Vintage Finds: Lessons Learned

Partially because of my Stash Bustin’ pledge and partially because of woefully disappointing “estate” sales, my vintage finds for this week are sparse. I picked up only two things — this Vogue from 1956 ($3) and about two yards of a floral cotton ($2).

A great estate sale leaves me with such a high, while a poor estate sale makes me wonder why I just don’t buy fabric new — at least I wouldn’t have to deal with some of the characters and situations I encounter at the various sales. Here are just a few of the personalities you’re likely to encounter (all based on real experiences) at estate sales, garage sales and flea markets:

The “That’s Mine!” seller: This is the type of seller who only realizes that she wants to keep something after another person wants to buy it. After all, the glass coasters that she hasn’t seen in twenty years are now the most important thing in the world and she “just can’t sell those since [she’s] been looking everywhere for them.”

Lesson to learn: Get out and get out fast. If they’re going to argue about stuff they’re selling, you’re either not going to get fair prices or they’ve already picked out the good stuff for themselves.

The “I went to get a beef skewer and I’m going to leave my friend/son/neighbor alone with my stuff and if he quotes you a price that’s ridiculous, I’m going to instead yell at you for even considering that to be a fair price” seller: The amount of times this has happened to me is astounding. The vendor will come back to their booth — food in hand — and be appalled at the incompetence of the person who is just doing them a favor and quoted a too-low price. Then they will snatch the item away and say “there’s no way I’m going to sell it for that price.”

Lesson to learn: People make mistakes and it’s okay for a vendor not to want to sell at an unreasonable price. That said, I choose not to buy from sellers who try to make me feel bad or yell at me. Just walk away and find someone that respects you as a buyer.

The “that’s bakelite!” seller: Bakelite is just the best example. The seller will make a claim that something is “bakelite” or “Trifari” or “really old — 30s probably.” And then as soon as you look for a signature or do the on-the-road bakelite test, they get all shifty and quote a cheaper price. Or, it truly is what they claim and they’re trying to hard to sell a trend or brand name.

Lesson to learn: It’s good to have a basic knowledge of the stuff you’re buying, but more importantly, you should buy something because you like it, not because it’s trendy or collectible. I’ll buy a brooch for $20 even if its value is $12 if I truly love it. If you’re shopping for costume jewelry, do a bit a research online about the various makers and how to identify the eras. Know what’s out there and the average price of items. 

The “I am so out of touch with the worth of my stuff” seller: This seller doesn’t seem the least bit embarrassed to ask $10 for a half a yard of cotton fabric. Or you’ll hear them utter “I’ll let you have that bias tape for $5” without any hesitation. Or, they’ll quote you $35 for a box of no more than twenty zippers and thread. There’s a reason nothing is selling at their sale and the $4 price tag on the opened L’eggs container is probably the biggest clue. 

Lesson to learn: Let it go. If one thing is overpriced, then most everything is going to be overpriced. And negotiating a couple dollars off is just going to lower the price, not get you a good deal.

The “I was meant to be a barker” seller: I don’t mind talking to the people holding the sale, but I do not want stuff pushed onto me. I’m looking for fabric, I don’t really want to look through forty Peruvian blankets. Likewise, I’m sure your dog is great, but if my daughter doesn’t want to pet it or go near it, please stop pushing him on us.

Lesson to learn: Always be polite and if they’re being pushy, simply say “thanks, but I’d just like to browse on my own.”

The “not really an estate sale” estate sale: Just because you may consider your house to be your estate, that doesn’t make it an estate sale. Here’s a clue to whether you’re holding an estate sale: You’re dead. Far too many garage sales on Craigslist are advertised as estate sales and it isn’t until I see that opened garage filled with junk do I catch on to the ruse. The biggest not-really-an-estate sale nightmare: a filthy garage filled with half-used spray paint canisters and dirt.

Lesson to learn: If you’re interested in only going to estate sales, then you should stick to sales that are run by estate sale companies — the listing usually advertises that. You’re less likely to find that super steal, but you’re also going to have a better idea about the quality of the stuff. Estate sales, I have found, are usually throughout an entire house and not limited to garages or sidewalks. The listings will cite furniture, kitchen stuff, books, etc and not just “boxes of stuff.” Garage sales can be good once in a while, but if the seller is billing them as something they aren’t, there’s already a strike against them.

Overall, these characters are par for the course of vintage shopping and rummaging and the great sales make interactions with these folks worth it.


Mena Trott

Mena Trott started The Sew Weekly to document her attempt to sew all of her own clothes in 2010. Since then, she's made over 125 outfits and has way more clothes than she needs.


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  1. that was hysterical, especially about the $4 leggs. love the blog, what a great project.

  2. Love this!!
    This weekend at an estate sale, when asked about a torn piece of silk for sale, the seller kept nattering on about sentimental value since it was from someone’s wedding and she would part with it for $40. To me, it was a torn piece of silk with absolutely no sentimental value!