10 Things to Look for Every Time You Visit a Thrift Store

by Mikey Rox on 8 June 2012 50 comments
Photo: empracht

My friend Katie and I have lots of things in common, including our love of thrift stores.

When we were in high school, we often drove to a shady part of town to get our fix of all things thrifty. My love for thrift stores run so deep, in fact, that when I was on vacation in Atlanta for my birthday recently, I went thrift shopping. My husband is definitely not into this pastime, so I left him at the hotel and enjoyed several incredible hours browsing through racks and racks of somebody else’s old stuff. It really is the little things, y’all.

You never know what you’ll find during your treasure hunt, but here are 10 things you should always be on the lookout for at a thrift store. (See also: To Buy or Not to Buy? Criteria for Thrift-Store Clothes Shopping)

1. T-shirts

T-shirts are a dime a dozen — you can buy them almost anywhere you shop — but new tees are not in the same league as thrift-store T-shirts. For starters, a thrift-store T-shirt is well-worn and lived in (I understand that is off-putting to some people, but that’s why detergent was invented), which is exactly how a tee should be. Second, the sizes are truer than today’s sizes; I wear a small, and it’s hard to find a new, small shirt that fits well both in length and width. Vintage tees, however, are always the right fit. Then, of course, there’s the selection. When I buy a T-shirt from a thrift shop, I’m almost guaranteed that I’ll never run into anyone else who has the same tee. That can’t be said for the tees I buy from the major retailers from which I buy new T-shirts — and I hate seeing someone else in MY clothes.

2. Pants

You can buy thrift-store pants to wear as pants, but I buy thrift-store pants to turn into shorts. The selection of pants at a thrift store is usually full of funky prints and styles, which work much better as fun summertime shorts. I often just cut them off, but sometimes I have them hemmed so they look good as new. It never fails that someone asks me where I got them because they like them so much. Total win.

3. Furniture

You don’t have to tell me that the furniture at thrift shops isn’t generally the kind of furniture you would put in your home. Because I wouldn’t either — at least not in its original condition. But with a bit of creativity, the most mundane thrift-store furniture can be repurposed and turned into coveted conversation pieces. For a few ideas on what you can make out of everyday furniture that you might find at a thrift store, check out this article on repurposed furniture and décor from Martha Stewart.

4. Books

If you’re an avid reader or a collector, a thrift store is an excellent place to find your next great adventure. These vintage books make great gifts or cheap alternatives to new novels when you’re traveling or heading to the beach. You never know when you’ll find that diamond in the rough, either; you could stumble upon a first edition that might be worth a pretty penny. Make a habit out of looking inside the cover to discover the print date.

5. Dishware

I like cool, quirky drinking glasses. I once bought an entire set of Archie comics juice glasses from a thrift shop that always seem to put a smile on people’s faces when I serve breakfast at my house. And just the other day, I found a few Garfield glass mugs from a McDonald’s promotion in the 90s that I just had to have. Sadly — and this is one of the downsides to thrift shops — the collection wasn’t complete, so I had to leave empty handed. If I reeeally wanted the glasses, though, I could have scooped up the three that were there and then searched for the missing glass on eBay. Alas, that little angel on my shoulder that often whispers in my ear that I “do not need this” was working overtime that day.

6. Silver

Yes, silver — real silver. Not every sorter can tell the difference between stainless dinnerware and the genuine stuff, which means that real silver can sometimes land on thrift-store shelves. You may not have any use for a single spoon or fork, mind you, but don’t discount that silver is worth the same price no matter what shape it takes.

7. Artwork

Artwork is another item where you can win big. Even if the piece doesn’t have any true monetary value, it’s worth something if you like it. So are frames, by the way. Look past that hideous velvet painting, and you might find just that awesome picture frame you’ve been searching for.

8. Home Décor

I’m in the process of redesigning my bedroom, and I was on the prowl for two cool lamps. I didn’t find any that struck my fancy at a thrift shop (mostly because I couldn’t find a pair), but it was still the first place I looked. Lamps are great finds at thrift shops because if you like the base, you can totally change the rest of it to create a whole new look. Vases are another great home décor item to look for at the thrift shop. Every one I own was previously owned by someone else.

9. Vinyl Records

Whether you’re looking for nostalgia or that overlooked record that could be worth a decent amount in an online auction, you should take a few minutes to flip through the box of vinyls. And if you find an original copy of Michael Jackson’s "Thriller,” I will gladly accept it as a gift. 

10. Accessories

My favorite vintage belt came from a thrift shop — I’ve had it for nearly 10 years, and I’m going to cry when it breaks (which may be soon). But my search for accessories doesn’t stop there. In particular, I like looking for old political buttons and random jewelry. Speaking of jewelry, the next time Mother’s Day rolls around, instead of going to the expensive jeweler, stop by the thrift store first. Trust when I tell you that you never know what you’ll find. If you stumble on a really great piece, not only will you save a lot of money, but you’ll give your mama a gift with character and thought. In my opinion, that’s better than any mass-produced, high-end item any day.

What do you look for when you go thrift shopping? Any amazing finds you want to share? Let me know in the comments below.

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Guest's picture

Love your list! I just shared my own list of thrift store must-haves! http://www.makermama.com/2012/06/five-things-you-should-always-buy-from....

Guest's picture

Accessories are a great thing to look for at thrift stores- especially if you like really flashy or out there scarves, hats, belts and things like that. There are always a lot of these items around, and they can transform an entire outfit with just one- a great investment. I'm not sure how much I would trust furniture or dish ware however. You Never know if someone had a pet with fleas, or where that dish wear has been. I'm comfortable buying clothes from thrift stores, but I'm not sure about things for my house that I would want to know exactly who had used them before me.

Guest's picture
Em

You may want to rethink the furniture. Furniture today is made by a whole different process- cheaper woods, totally different construction (staples, woodglue, etc.)- it's not made to last anymore. However, old furniture that is sturdy? Refinished, reupholstered, you'll have something with character that will last forever. My fainting couch from the 40s is amazing, and so is an antique cherry table... Dishes, eh bleach. Hats freak me out a bit though, but for true WWI and prior vintage, I'll risk it after a good cleaning.
I get the reticence though.

Guest's picture
NJGill

Hand-knit sweaters that can be disassembled to re-use the yarn. Beautiful and classic animal fibers like cashmere can be found this way at a fraction of the retail price. (Some commercially made sweaters can be taken apart and re-used as well - you must check the side seams to see if the construction of the garment involved cutting out the pieces and sewing them together with an overlock machine, in which case you will get a bazillion strands of yarn - each only as long as the sweater is wide.)

Guest's picture

My favorite find recently was a once-worn J Crew bridesmaid dress -- $15.

Meg Favreau's picture

Oh man -- that's a great find!

My go-to wedding guest dress is a J Crew bridesmaid dress I found on super sale...I'm always a little scared that I'm going to show up dressed exactly like the bridesmaids.

Guest's picture
Bella

I feel stupid for even asking this, but how do you determine what is stainless and what is the genuine stuff?

Guest's picture
Mikey R

Silver tarnishes. Oxidation produces an irridescent, oily kind of chemical change. Stainless steel just rusts.

Guest's picture
Sara

I'm not an expert, but in my experience, real silver tends to get dull and look almost dirty - you have to polish it to keep it shiny. It also feels heavier in your hand. Stainless steel is usually brighter and shinier, and also feels lighter. :)

Mikey Rox's picture
Mikey Rox

Some people also can tell the difference by the sound that silver makes. It has a lingering, ringing sort of sound when struck on or by something.

Guest's picture
kevin k

use a magnet.

Guest's picture
Guest

I'm not sure what "the real stuff" is unless the author is talking about sterling silver. Sterling silver flatware is marked sterling - though the matching knives tend to be unmarked. Sterling silver is 92.5% silver and the standards for what constitutes "sterling" were set in the 1850's. Silverplate is common and inexpensive - an extremely thin layer of silver is bonded to a base metal such as copper, brass or nickel.
I buy and sell all kinds of flatware. My 2 best buys were:
40 pieces of sterling silver that I bought for $2 a piece and sold for $950.
55 pieces of Oneida stainless flatware (Clarette pattern) for 10 cents a piece that ignited a bidding war on ebay and sold for $384.
You can use a website like ReplacementsLtd to help identify what you purchase.

Guest's picture
Guest

Good tips! I really like the tip about buying pants to re-make as shorts. VERY creative! I might need to use this one sometime soon...

Guest's picture
Katy

I love thrift shopping, but I especially love thrift shopping in NYC. Once I found the most AMAZING hat - brown velvet with a satin bow. I love imagining all the places that hat has been.

One other thing I like to look for is costume jewelry. You can find some great deals on fun, funky, vintage-y stuff.

Happy Shopping!!

Guest's picture
Theresa M.

one last thing to keep an eye out for, signs of bedbugs. you don't want to bring any ride alongs home with you, you won't enjoy the clean up.

Guest's picture
Paul

Yep! Bed bugs are almost impossible to get rid of. I know from experience. Check everything carefully. Furniture or clothing...watch out. P.S. DE is very helpful but then the dust becomes a problem.

Guest's picture
Guest

I don't shop regularly at thrift stores, but then I don't shop regularly at retail stores. At first I was just killing time there while my wife shopped there. Then I started looking a bit. Most of the men's clothing is stuff I wouldn't have even worn new, but I still find some buys. In among all the garish out-of-date shirts, I'll find a nice, new or nearly new sport shirt or dress shirt -- Nautica, Nordstrom, even Brooks Brothers (one really nice oxford). And I look for "golf" shirts, avoiding cotton - always worn and faded - and avoiding all the golf club- or software vendor- or other corporate logo-ware. And it takes a careful inspection. I've spotted great looking dress shirts that, on closer examination, revealed very worn cuffs, a spot that might not ever come clean, or even a hole where a tag got pulled through the fabric. Still, my hit rate on $5-10 shirts in thrift stores is at least as good as my hit rate on $20-50 shirts would be in a decent retailer. My clothing tastes are pretty traditional, so stuff that will appeal to me is almost always on a shelf or rack somewhere,and won't be out of style just because it's in a thrift store.

Guest's picture
James

One positive thing with clothes from thrift shops, they're quite unique. Unlike if you buy one from the mall, 10 or more people can buy the same shirt.

Guest's picture
mark g

Hi there - my best thrift store find was a pair of Express-brand dress pants for $4 on a discount saturday. Oh man, best buy ever!

Guest's picture
jen

All great ideas! There are a lot of good deals to be found, though you do have to check the items out pretty carefully. I've made the mistake before of not checking things out and then getting home to find the zipper is broken or there's an unremovable stain. Also, ask at your local store if they have any discount days. Some have a day or two every week where things are on "sale". Others do occasional sales on holidays or special days. One store in my area even put out coupons! Things that might just be a fine deal become an exceptional deal when on sale. And of course kids clothes are always great. Kids outgrow their clothes constantly, so you can sometimes find really quality stuff that's in perfectly good condition. The key is just to have patience. If you don't like looking through a whole rack to possibly find one gem, thrift stores aren't for you most likely!

Guest's picture

I've been shopping at Thrift Store's for over 30 years.
WOW have I found some GOOD DEALS. $5.00 went A Long way. And a lot of good things for our growing family. A little soap did wonders.
And some times a Surprise, I found $10.00 in the zipper of a pocketbook,
I ALL WAY'S carry a magnet with me - to see if the Jewerly is Real or STEEL/PLATED.
I could go on & ON.

Guest's picture
Dude

I buy stuff at thrift stores and re-sell my finds on eBAy and Craiglist. I've been doing it for years and make nice money. Check it out http://www.moneyinthegarage.com/

....Dude! @ http://www.moneyinthegarage.com/

Guest's picture
V. Dunhill

At my local Thrift Store there are plenty of bargains but you have to run the gauntlet of dealers looking for "stuff". The book people are particularly rude and pushy. One woman stays in the book department full time with her scanner at the ready and thinks its her right to first inspection of books put on the shelves. Other dealers usually go round the store piling likely looking stuff into several carts and then block aisles while they sort through and pick out the items they want to keep. Management does not care; so long as they are selling things people can do what they want!

Guest's picture
Guest

Laser printers. I've bought three working laser copier/scanner/fax/printers for $30 or less in the past year (one was full color), all from the same Goodwill store (and there's another in there right now). Two of them are at various desks at work, and one is at home next my PC. You'll also find lots of combination ink-jet printers, but unless all you need is the scanner, they're not worth the money. The trick is to test them: plug them in and try to make a copy. If you get that far, it's generally worth risking the printer interface. Many times, you'll even find that the toner cartridges are full or near-full.

Ties. Look for a pattern and/or style you like, and then check to see the maker and (generally) whether it's silk or not. Silk ties are generally of higher quality overall (there's an investment there). But these are, of course, style-specific. Suffice it to say I have a a nice rack of $2.50 ties that would have cost $30+ each when new.

Guest's picture
Guest

Isn't that everything?

Guest's picture
Guest

I've bought two dozen or so Ralph Lauren Polo dress shirts for under five bucks each at my local thrift store. I've also picked up a few Brooks Brother's oxford dress shirts. Many of them still have tags from the dry cleaners on them when I buy them. And I've picked up a camel hair blazer and a few other blazers. Classic styles that never really go out of style.

Guest's picture
Pixie

Thanks for the good advice, I had never thought to look for pants to make into shorts. My favorite things to look for are blazers, jackets and leather coats; I've bought three really nice leather coats over the past few months all for less than $10 each. I excited for winter to arrive so I can wear them!!

Andrea Karim's picture

I occasionally find outstanding unworn underthings - not so much lingerie, but more like Spanx and slips with the purchase tags still attached. A good slimming undershirt can cost $20 or more retail, but I find them at Goodwill for $4.

Guest's picture

I totally agree. I shop thrift store before retail abd as replacement clothes. I recently began losing weight and needed to find a replacement pair of "true" cargo pants. I always find cargo pants in thift stores.

AND I found a Mighty mouse vintage- tee at a $10 bag sale. That's $10 for ALL you can fit into 1 bag- I filled mine with cute tees.

Guest's picture
J.

Also:

Kids' dress-up clothes and shoes have often been worn once or a few times and are in perfect condition.

Sports equipment and camping gear.... from ice skates to tents... goes cheap. Often cheaper than renting.

I'm steering clear of upholstered furniture right now though, because of bed bugs. I also usually bring all thrift store items directly to the washing machine at home, just to be safe.

Guest's picture
Paul

If you have a way to keep your treasure stored in your vehicle on a hot sunny day, your bed bugs will die at 130 degrees maintained for an hour or so. That is how I got rid of the little buggers in furniture and clothes. Still, inspect everything.

Guest's picture
Christine

Love:

T-shirts for $1-2 -- Tons of barely worn free giveaway event shirts and vacation/event gotta have its.

Love the mall-brand stuff, sometimes even new items for $4-5 for good office attire + nice casual stuff. Always found everything I needed when stocking up by sticking to basics - chocolate slacks + blouse, black skirt + black print shirt, black slacks + black crochet sweater vest. Add my $2-3 purse. All set for work on a budget. Stick to basic shoe style and colors for cheapest outfitting.

Guest's picture
Em

One thing I like to do too is spray everything down that you bring in the house with essential oil sprays. They kill germs, etc & smell awesome.

Guest's picture

Excellent list. In my country, we do not have such a thing called thrift shopping. We just went over to online to do out purchase as i realised online shopping can actully be cheaper than normal offline shops these days.

Guest's picture
Guest

For those of us who wear ties to work, thrift stores are a great source. My local store starts them at 99 cents and drops them to 75 or 50 cents after a few weeks. It's the best way to get classics like the BB#1 or a repp tie. Even with a $5 dry cleaning it's far cheaper than a $50-$100 new tie.

And I'll second the mention of accessories like belts.

Guest's picture
Guest

Built up a small business by buying up, reconditioning, and reselling used wheelchairs. They came mostly from thrift shops.

Guest's picture
Greg

I like to look for old tins. I found two old raggety Ann dolls. The wife got me hooked!

Guest's picture
Guest

I was looking for a large purse at Goodwill - picked one up that was plaid and had a metal name tag on the front "Berber of London". I used it once, didn't like it (not enough compartments). Checked it out on the internet and discovered it was a pricey item. Bought it for $1.99 - sold it on Ebay for $89! Another great find was an entire big basket of 1950 Christmas Ornaments about 2 weeks after Christmas. Bought them all for .18 each. Sold them individually on Ebay and one of them went for $22! It's a bummer I don't sell on Ebay anymore - too much $ and too much hassle but I still check out St. Vincent's (right up the street from me) and get bargains all the time and I actually get compliments at work for what I'm wearing.

Guest's picture
Renna

Our small town has only a couple of thrift stores, but I've scored big time in them over the years. My most recent find was a very expensive, like new, name brand purse. My sis-in-law finds them frequently and resells them on eBay. I chose to keep and use my gem. :-)

Guest's picture
Guest

I found a detailed art work of Mobile Bay from the 50's (where I was raise) I now live in Tennessee found for $4.00 in perfect condition at Goodwill. Had it reframed for $75.00.
Very important to my family, and will go to my son one day.

Guest's picture
Guest

Purses! You can find amazing name brand purses! You just have to know what to look for as far as them being authentic or the real deal! All you need to do is a little research and you will be able to spot most fakes.!

Guest's picture
Guest

Love thrift store shopping.. Even b4 it was cool. Lol as an artist I appreciate an eclectic theme n 1 of a kind items n like to recycle n re-do whenever n whatever possible! Have came across many good deals on vases that I design n personalize with etching sand for x-mad gifts that are sentimental n become family hand me down heirlooms!! Fun family project !

Guest's picture

Thrift store shopping always was a battle with my teenage daughter. If she would have only understood that we weren't rich, just frugral and a little smarter. I always purchased my clothing for work from thrift stores. I didn't worry about protecting the investment and stayed focused on getting the work completed. Which directly kept me employed. Hence, frugal and smart, not at all rich.

Guest's picture
Scoutmaster

Living here in Florida, we are at the beach, swiming at the lake & tubing down the river all summer long. So the #1 item I look for is Swimware! My teenage sons go through the swimshorts like the water they play in! At $3 each average, they can be "hard" on them without me worrying about the cost of designer swimware becoming torn up, and they ALWAYS look good when we are in public.

Guest's picture
Guest

I have 3 thrift stores between home and work. I love the vintage jewelry, kids clothing new with tags and housewares I've found.

My best find was a new in boxTracy Porter tea light that sold at Nordstroms for $28 and I got it for $1.00. It made a great gift.

Guest's picture
Guest

Found a Harris tweed jacket in perfect condition for my husband; also long "filmy"
dresses for at-home wear; size 6Petite fits me except for leg length,so can cut them
to capri/shorts length....the fish don't care what I'm wearing when we go out in our
boat! Jacket for $25; dresses for $1-$3; pants and jeans for $2.

Guest's picture
Steven

$5 gray cashmere scarf
$30 black leather jacket from Gap (wrong size label), $35 black Italian leather duster (long raincoat)
$40 black double breasted suit (100% wool)
$20 new combat boots (Army surplus store)

Guest's picture
Cimarron

Shoes. Always look for shoes. I find tons of brand new shoes at a fraction of the price. Just the other day I found brand new Toms for $8 and resold them for $45.

Guest's picture
Guest

I have recently started exploring thrifting and enjoyed not only clothing, books and household items but quilts and crafting items. I have found that wool yarn is not something to buy, but can literally fall apart in your hands. I bought a pottery barn chirstmas limited edition quilt for $12 and saw that people were selling them for $300, so I brought it back for them to resell after the holiday.

I have bought several end tables. One was an Ethan Allen that I love. It's been painted a periwinkle color.

One of the main reasons I started thrifting was because I was constantly donating to these organizations and because I was so tired of paying taxes!! I love not having to pay taxes. I figured if I was donating things like Fendi handbags, so were other people.

Guest's picture
Sally

My last three buys all were Waterford Crystal! Each was less than three dollars!! I found a cashmere sweater for 2.00, and Banana Republic complete leather outfit for 20.00!! Sadly, passed up a Monet, later to find out, I looked at it for $5.00, did not like it that much, and was told later, someone spoke up, and they pulled it from the selling floor..My new passion is thrift shops, GoodWill, and Hospice thrift and Sheriff's Ranch....