My 5 Best Thrift Store Finds of All Time

I was raised by parents who loved antiques, amassed wild collections, and roamed auctions and thrift stores for sport. Destined for the same weird passion, I thrift-shopped across the Midwest for the first 22 years of my life, hunted honey holes in Chicago for a decade, and picked all over the Pacific Northwest for a few years after that.

Nothing gets my blood pumping quite like crossing the threshold of a hopelessly disorganized junk shop piled high with all things dusty, rusty, and forgotten. And like all thrifters and pickers, I have a personal hall of fame — objects that are special because of their rarity, value, or shear splendor. Here are my five best thrift store finds of all time:

1. Eames Chair

Furniture is usually one of the best deals in any thrift store — especially when you find a piece you can flip for a handsome profit. Last year on a road trip through eastern Oregon, I stumbled across an authentic Eames dowel leg desk chair from the 1950s. Though the wooden legs had been slightly damaged by a chew-happy dog, I took a chance and picked it up for $14. Once photographed carefully (warts and all), I listed it online and sold it for $400. This find reinforced an important lesson: If the item is rare enough, a little damage is entirely forgivable.

2. Experimental Fiestaware

In 1999, I found a Fiestaware relish tray at a Chicago thrift store. The piece was covered in an unusual iridescent glaze that made it look exactly like metal (in fact, it looked so much like metal, that it had been tossed in with the pots and pans). I was familiar enough with Fiesta to know the relish tray was not standard-issue, so I happily forked over 90 cents for it. After a bit of research, I learned the glaze was experimental and there were very few surviving examples. A few weeks later, I sold the piece on eBay for $280. Remember, it pays to follow your hunches and devote some time to research!

3. Two Pine Harvest Tables

Granted, this find didn't come from a thrift store, but it did come from a very old department store. During a picking trip in Iowa, my brother and I happened upon a closeout sale of one the last remaining Ben Franklin stores (a Midwest five-and-dime chain that peaked in the 1970s).

The owner was selling everything that wasn't nailed down. After convincing her that we had cash and weren't afraid to get dirty, she let us explore the store's stone cellar where we found two hulking eight-foot long pine harvest tables buried under 50 years of junk. Carefully clearing off the tables and hauling them up was part of the bargain — a very good bargain at only $50 each. We loaded the tables, advertised them locally, and sold them as a pair for $1000. Discovering these beauties illustrated an important picking tip: Sometimes the best stuff is tucked away out of sight. Don't be afraid to ask permission to explore.

4. Adrian Pearsall Chair

Ahh, this one's my biggest success and my most profound regret rolled into one. At a neighborhood thrift store in Chicago in 1996, I discovered two matching mid-century teak club chairs. Each was low, sleek, beautifully designed…and covered in the ugliest upholstery I'd ever seen. I must have been on a budget that particular day, because I violated the first rule of buying secondhand: Never separate a pair. A few years later (after I had my single chair tastefully recovered in period fabric), I learned it was an Adrian Pearsall. Pearsall was an icon of midcentury American furniture design and his vintage couches, chairs, and tables command premium prices. In 2010, that little $7 treasure sold for $1100 (if only I'd had two to sell!).

5. Dog Portrait

Finding something truly unique is one of the many reasons I love thrift shopping. Earlier this year, I was leisurely thrifting my way through central Iowa and discovered a vintage hand-painted portrait of a dog — a big, noble, lovable mutt of a dog. I didn't think it was worth much (and I was right). Still, for $3.99, I had to have it. The painting occupies a prime spot on my wall and every time I walk by it I wonder about that dog, its master, and their ball-chasing, picture-painting story. It reminds me of an important concluding point: Don't hesitate to buy a treasure that's priceless only to you. Chances are you'll never see another one like it.

Are you a diehard thrift-shopper? What are some of your hall-of-fame finds?

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Guest's picture

Yes, the thrill of the hunt! Only a couple finds, as my budget is tighter. A small double tramp art picture frame with silver gild and two types of notching for a quarter, sold for $35. Thirteen sets of Victorian buttons on their original cards for $4, sold for $168. A Czech hand blown compote from the 1930's purchased for $6 and sold for $63 at a local auction.

It's always great fun to look, especially if your decorating style accommodates the eclectic.

Kentin Waits's picture

Olivia, those are some great finds. Keep up the good hunting!