Yesterday I stopped in at a Goodwill that I don't often visit since it seems to have fairly spare shelves with a lot of dishes from Ikea and lamps from Target — not what I would call a vintage hunter's paradise by any stretch. Unless you're looking for college dorm vintage 1997. The first thing I saw (below) was a mid-sixties Tensor style halogen chrome lamp. A little rust on it, but cleanable and really smart looking. Reminds of an an entirely chrome Lytegem similar to this one I had that eventually died (once it started shocking me every time I turned it on I decided I had to let it go). I grabbed it and kept browsing.
I found a few other everyday things fairly quickly: a lucite ice bucket (I needed one for an upcoming party), and a Glasbake covered dish as a thank you gift for a friend who collects the pattern. I now had to upgrade from browser to shopper, and I went and got a hand-basket to carry my stuff in. But after another 10 minutes of looking it seemed I had reached the end of the finds and my basket felt heavy, so I set it down on the floor. And noticed something intriguing on a bottom shelf while doing so.
I crouched down to see better and when I reached in I pulled out a Victorian English pudding mold (below). I wasn't sure what it was at first sight, but it felt old and the crazing on it looked earned, not faked, so it went in the basket. And while down lower I saw something on another low shelf: the Swid Powell trés postmodern "Volumetric" chargers (below). Five of the eight were pristine, so those went into the basket now as well. While I had been feeling ho-hum about the whole experience this new turn of events made it all suddenly feel exciting.
With renewed vigor I much more carefully scrutinized all the shelves. I found another pudding mold on the same shelf, behind where the first one was sitting. My basket was now too heavy to carry so I corralled everything into a spot on the floor. I did one more once over of the entire place (keeping an on my stuff) and then went back to go through it to make sure I wanted everything I'd piled up. As I was standing there I realized that a few feet away at the top of one of the racks was the vase shelf (you know the one: filled with florists vases in clear glass and a few frilly bud vases). There were three large ones in front, and I moved two out of the way to see the third, which was likewise not very intriguing. But right behind it stood an outline I immediately recognized—as an Orrefors design from the 1940s. When I turned it around I was greeted by a lovely young woman (top photo) holding a bouquet. I had just found a large, signature piece by Sven Palmqvist, a designer whose work I have long admired, especially the late Deco vases.
As I was turning it over to verify the signature, another collector offered to take it off my hands "If I didn't want it" — although, obviously, I did. After that exciting find, I decided to pack it up and got in line to pay for everything. While paying, a friend (also a collector) walked in and we chatted a bit. I had to tell him he might be too late since I had just found a bunch of terrific things. I'm sure if he had been there before me he would have found all the things I had just bought.
While cataloging everything at home later, I realized how many mistakes I had almost made and the fact that if I had overlooked any one of the finds I made that someone else would have gotten to them almost immediately. The lessons, which are simple and obvious — and apply to thrift stores, garage and estate sales, and antique stores — are:
MY OBVIOUS RULES
- Always actually get down to where you can clearly see things on the bottom shelf. From above things look different, and there may be goodies at the back of the shelf. When people are going through their baskets to put things back they set them on the ground and rejected items tend to get set on bottom shelves. And if someone is "saving" something to come back to later, they'll put it in the back, not the front.
- Touch items so you can feel their texture and weight. If I hadn't picked up the pudding molds I might have thought they were cheap Chinese knock offs, it was only once I grabbed one that I realized it was a find.
- Move things out of the way to see what's behind them. Always! Just glancing at a shelf of stuff can fool you into missing something fantastic. It's why fish swim in schools: it's harder to pick out individuals in a group and focus on one thing. Make it easier by separating them. I could actually see the Orrefors vase without moving anything, but I didn't recognize it until I had made more visual room.
- If you come across something you like, keep your eyes open for more of that same thing. People pick things up and put them back all over the place, and your glass, or lamp, or 19th century pudding mold may have a mate. If you're especially focused on one particular thing you're much more likely to spot it.
- When you do find something extraordinary put a lot more effort into looking. Vintage hunters are everywhere, and once you find one really great thing it clues you in that you might have gotten to things first. It's a good gamble that there are more good finds to be had.
I got lucky this trip and my excitement led me to keep looking, but I could have just as easily stopped with a lamp and some small gifts and been done. And that would have been because I was not paying attention to the basics, and I would have missed a wide range of great finds at just one store. Obviously.