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Vintage Look:
Thrifting Toward Romance

or, The Joys of Second-Hand Booty

by Amy Halloran

Spring cleaning leads to spring purging and that puts garage sale season upon us. Like flu season, there are things you can do to steer clear of catching the hard-to-kick bug, but if you're at all susceptible to the habit of acquisition -- and of used goods in particular -- you might as well let the plague have its way with you while the merchandise is fresh. But bear in mind that possessions are not all you have to gain on your Saturday morning tour.

Trust me on this. Used goods are a great route to being a great couple. I ran a thrift store for two years and I got to watch the sparks fly. I never saw anybody get married in the aisle, but I've seen people swoon over Sinatra collections and mingle over mattress pads. And I've sold a few wedding dresses and tuxedoes. People are passionate about possessions. And nothing is as raw as a seasoned shopper on the prowl. (First-run shopping cannot compare. Brand new things don't have stories; they don't have souls.)

I've met and made some of my best friends while thrifting at stores, yard sales, and flea markets. One pal became more than a friend when we hung out for a while as divorce buddies. Saturday nights we watched movies and Sunday mornings we went to the swap meet. He wanted tools and I wanted books, so there was no sense walking together; we'd only slow each other down. We met at the end of our loops and compared our loot. Telling about the hunt is almost better than finding a treasure is: where it was when you first saw it, how little you paid for how much. Nothing beats an appreciative cohort at the end of a crap-hounding circuit.

Your Place(mats) or Mine?

To begin adding to your personal collection (of people and things), there are simple principles to follow. Look at what people have in their hands before you look at them. You'll be able to tell so much by their desires. Who wants that red Fiesta milk pitcher? Do they really plan to use it? Should you warn them about lead in the glaze? Who could go for that torn up bible? What about that chenille bedspread?

Next, move your eyes from the shopping to the shopper. Regard his or her stance. Does he want the plastic flower collection for its kitsch value or to give as a non-ironic Mother's Day gift? Maybe she's going to buy those rhinestone cowboy sunglasses... and maybe you want them. Better yet, maybe she looks like someone you'd like to talk to. Remember at all times that you are on the market for both people and things. Just open your trap and say, "Damn, I like those glasses. Are you sure you want them?"

The rule in looking for friends while thrifting is to find people whose tastes you admire, but don't covet. You want to start conversations, not fisticuffs. This is not to say that mild disgust should keep you from pursuing possibilities. For example, don't skip the tables of salt-and-pepper shakers -- and the cutest thing on Earth looking at them -- just because you think the hobby of collecting them has a certain lameness. Rather, think of it as "eclectic" and follow this rule: do not limit yourself to your tastes. (The world would be a sadder place if we were all the same. Make this your mantra.) There might be something you can appreciate in a pair of Campbell Soup Kids shakers. Maybe your mom made tomato soup cake with raisins. Maybe his did, too.


Nostalgia is a great breeding ground for companionship. Saying "I had that when I was a kid!" could be a quick way to round out a morning with a cup of coffee at the nearest diner. There's enough stuff circulating in the world that you're bound to find at least one object per outing to remind you of your childhood. A Polly Pocket, Betsey Wetsey, or GI Joe could easily lead you down memory lane, hand-in-mental-hand, with another shopper.

Here's another example. Thrift sale vendors are always unloading Lincoln Logs and Tinker Toys. Use this. Think bonding. A phrase like "My brother used to beat me up with Tinker Toys!" could turn someone who did the same into a pile of apologetic putty. Even modern kiddie goodies are great openers. Spy a purple dinosaur on the lawn and see who else is looking at it aghast. You could find someone ready to reminisce about the simpler charms of Sesame Street and the Six Million Dollar Man. The glue of mutual aversion could seal your fate... or at least your next date.

Vintage retailing has brought the best qualities of recycled commodities to light. But don't be tricked into letting someone do your scouting for you. Go to the source. Spend your spare time at estate and rummage sales and you will be rewarded with a house full of stuff and a handful of friends... and friends who might be more than friends. You know, those who do more than you expect, like a set of Ronco knives.

Then, once you've accumulated your kingdom of must-haves, you can turn the wheel again. Host your own sale. Make it a building- or block-wide event. Meet those dog-walkers you always greet in passing and invite a herd of other "maybes" to peruse from the safety and comfort of your lawn chair. There will be an opportunity for physical contact in the exchange of change from finger to palm. And if that careful shopper can't manage to ask you to the movies right there and then, at least she'll know where you live.

I'll give you one last piece of advice, something you've heard before because truth is redundant. Don't go out with a shopping list. Don't expect to find a fountain pen, a tea set, and a mate for life unless you want to be disappointed. People don't have specific goals when they go looking second-hand. If they do, they don't have luck. Beware of your intentions and be open. After all, nobody's looking for what they find. The world is overflowing with people and things. Keep looking, and you'll find yours, in time.

Amy Halloran lives in upstate New York with her husband and her son, prized possessions in themselves.

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