Thrift stores can be a wonderful mishmash of trash and treasure. But all thrift shoppers have their own “Moby Dick”-style white whales — the items for which they are always hunting.
Maybe it’s first-edition books by a favorite childhood author. Or those missing pieces of Grandma’s discontinued china pattern.
We’ve all heard stories of someone uncovering a true treasure in a bargain bin. Such finds are rare, but there are other gems that are easier to find at your favorite resale shop. Here is a guide to some of the best.
There’s a classic look to vintage Pyrex bowls that modern cooks still love, and the right dish (especially in a matched set) can sell well on eBay, Craigslist or places like Facebook Marketplace.
Fortunately for thrifters, grandchildren cleaning out or downsizing a relative’s home may just want to get rid of Pyrex and send full matched sets off to the thrift store. Study up at a fan site like Pyrex Love and learn how to identify vintage Pyrex. You might be bowled over at what you find.
Much of the flatware dumped at your local thrift is inexpensive and not worth much. But if you’re really into it, you can study up and learn how to identify the occasional real sterling silver piece that slips in among the dross.
It may only be an odd fork or spoon, but find enough and you can melt it down for a tidy sum. As with vintage Pyrex, you want to walk into the store informed as to what is real silver. Study up at eBay’s forums or by watching good YouTube videos by those who thrift and profit from silver, and you’ll soon be shining.
3. Vintage globes
Hey, is that East and West Germany on that cool vintage globe? Persia instead of Iran? Istanbul, or Constantinople? Vintage globes are about the simplest thrift-store find for which you can identify the date — borders are redrawn as the world’s geopolitical order reorganizes itself.
Here’s a neat guide to help you figure out in which year your globe was made. However, watch out for reproductions — if an old-version globe looks too new to be true, it probably is.
OK, so you’re not going to retire on the sale of something popular and mass market, like that everybody-and-their-uncle-bought-it paperback version of Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code.” But there are treasures on those shelves, if you know what to look for.
Older hardcover books in great condition, signed first editions and other rare reads are your best bet. If you know a certain author well, you can probably keep his or her rarities in your head. Or, check out a specialty book site such as AbeBooks.com.
College textbooks are pricey, and that makes them smart thrift-store scoop-ups. But like any good student, you need to study up. No one’s buying a Biology 101 textbook that’s been supplanted by two newer editions.
Tip: Head to a thrift store near a big college or university and use a website or mobile app like BookScouter to see if the texts you find are still A+ buys.
6. Vintage board games
Vintage board games can be a fun thrift-store find if you’re game for the hunt. Pop-culture and TV-themed games are special hits with certain fandoms. I paid a pretty penny to re-buy a 1970s version of “Mystery Date,” which is full of hilarious stereotypes about dating.
Check a site like BoardGameGeek to see if the game you’ve found is trash or treasure. But be warned: Board games were meant to be played, and played hard. Avoid games with missing pieces, damaged boards and taped-up boxes if you’re hoping for a resale win.
7. Scrabble tiles
Word up! While we’re talking board games, keep a special eye out for old Scrabble games. When you find a copy of the fun word-making game, don’t worry so much about the condition of the box or its board. Instead, check to see if it has the classic wood letter tiles, the cool kind you can imagine being made into earrings, a bracelet or a necklace.
Even if you’re not a natural jewelry-maker, these tiles are pretty simple to turn into jewelry, or you can sell them to someone who’s more craft-centric. (Mahjong tiles work, too, and are even prettier.)
8. Waterford crystal
Waterford crystal has been a part of elegant dining tables since the 1700s (with a century gap when the Irish company closed and reopened). But in this modern era when we’re more likely to drink out of a disposable Starbucks cup, not everyone buys it — or can recognize it on the thrift-store shelves.
The fragile vessels are breakable, so they don’t always make it to your local store intact. But if you find one, snap it up. There are numerous tips on how to identify Waterford. Study, and soon the answer will be crystal clear.
9. Le Creuset cookware
Le Creuset and other enameled cast-iron pots are a cook’s dream. Slow-cook a stew, whip up a stir-fry, even bake yourself a loaf of tasty no-knead bread — in each case, cleanup is a snap. However, these pots are far from cheap. A good-sized Le Creuset or its equivalent can run you hundreds of dollars.
Cruise through the kitchenware aisles at your thrift store and look for these colorful, heavy pans, often clearly marked with Le Creuset’s name. If you can’t resell it, you can almost certainly use it — these pieces last forever.
This cookware ranks among our top picks in “9 Indestructible Products That Are Worth the Price.”
10. Instant Pots
The Instant Pot is a multi-use cooking appliance that does the job of a pressure cooker, slow cooker, rice steamer and even a yogurt-maker. It’s helped bring back the art of pressure cooking — without that old-days fear of kitchen explosions.
You’ll have to spend a decent amount to pick up a new pot, but here’s a secret: Many of those who were given one for the holidays never quite got over that old pressure-cooker nervousness and didn’t even take it out of the box. If you prowl the small-appliance section of your local thrift store, you may see a lineup of brand-spanking-new Instant Pots in various sizes. Bon appetit!
11. Designer clothes
While most clothing at thrift stores is pretty ordinary, spotting a designer piece can give you a nice item to resell to fashionistas. You may want to start the hunt at a store in an affluent neighborhood. But, really, you can find designer labels almost anywhere.
Check especially the jeans, high-heeled shoes, evening-gown and handbag sections of the store. And watch the calendar — you’ll get the best deals on off-season stuff, like a pricey North Face ski jacket in the middle of summer.
12. Picture frames
Sometimes thrift-store art can leave a lot to be desired, but the frame in which it hangs is often the real deal. It’s not tough to remove and discard Grandma’s paint-by-number clown to get at the fancy vintage frame in which it once lived.
Look for ornate and fancy, and avoid frames that feel cheap and flimsy. Talk about the art of the deal.
Basket collections are commonly dumped at thrift stores when an older relative downsizes or passes away. You may be able to resell the best of them, but I like to buy them for a personal purpose: They save you money on gift-wrapping and those fancy gift bags.
Pick up a basket the next time you’re prepping a gift for someone, then create a themed gift basket (movie gift cards and popcorn, or tasty tea and fancy mugs) and display it in your thrifted basket. You’ll have curated one heck of a present.
14. Record players
Vinyl is back, although for some of us it never really left. Find a working, and classic-looking, turntable at a thrift store and you might be able to spiff it up and resell it to a music buff or hipster for a nice profit.
You’re on your own, though, as far as reselling those Alvin and the Chipmunks LPs.
15. Brick cellular phones
Personal story here: A friend and I wrote the book “The Totally Sweet ’90s,” a loving ode to all things from the era of slap bracelets and scrunchies. In the process, we hit thrifts and online stores to scoop up a trunkload of ’90s memories, both for a photo shoot and book tour, and also just for fun.
One of the priciest things we purchased was an old brick-size cellular phone — you remember, the huge ones we toted around back in the days of Crystal Pepsi. I’m still shocked at how much those retired giants sell for online. So, if you see one at a thrift, consider buying and reselling it. Just don’t drop it on your foot.
16. Vintage cameras
Remember the days of Kodachrome and Polaroid, before digital supplanted film? Vintage cameras are a treasured type of technology that’s faded from our lives as camera-equipped smartphones have taken over. But there’s a decent contingent of folks who collect and lovingly care for old cameras.
Find a rare camera in good condition, and focus on the deal.
17. Retro video games
Time to level up! Sure, online gaming and sophisticated game systems are all the rage now, but those old familiar cartridges like Frogger and Pac-Man can score more than points.
Familiarize yourself with the subreddit Game Collecting on Reddit, and you’ll learn what titles are most prized. Ready, Player One?
18. Vintage typewriters
Everything old is new again. Typewriters were everywhere for about a century, then faded away as computers and word processors took their place. Now, an entire generation of schoolkids is growing up having no idea what these iconic machines are.
The older and the more vintage a typewriter, the more sought-after they are, especially by writers, journalists and anyone with a fondness for the old days. Tip: If you find a screaming deal on a typewriter that doesn’t work, you may be able to sell the keys separately for jewelry-making.
19. Vintage postcards
Vintage postcards open a beautiful window into our past, whether they depict long-gone drive-in movie theaters or scenic wonders. They don’t always sell for much, but here’s a tip: While traveling, hunt up postcards of beloved spots from your own hometown. When you’re back on your own turf, you might be able to sell them via a local entity such as Facebook Marketplace to people who hold special memories of those places.
Buying them out of town means they’re often available for pennies, since few folks in Vancouver are likely interested in a card depicting a torn-down Denver high school.
What kid doesn’t love Lego? The creative plastic-brick sets can be pricey when they are new. But grown-up kids often let their parents dump their collections at Goodwill, and that’s where you can snap to it.
Big sets and special collections do especially well, and with all kinds of retro movies and TV shows returning, yesterday’s uncool superhero-themed set may be today’s hot buy. “Star Wars,” of course, has never gone out of style. May the Force thrift with you.
21. Fine china in discontinued patterns
Once upon a time, a bride and groom didn’t dare create a wedding registry without selecting a china pattern. Those days are gone, and today’s grandparents are finding that younger generations just don’t want to inherit Grandma’s entire 12-setting collection of Franciscan Silver Pine dishes, as elegant as they may be.
If you can snoop out the right pieces from sets of fine china that have been discontinued, you may be able to eBay those items for big bucks. Keep an eye on the granddaddy of all china fill-in services, Replacements Ltd., to see which patterns are hottest — and if you find something good, Replacements Ltd. might just buy it from you.
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