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Vacation (thrifting) all I ever wanted

The joy of buying home goods when you travel

An array of copper masks are displayed on top of a red surface. Mercedes Kraus

This week I consulted another of my thrifting genius friends, who revealed a feeling that I had experienced but not articulated: the joy of thrifting on vacation. Plus, more secondhand tips, and thrift store recs in D.C., Chicago, and Maine. —Mercedes

Thrifting towards Bethlehem

Phoebe Connelly not only maintains a demanding job at the Washington Post, but somehow also reads an astounding number of books every year. She sews, cooks fancy French food, gardens, and travels to boot. Goals, anyone? Phoebe is a longtime secondhand shopper and friend, so I asked her to share a few of her best tips. She writes:

“I’ve been thrifting for as long as I can remember—my mama loved secondhand shopping, and instilled in me that you could find quality way beyond your budget if you went with secondhand.

“I held on to a dream for a long time that I’d thrift a full china set, but I’ve yet to find one that speaks to me. Now, I buy dinner plates, but only in pairs. It brings some discipline to my chaotic tablescape. I’m also perpetually on the hunt for serving dishes—pitchers, mid-size bowls, serving plates. My current favorite is a hexagon-shaped covered dish I found at a thrift in Melbourne.

“Buying home goods when you travel is such a nice gift to your future self because every time you use the object, you remember a vacation. My creamer is from a Goodwill in West Virginia, where my husband and I spent New Year’s, and my makeup is in a basket thrifted when I was in Arizona for a friend’s wedding.

“I place a lot of value on how something feels in my hands—if I like the heft, or the way the handle fits in my hand, it will stay in rotation. Oh, and I stock up on vases: farmers market flowers + a thrifted vase is a lovely housewarming or hostess gift.

“D.C. tips: I will always have a soft spot for the Georgia Ave Thrift, which I could get to via public transit when I first moved here. The double-wide Maryland thrift has consistently been good to me: it’s a Unique and a Value Village right next to each other on the other side of the Beltway on New Hampshire Ave.

“In Chicago, I’m a Village Discount Outlet woman forever—the VDO at Milwaukee and Western gave me a deranged, beautiful framed embroidery altar cloth where Jesus appears to turn into a goat from the waist down.”

About seven table runners in various colors and patterns are piled on top of each other.
Both this photo and the one at top of the newsletter were taken at the Monastiraki Flea Market in Athens, Greece. On vacation in 2017, I thrifted a hand-embroidered table runner from this pile of textiles.
Mercedes Kraus

The Maine route

Finding a good thrift store is like finding a good swimming hole: There’s only a certain amount of recon that you can do online before you need to either ask a local or visit for yourself. One tip for striking gold: Go where the retirees are. These are folks who have downsized, or are downsizing, and whose lifestyles are likely not wearing out their goods. So when your vacation destination is also a retiree town (think Palm Springs), you’re likely to get a great score that will serve as a symbol of your trip for years to come. I am fully with Phoebe on this one.

One such vacation-slash-retiree town is Portsmouth, New Hampshire. I visited my friend and master strategist Jeanne Brooks when she lived across the river in Kittery, Maine, and she took me on a legit, pleasantly short (less than 15 miles) thrift trip up the state’s Route 1, ending at the town of Ogunquit’s beautiful beach.

Here’s our route: We started out at Fair Tide in Kittery—where I bought a set of pink, white, and gold espresso cups. A bit up the road was my favorite stop, Hidden Treasures, filled with a true miscellany of objects, some cheap and some pricier, including a peacock chair and some Dansk cookware that I skipped. I bought a few things, but my two favorites were a pitcher that I like to describe as “psychedelic colonial” and a 1970s/’80s green telephone that I solely use as an objet. Next up was nearby Leeward Charitable Foundation, and further up the road was YCSA Thrift Shop, but I didn’t buy anything at either. Our final stop was at Family Tree Antiques, where I bought what is now a centerpiece of my dinner parties: a set of six bulbous indigo blue tumblers and matching pitcher. I think I paid $60, which probably felt like too much at the time, but considering how much I love them, and how much I use them, now feels fully worth it.

Identifying lost causes and potential

So, there is finding the thrift store, and then there is shopping at it. Some items are ready to use, some need repairs, and some are lost causes. How to identify which is which?

Let’s start with the lost causes. Unless you know someone who has successfully had one of the following repaired in your area, I do not recommend you fool yourself into thinking you will fix these things:

  • Frames with broken glass: You will not get new glass.
  • Anything metal that has been bent: It can be very tough to straighten out again.
  • Caned chairs with holes or warping: You will probably not get these repaired.
  • Anything else woven, from rattan baskets to macrame plant holders: If the weave is broken, it is likely you will not easily repair it.
  • Mirrors: You might be able to clean these yourself, and there are lots of suggestions online about how to try. However, I recommend you not get any mirror that needs re-silvering (meaning, you can tell that the problem is not just the glass). You probably will not do this. And, per feng shui, mirrors that do not clearly and accurately reflect are bad to have around.
Two wooden chairs with woven bottoms are placed next to each other in a room that has light blue walls, two white doors, and wooden floors.
Despite my hesitation with woven furniture (so difficult to repair), I bought these two caned chairs—and a third that I use as a “closet” chair—somewhere in southern Massachusetts. They were filthy, but only $25 for all three. So I bought some Murphy’s Oil Soap and cleaned the hell out of them.
Mercedes Kraus
A close-up of a wooden chair, where you can better see the joints that hold it together.
I knew the chairs were well-made because all of the joints were high-quality (except one, where there’s a little glue keeping it together). I also identified a few thoughtful touches, like the wooden screw covers seen here, which can be good indicators that a person paid attention to the piece and made sure it was well-made.
Mercedes Kraus

Things that you can fix:

  • Furniture! Turn the piece upside down. Look under the top, at the joints, legs, and hardware—and if it’s got one, the skirt (also known as an apron, it’s the thing that runs under the table or chair surface, connecting the legs to the top). If all the basic components are in good order, proceed. Next, make sure all the joints are stable and connected; if they’re not, does it seem like some wood glue might do the job? If not, or if you’re looking at metal or another material, proceed with caution. Joints can be tough to fix. If your parts and joints are good, check out the hardware—it should be in working order and not rusted, but honestly, furniture hardware (things like this table bracket) can be relatively easily replaced—you’ll just need a basic drill.
  • Specifically, chairs with bad upholstery: Don’t be dissuaded by dirt. Most chairs are easily cleaned, and re-upholstery can be simple if the cushion is still in pretty good condition. If it’s not—if it’s uncomfortable to sit on—know that you’ll need a few extra supplies (cotton batting, or foam) to make a new one. Here’s a good video to help you get there. But anyway, a basic reupholstery may only require a staple gun (this light-duty baby is similar to the one I have) and some new fabric—perhaps that you bought on the cheap from an estate sale? Otherwise, get thee to Jo-Ann, where something is always on sale.
  • Rugs: I know I said no to woven things, but I have in fact repaired two small rugs whose fringes were in trouble. Meaning, the fringe was too short, and the rug was not secured and starting to come apart. If you have some thick thread and some time (I tied knots while binge-watching a TV show), you can also do this. I used embroidery thread, aka what you use to make friendship bracelets, and in fact the knots you make are a lot like friendship bracelet knots, in that you pull together a few strands of fringe and tie them together, and then move on to the next few. Here are a few videos to show you how it’s done.
  • Scuffed, cloudy, or scratched acrylic pieces: Not all plastics can be revived or repaired, but acrylic can. Apartment Therapy has a good, quick guide on how to do it.
Three vintage books sit on top of a wooden surface. One book has a few white houses on its cover, another has a green mug on top of a plate.
I love vintage home and design books not only for their aesthetic value, but also because I can learn more about nuanced design history for cheap. I learned about acrylic furniture from Classic Plastics. I bought American Vernacular, which I love, at a thrift shop in Palm Springs, and I snagged Terence Conran’s New House Book from @PressSF—more on that below.
Mercedes Kraus

Double-cherry on top

At the intersection of secondhand shopping, aesthetic inspiration, and design history lies @PressSF, one of my favorite Instagram accounts. It’s basically a digital bookshop for art and design books—including lots of home interiors books. I have only been able to snag one book so far—they go fast!—but I save posts to my “Home” collection on Instagram regularly. The secondhand books featured on this account inspire and inform my IRL secondhand shopping.

Is your rent too damn high? Wouldn’t building more housing make it go down? Curbed’s own Diana Budds lays out what, exactly, upzoning is, and why everyone’s talking about it. Come for the news context (why did California lawmakers reject that density bill this week?), stay for the connection between communism and the proliferation of single-family homes—and ponder whether housing should be considered a human right.

Sign up now to get Editor’s Notes directly in your inbox before everyone else. Every other week, you’ll hear from Curbed interim Editor-in-Chief Mercedes Kraus as she shares her latest observations, intel, advice, and shopping recommendations.