$econdhand First Class

A thrift store fanatic shares her shopping secrets

What NOT to Buy

From reading my blog, you might think that, like Alice’s Restaurant, you can get anything you want at a thrift store. Well, almost. Here’s a short list of what I don’t buy at thrift stores.

  • Toiletries. Yes, opened and used lipsticks, creams, shampoos, etc., are donated regularly. If no one else in your family wants it, why would someone else want it? And, thrift store pricers, just cause it comes in the back door doesn’t mean you have to put a price on it. Come on, people. Show some sense. What would your mothers say?

    Oh sure, they look innocent,
    but what’s that stain? Photo courtesy of
    morgueFile, elemenoperica 

  • Underwear, such as panties, briefs, etc. Normal laundering does not kill some bacteria and germs. Repeat, washing does NOT kill some critters that would love to come home and cozy up with you. So, really, why take the chance?
  • Mattresses. I have one word. Bedbugs. Many thrift stores don’t even accept these items but if they do, don’t take them home.
  • Stuff that smells like pee. This goes back to the stink and stain test. This can be rugs, pillows, sofas, clothes, etc. Stink tells a story. Listen and then walk away.

Happy thrifting!


Wild, Wonderful, Wooly Sweaters

Brrr! Almost October and for many parts of the country, that means sweater time! Nothing beats the cozy warmth of a slipping into a sweater on a chilly morning. Use these tips to harvest the best sweaters from your local thrift store.

Check fabric content. Sweaters are made from everything from rayon to wool to silk. The warmest sweaters are made from plant fibers such as cotton or animal fibers such as wool or cashmere. There are drawbacks. Sweaters made from cotton or animal fiber can shrink and spring holes. Cotton and silk sweaters often lose color more quickly than sweaters from animal fibers such as wool. Rayon and silk sweaters tend to lose their shape.

Here’s a not very scientific but every experienced chart on the itchy and aah factors for different types of wool.

Check for pilling. Pilling is a result of the short fibers pulling loose from the strand. Sweaters made from natural fibers and synthetics can pill. There is no cure for pilling. The pill shaver doesn’t work very well. Even if you could shave off the pills, if a sweater is prone to pill, then like spring dandelions, there will always be more. Good quality sweaters don’t pill. Poor quality sweaters often do.

Check for holes. Hold up the sweater to the light and gently stretch the knit. The light makes it easy to see any holes in the knit. To check the arms, slip your hand into the arm and spread your fingers. Pull your hand down through the arm, checking for holes as your hand moves. Can you fix a hole in a sweater? Lots of ifs. If the sweater is a good quality knit, such as cashmere or alpaca, the sweater is a dark color, and the hole is small, and you possess good sewing skills, then you might be able to fix the hole.

Check the elasticity in the ribbing. Gently spread the ribbing to see how long before it returns to shape, if at all. Make sure the ribbing in the neck, wrist, and waist still have some spring. Nothing says old sweater like flabby ribbing.

Happy thrifting!

Read for a Song!

Looking for great books at a thrift store is my kind of adventure. There are shelves and shelves, stacks and stacks of romance, sci-fi and fantasy, detective, thriller, nonfiction, and just plain oddball reads. Take your pick and pocket the savings.

Photo: Jeremy Wrenn, morgueFile

Some of the bigger thrift stores organize their books by category. Stores with less labor just shelf or stack the books in any old way. If you visit one of these stores for books, plan lots of time.

If you have more patience than money, you can often find that hot best seller at a thrift store for a fraction of the original selling price pretty quickly after the furor dies down. I got the first three books of the Ice and Fire series for a couple of dollars each. Good thing they were so cheap since the stories were tedious.

Prices vary by region but you can find hardbacks for a couple of dollars and paperbacks for a buck or less.

Books are a pretty safe buy since there are no zippers or plugs or wires to assess but here are ways to spot problems that could detract from your reading pleasure:

  • Eye the book’s edge. If the pages are wavy, the book could have water damage.

    Eye the edges. Straight? Go for it.
    Wavy? Pass.

  • Sniff. If the book smells like a wet basement, pass unless you have your hands on a rare first edition of Huck Finn.
  • Leaf through the pages. Make sure a six-year-old artist has not redecorated the pages with a crayon or an avid reader hasn’t underlined so many sentences the page looks like one of your high school English papers after you got it back from the teacher.

Happy thrifting!

Entertainment: DVDs, CDs and More

DVDs, CDs, and Games

There are DVDs and CDs aplenty at thrift stores. And for those who believe that cassettes or videos will come back, good news! They never left; they are as close as your local thrift store.

Cheap DVDs, CDs, or cassettes are a great way to try movies or music outside your normal taste. For a couple of dollars, you might learn you love The Offspring or the Evil Dead. Or you could confirm that you do loathe Tony Bennett or Ben Hur.

Discs: DVDs, CDs and Video Games

  • Check for a disc in the case. It is shocking that people steal from places that fund charitable work but, sadly, they do. Make sure you aren’t buying an empty case.

    Check the disc for scratches.

  • Check for a match between disc and cover. If the thrift store prices each CD, DVD, and game separately, another favorite trick of the ethically challenged is to put a higher-priced disc in a lower-priced case. You’re all set to groove to Three Dog Night but it’s the Donnas who are staying the night.
  • Check for scratches. If you are lucky enough to find the right disc in the case, you’re not ready for the register yet. Hold the disc at an angle and look for scratches. Some superficial scratches can be fixed but lots of scratches or deep gashes will have you crying the blues.

Cassettes or Videos

  • If you’re interested in these dinosaurs (pardon me, collectibles), look at the overall condition of the case. If it’s cracked or jammed with jelly, pass. If the labels look wrinkled or have water stains, move on.

    Release the catch on the door to inspect the tape.

  • Scrutinize the condition of the tape on the spools. For VHS tapes, release the catch on the door to inspect the tape. The tape on cassettes and VHS tape should be smooth with the coating intact. The tape should appear evenly wound. Loose tape or rough ragged edges can mean uneven sound on your cassette player or snowy pictures on your TV.
  • Check that cassettes have an intact pressure pad. Turn the spool with your finger to see if the mechanism operates smoothly or if it is jammed.

When you get home with your treasures, pop in that DVD and grab the chips and dip.

You’re ready for an evening of cheap fun!

Happy thrifting!

Best Foot Forward

Remember how stiff new shoes can be? Well, good news! If you buy used shoes, someone else got them nice and comfy for you!

Some people are rightly cautious about buying used shoes. Fungi can live in used shoes and happily move into the new foot in town. However, a lot of people buy and wear used footwear without problems. If you do buy used shoes, before you pull a Cinderella and wear that slipper to the ball, be sure to clean and sanitize them completely. For tips, check out Disinfect Used Shoes on wikihow.

Black suede Ferragamos!

When you shop for used shoes:

Sniff. Stinky? Pass.

Make sure everything works.  Eyeholes for laces are intact, zippers zip, buckles buck, whatever is on the shoes should work properly. You don’t want to get those cute boots home only to find out that the zipper on the left boot has lost its teeth.

Decide if wear can be repaired. I fear this tip dates me. Shoe repair shops are becoming as rare as a real receptionist answering a business phone. However, if you are lucky enough to have a shoe repair shop in your area, you can repair some problems if the shoe is good quality. Ripped seams can often be stitched. Certain types of shoes can be resoled, for example, leather-soled shoes, Birkenstocks, and some Clark’s. Check out Resole. If the shoe leather is scuffed, it’s a tough decision. A good polish might help but if the surface has lost the top layer, the leather won’t hold a polish.

Comfy Birkenstocks!

Try them on and always wear a foot covering.  Same rule applies when you try on new shoes but it is even more important here. You don’t just want to make sure the shoes fit right–you want to protect yourself against any creepy things that could be residing in the shoe and hope to come home with you. Wear socks similar to the ones you plan to wear with the shoes. For example, don’t try on heels wearing athletic socks. You won’t get the right fit.

Happy thrifting!

Driven to Re-Purpose or How Else Could I Use It?

Thrift stores aren’t just great places to buy clothes, furniture, towels, sheets, etc. They are also a treasure trove of craft materials. Here’s just a few ideas for using clothes and


Have a gaggle of young girls around the house? Fill a box with fancy clothes, hats, and gloves for dress-up.

I covered this footstool
with a leather skirt.

Recover footstools or dining room chair seats with the leather from old skirts or coats. You could also use the leather to make purses, vests, book covers, etc.

Felt wool skirts, dresses, or coats to make pot holders, quilt pieces, or penny rugs.

Worn wool sweaters or scarves can become gloves, hats, or pieced together, a warm and cozy throw.

Long skirts in beautiful fabric but outdated style get new life as a sleeveless blouse.

Whip up a cozy pillow from a man-sized shirt. Place the buttons so the cover is removable.

Tie a knot or two in a long wooly sock. Pull the knots tight. You’ve got a great and inexpensive dog tug-of-war toy. For more excitement, drop a squeaker in the toe before tying the knots.


Sheets are just big pieces of fabric waiting to be transformed by your next project. Or toss those sheets over the sofa to protect it from splatters when you paint your living room.

Use white cotton sheets as fabric for your tie-dye creations.

Got pets? Cover your bottom sofa cushions with a twin sheet that coordinates with your décor. Removing and washing is a snap.

Fashion great looking pillows out of pretty curtains or old tablecloths.

A friend sewed this cozy
pillow from a sweater.

Sew two cotton or linen napkins together for a quick and easy pillow cover.

Reupholster footstools or small chairs using heavy-duty curtain fabric.

Kitchen aprons hold your tools, brushes, or craft items as you work.

Need more inspiration?

Check out these websites:




How NOT to be a Thrift Store Hoarder

Ok. Take a deep breath. So far you have found a Tommy Bahamas shirt for $5.99, a wonderful walnut veneer side table for $35.00, a handmade pottery vase for $4.98, and a silver and amethyst cross for $12.99. Load ’em up and race for the register, right?

Uh, wait. Didn’t your significant other say if you came home with another wobbly table you would be living under it and not in the house?

So many wonderful things! What’s a bargain hunter to do? Here are a few ideas to keep your house from looking like a warehouse.

  • Upgrade. That walnut veneer table is in great shape. And the side table in your living room is showing the effects of too many late night drink cans and wrestling matches with the kids. Buy the walnut table and donate the other.
  • Buy for a friend. If that shirt or cross is just right for your best friend, whip out your cell phone and send a snapshot to her. Let her know it’s a limited time only opportunity. If she wants it, buy it. If you don’t hear from her, you can always buy it on the chance that someone will want it, but be warned:  down that path lies stuffed closets and 12-step programs.
  • Deco-rotate. That vase is perfect for your dining room table. But you already have carved candlesticks on your table that you nabbed at a thrift store just a month ago. You can’t put everything on the table; your family has to eat somewhere! One fact of human nature is that we often stop seeing things, no matter how beautiful, after a time. So deco-rotate. Display the candlesticks for a couple of months. Then, rotate out the candlesticks and showcase the vase. Both items will look fresh and appealing when they are up in the rotation.

Happy thrifting!

What’s What with Wood Furniture

Every well-furnished home needs tables to eat at, chairs to sit on and end table to put stuff on.

The first decision you’ll want to make is what type of material you want: solid wood, veneer, or laminate. To identify the type of material, look at a corner, especially near the top of the piece.

Solid Wood

Example of a solid oak table

Solid wood furniture can be made from hard wood such as oak, maple, ash, or walnut, or soft wood such as pine. Here’s what to look for:

  • Surface: Run your fingers over the surface. You should feel grooves and uneven areas.
  • Grain: The grain should be irregular and uneven. You might even see knot holes.
  • Edges: The edges should have a grain pattern, but look as if the grain was cut off.
  • Uses: Good for quality furniture, such as tables, chairs, cabinets. Solid wood generally refinishes more easily.Do not use soap and water on solid wood. True solid wood pieces are around but are scarcer every day.

Veneered Wood

Example of veneered door. Notice the edges.

Veneer wood is a thin sheet of real wood is glued or sealed to particle or fiber board or cheaper wood.

  • Surface: Should feel and look the same as solid wood.
  • Edges: There is usually a thin dark line just under the top of the plank. It looks layered, like a layer has been glued down, which in fact it has. Also, the edges and side grain may not match the top grain.
  • Uses: Veneer wood can make good quality furniture, such as tables or cabinets. Make sure the veneer is in good shape, smooth with no cracks, splits. You can refinish veneers but they require a lot more care.


Example of laminated door. The laminate sheet wraps from the side to the top.

A laminate is a sheet of plastic or vinyl printed with a wood grain pattern. The sheet has been pressure sealed or glued to particle or fiber board.

  • Surface: The texture may be flat, like paper.
  • Grain: The grain pattern repeats like a print. The end and sides of the piece may look “wrapped” in the paper. The side grain and end grain are the same.
  • Uses: Laminated furniture is useful for any piece you need to be able to scrub with soap and water, such as a child’s play table. If the finish is scratched but the laminate is in good shape, consider painting the piece.

Want to dig a little deeper into this topic? Check out Wood Furniture Definitions.

You’ll find all types of furniture: solid, veneered, and laminated at thrift stores. Veneered furniture is most common, followed by laminated, but every once in a while, you’ll stumble on that special solid walnut bookcase that will send you running to the register, pronto.

Happy thrifting!

Back to School!

Whether your baby is starting first grade or college, back to school is a great time for shopping thrift and saving cash.

School Clothes

School uniforms at a thrift store

For primary schoolers, some thrift stores have a section for school uniforms. If Tommy or Tanya don’t wear a uniform, check out the racks of pants, jeans, tops, shirts, blouses, and jackets at any thrift store. There’s something to thrill the heart of pre-teens and teens alike and to satisfy a parent’s love of saving money.

With prices so low, your child can have fun mixing and matching outfits with jewelry, hats, and other accessories.

Here are some tips when making clothing purchases:

  • Ask about dressing rooms. There may be just one or two rooms so plan ahead and be courteous.
  • Make sure zippers and buttons work.
  • Look out for stains.

Some thrift stores have a section with crayons, binders, folders, etc. Ask the cashier for help.

Dorm and Apartment Needs

I went shopping with a friend last weekend. Her son is getting his first college apartment. She loaded up on thrift store dishes, glasses, pots and pans, etc. to make sure her son had the basics and her wallet didn’t suffer. She found glasses for $.60-$.80 each and forks and knives for $.10 each.

When buying glassware and dishes, run your fingertip around the rim of the item to check for chips. Hold the item up to the light to look for cracks.

You can also score with inexpensive sheets, blankets, bath towels, dish towels, and nearly anything else an aspiring scholar needs to hit the books at college.

When buying linens, avoid items with pilling, frayed edges, holes, or stains.

Now, if only thrift stores sold the secret for getting them to study!

Happy thrifting!

Pass on your Passion

In one of my earlier blogs, I talked about falling in love with thrift store shopping as a young girl.
If you want to instill a love of thrifting in a child, start when the child is young. I used to tell my son that a thrift store was like a giant indoor yard sale. Since he enjoyed yard sales, he quickly understood. Here are some tips for sharing your passion for a bargain:

  • Give the child a couple of dollars and let him/her rummage through a toy bin or shelf of books alone, then prepared to be amazed and impressed by what he/she found.
  • Browse for items related to a child’s hobby or interests. Then, point out the price of the thrift store item to what the item would cost new. Get a couple of extra items with the difference or let your young hobbyist pocket the change.
  • Do as my mother did and let the child pick out an outfit. Even if your Lady Gaga wannabe picks out neon yellow tights with a spangled top, how much can it cost? And she’ll remember how “beautiful” she feels in the pieces she chose.
  • Redecorating the child’s room? Let her take the lead in choosing lamps, pictures, or bedspreads. It’s okay if it’s not your taste as long as she loves it and it’s a bargain!
  • This is a good activity for middle and high schoolers. Give your preteen or teen a budget for clothes. Let him/her compare the cost of new clothes such as pants, T-shirts, and jacket, compared to similar items from a thrift store. If possible, let the smart shopper keep the difference.

Show courtesy and good sense in a thrift store. Don’t let the child play with toys while you are in the thrift store and then leave without purchasing the toy. And never leave the child unattended in the toy section.

Happy thrifting!

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