ashamed to admit, it boosted my ego that I found a rarity coveted by so many others.

A pigeon training crate. Bradley, suffering severe brain freeze, bought it. Once home? Yikes!

A pigeon training crate. Bradley, suffering severe brain freeze, bought it. Once home? Yikes!

The fates (and my brain) aligned that day like a collector. The reminder of Renaissance-era artists now proudly hangs in my living room. I find myself staring at it daily and a new detail pops out every time.

Since then, I’ve gotten much better at blending impulse with intelligence when shopping.

So, the next time you hit the trail, try to remember my mistakes and wins. I’d turn back time and walk past a pigeon training crate and a few weird fish dishes to concentrate on what makes my collection a collection.