$econdhand First Class

A thrift store fanatic shares her shopping secrets

Archive for the category “Toxins and other icky stuff”

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!


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!

Assessing Upholstered Furniture

Here are a few tips for finding just the right comfy seating:

Stand back and check the structure.

  • Is the item even, no leaning or sagging? If the legs are loose but the item is in good shape otherwise, you may be able to have the legs repaired.
  • Are the arms the same height and firmly attached? Wobbly arms or uneven arms can be a sign of poor construction. An upholstery expert might be able to fix wobbly arms but there’s no guarantee.
  • Are the cushions present and accounted for?

Get close for the next phase:

  • Apply the stink and stain test, especially to the cushions. A little dirt can be cleaned but beware yellow or brown stains.
  • Is the upholstery in acceptable condition? Wear around the edges might be okay but rips and tears might be unforgivable unless you want to invest in a slip cover or reupholstering the piece. Reupholstering can run into bucks but if the item is good quality, it could be a worthwhile investment.
  • Remove the cushions and feel the springs. Push down. Do the springs spring back with enthusiasm or begrudgingly? Any points sticking up or twisted loose? Maybe the spring hasn’t yet poked its way through the fabric but you’ll eventually get the point when you sit. And the point is pain either way; pain in the bottom when you sit or pain in the wallet when you have the piece “re-sprung” and reupholstered.

If the item has passed all the tests above, take a seat.

  • Listen for groans or squeaks. This is the sofa telling you about its hard life. Listen carefully.
  • Cushions should support you, not gasp and collapse. If you sink to the floor, the foam may have lost its bounce. Replacing foam can be pricey but worth it if the brand is good.

If that sofa or chair is still under consideration, turn it over if possible or tip up the legs to look underneath. Check for signs that critters made their home in the piece such as tears or holes in the fabric. See gobs of nice soft fibers fashioned into a cozy nest? Stains and streaks? Beady eyes peering out? All of these could be signs of an infestation of bugs or pests. A friend once brought home a used sofa. Problem was, the sofa was already occupied by a family of mice. That night, there were some surprised humans and rodents!

In another post, I’ll talk about the cost of re-upholstering a chair or sofa.

Happy thrifting!


Many of our son’s favorite toys were from thrift stores. One such toy was a wooden tic-tac-toe board with Xs and Os. Cars, superheroes, games, you name it, he played with it. 

With the high cost of toys, thrift stores can be a real lifesaver. You just need to take a few precautions. When shopping for toys, follow these guidelines.

  • Buy what you can clean. Not only was the toy likely well-used before it was donated, but while at the thrift store, a multitude of kids have probably played with it while waiting for mom and dad to finish shopping. Click on these links for information on cleaning and sanitizing toys. Plastics (Clorox or Family Management), Wooden toys, and Stuffed toys.
  • Choose a toy in good shape. No cracks, splits, or dangerous edges. For stuffed animals, look for items with no tears, worn spots, spilled stuffing, or missing parts.
  • Check for odor. If you get a whiff of anything, pass unless it’s Strawberry Shortcake and you’re smelling dessert.
  • Make sure all parts present and accounted for. Be sure to apply common sense rules about buying toys for kids such as no sharp edges or small pieces for younger children.
  • If the toy is battery operated, insert the batteries you brought in your kit and test. Nothing is more disheartening to a kid than finding out too late that the airplane doesn’t soar and the car doesn’t zoom.

Once you get the toys home, always clean and sanitize the toy before giving them to your child.

Furniture: Good Bones

I bought my first piece of thrift store furniture, a maple nightstand, when I was 24. Now, several of my favorite pieces of furniture have thrift store pedigrees. There are great deals in secondhand furniture; however, with changes in our culture in the last few years, buying used furniture presents some challenges.

Apply the stink and stain test

Before you shell out cash for that adorable chair, check out “Caveat Emptor.” Every item should pass the “stink and stain” test.

My thrift store cabinet

From ugh to unbelievable

Look for good bones

Good secondhand furniture may not have a shiny finish or matching knobs, and it definitely does not come in a box. It will likely be worn, scratched, and a little shabby. But under that forlorn facade, you may strike gold, furniture gold, that is.

For months, I had a small cabinet on my thrift store wish list. Finally, I saw a cabinet that had been marked way down. It had a dark dull finish, cheap knobs, and loose doors but it was the right size and style. I stopped to check out the cabinet’s bones:

  • Materials: The cabinet had a veneer top and sides with solid wood doors.
  • Finish: There were a few superficial scratches but nothing I couldn’t sand out. The veneer was still firmly attached to the base wood.
  • Construction: The piece was square and solid. It didn’t sag or creak or lean. The door hinge screws were loose. Tightening them would solve the door problem. And knobs are just jewelry, easy to replace.

To my husband’s horror, the cabinet came home with us. I stripped off the old varnish and stain, applied a light oil finish, re-hung the doors, and attached new knobs. Now we have the perfect place to store games.

By looking beyond the scratches and the worn appearance at the bones of a piece, you can score furniture that, with a little tender loving care, you can proudly display in your home.

Happy thrifting!

Caveat Emptor


Be careful of upholstered items
that smell moldy or musty.

Be very careful what you bring into your home. A bargain that comes complete with toxins or worse can cost you more than just money. You can find things worse than pet pee stains on rugs or sofa.

Toxins and mold

Toxic chemicals used in the manufacture or the use of illegal drugs in a home can penetrate fabrics such as curtains, rugs, or upholstered furniture. The EPA has guidelines for handling and disposing of contaminated items. See EPA guidelines on handling meth labs. These sofas and chairs should not end up in a thrift store or resale shop but sadly they could.

Upholstered furniture, rugs, or draperies that have been saturated in a flood can develop mold.

Bed bugs

Bed bugs are on the rise again, and they aren’t just in bedtime rhymes. Check these sites for more information about identifying and dealing with bedbugs:

  • WebMD has a slide show about the effects of bedbugs.
  • Virginia Tech, Department of Entomology has information about identifying bedbugs

Apply the stink and stain test

If the item has brown, red, or yellow stains or streaks on it, move on.

If the item smells like a dog kennel, a litter box, smells moldy, or has a chemical odor such as ammonia, move on quickly and get out the hand sanitizer. No bargain is worth taking the chance of bringing toxic chemicals, germs, or unpleasant critters into your home.

If the item passes the stink and stain test, you’ll still want to clean it thoroughly. If you can’t put it in the washer, check the care label or search the Internet for tips. The websites eHow and channel4 4Homes have useful information about how to clean various items.

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