Secondhand shopping is a great pastime, if you crave thrills, deals and green deeds.

By Wendy Underhill

When Shirley Jenkins stopped off at Boulder’s new Goodwill store, she thought she’d pick up a few things to decorate her daughter’s dorm room. After two hours of scrutinizing the jam-packed shelves, Jenkins (not her real name) came away with some things for her daughter and a few finds for herself: a blue pitcher, a metal candlestick and a framed map.


“I’m an artist and I just liked these things,” Jenkins told a fellow patron while waiting in the checkout line. Turns out, the other patron was an antiques buff and thought the blue pitcher might be an authentic Wedgwood Jasperware. She asked if she could examine it, and confirmed her suspicion by pointing to the Wedgwood seal imprinted on the pitcher’s bottom.

In the meantime the cashier rang it up for $4.99, though an online search later revealed its actual value as $400. After Jenkins learned its true value, she howled with delight. “I’m a single mother supporting a college student at CU,” said the Denver mom. “I need all the money I can get right now.”

But secondhand deals aren’t always that magical. Former Boulder resident Larry Mosher decided his family’s gilded wooden mirror with carved mermaids was too formal for his home. He took it to a local gallery (now defunct) and sold it for $150. After the transaction, the smirking gallery owner turned around and said, “Do you know what you just did? You sold me a 17th-century Italian mirror that’s worth thousands of dollars!”


thriftyshopping-1These extreme examples aside, buying pre-owned household goods has never made more sense (as well as dollars and cents). With high unemployment, a sluggish housing market and a growing desire to be green, outfitting a home with other people’s outcasts is downright trendy. And the price is right—less than half the retail cost and sometimes merely pennies on the dollar. Secondhand goods aren’t just shabby chic, either. You can find true antiques: Japanese tansu chests, 1930s art-deco pieces, mid-century modern sets, 1970s retro furnishings and other plums to complement any décor or taste.

With more than a dozen thrift shops in Boulder County, several consignment shops and a handful of flea markets, how does one travel the hand-me-down road? First, know what each type of shop carries.

A thrift store is usually run for the benefit of a nonprofit organization and offers for sale almost everything that comes in as donations. If you think thrift stores are dirty, dim places, think again. Most are well organized with separate depart-ments for clothing, furnishings, kitchenware, etc. A thrift shopper’s advantage is extremely low prices, and the proceeds go for a good cause.


Indoor flea markets, such as Lafayette Collectibles & Flea Market, are mini-malls for individual sellers who rent space. The flea shopper’s advantage is huge inventory under one roof.

Consignment shops accept high-quality furniture and household items from people who downsize, move or redecorate. When they sell these goods, the price is divided between the consignee and the shop, with the shop getting the better share. So expect to pay higher prices at a consignment store than a thrift shop. The consignment shopper’s advantage is that store owners are selective about the merchandise they accept, wares are displayed in inspired ways, and goods are easily sorted through.

Whichever secondhand shops you visit, keep these tips in mind:

Stores that sell used furnishings generally don’t take returns, although stores may allow you to take things home on approval. Don’t think of secondhand furniture as settling for second best, though. “This is furniture that has stood the test of time,” says Vicky Boone, owner of Serendipity Vintage, a Longmont consignment shop. Furniture from a few decades ago was built to higher construction standards than today’s offerings, and is usually made of hardwood. If you know what to look for, you may easily get more than what you pay for. And if you shop carefully, $300 may get you an excellent sofa, whereas $300 at a retail furniture outlet won’t buy you squat.

That’s because thrift-store donations often come from middle- and upper-class households that can afford to toss out furnishings in pursuit of newer home trends. And to make things even more affordable, most thrift stores offer sale days with hugely discounted items. Boulder’s Savers, for example, offers seniors’ days, managers’-special days, 99-cent days and other daily discounts. An $8 dish set is cheap, but when it’s $2, it’s even better.

Visit Often, Be Wallet-Ready

thriftyshopping-9To get something special, visit thrift and consignment stores often. Judi Lesta of The Amazing Garage Sale in Boulder points out, “This isn’t Pottery Barn or Crate and Barrel,” so don’t shop with preconceived notions of what you’ll find that day. Be prepared to be surprised.

Barely used, good-quality furnishings have fast turnover, so be “wallet-ready” when you see something you like. “Our business model is that we sell things quickly at great prices; that way, things don’t stick around,” says Lynn McCullough, manager of Boulder’s HospiceCare & Share Thrift Shop. If you find a store you like, ask when they restock merchandise and shop on those days. At HospiceCare, furniture pickups are Tuesdays and Thursdays, so Wednesdays and Fridays would be good shopping days.

Clutter is an obvious hazard of frequent secondhand shopping. But Patty Ross, owner of Boulder’s Clutter Consignment, says, “I’m going to make that word positive!” She’ll show you how, too: Her store offers careful, room-like vignettes, created with a designer’s eye, that don’t look cluttered. She’s willing to share her ideas and advice with clients who have a less-trained eye.

Once you’re hooked on secondhand shopping, it’s only a matter of time until you consign your treasures. Nathan Troy, manager of Boulder’s Feather Thy Nest, says 3,100 people consign through his store. Some regulars even stop by several times a week to buy items to rearrange their houses. How can these folks afford new furnishings so often, even at consignment prices?

By consigning what they no longer want.

Secondhand shopping is a win-win, enthusiasts say. You pick up goods for cheap, it’s green consumerism, you’re supporting nonprofits that do good things for people, you can write off donations, and every now and then, you find a true gem.

“I’m going to take a closer look at everything in my home now,” says Jenkins, the woman who found the $400 Wedgwood pitcher for $4.99 at Goodwill. “I’ve decorated my whole house with things from thrift stores. Lord knows what valuable treasures I might have!”


thriftyshopping-12Ares: This for-profit thrift shop offers a lot, but you have to look carefully. We found a lovely Italian pitcher-and-bowl set for $4.59 apiece, a desk organizer for $8, and Haviland Limoges china coffee cups and saucers for 59 cents apiece.

Feather Thy Nest: This nicely arranged, bright and airy consignment shop has a wide range of home and garden items, with a wider range of price tags. We found some unusually cute, beaded African bracelets for $12 apiece and an antique wooden Indian chest (see photo, up top, in intro) for $989.

Goodwill: You have to dig deep in the jumbled displays to find any treasures here. But you just might find a 19th-century, English Wedgwood Japerware pitcher for $4.99 that’s worth $400, like one customer did the day we visited. Other finds: matching ceramic dog bowls with apropos inscriptions and designs for $3.99 apiece, and a gently used baby bassinet for $14.99.

thriftyshopping-2Humane Society of Boulder Valley Thrift and Gift Shop: Most Boulderites love animals, so you’re apt to find good stuff in this clean, well-organized store that benefits the Humane Society (and you might find a furry friend to take home, too). We found a brand-new kitty bed (of course!) for $9 and a lovely antique chest for $400. The most unusual find? Chip-and-dip plates made from melted records for $4.

Greenwood Wildlife Thrift Shop: This shop benefits the Greenwood Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, so expect to find good stuff, as people love to donate for wildlife. We found a hand-embroidered tablecloth for $9.50, Spanish wooden bookends for $15 and brass candlestick sconces for $3.50 apiece.

The Salvation Army: This store had the most furniture of any thrift shop we visited, including a gently used wood hutch for $65 and a comfy hardwood couch in good condition for $169. Don’t expect a lot of diamonds in the rough, though.

Savers: This well-displayed, well-organized Boulder thrift shop benefits the Epilepsy Foundation of Colorado. Although it’s a for-profit thrift store, we found deals that made us smile, including four cheery-yellow matching bowls and plates (with no chips or cutlery scratches) for $6. Our weirdest find? A used cat-litter scoop for $1.99.

HospiceCare & Share Thrift Shop: This Boulder thrift shop has great clothing deals, with barely or never-worn designer labels tucked among the racks. It also has home furnishings, but not the best on the day we visited. We did find a nice baby cradle made of hardwood for $35, a hand-painted Italian ceramic oil and vinegar set for $4, an Italian acetate wall hanging of the Royal Pavilion at Brighton for $8, and a glazed pottery crock in mint condition for $3.

DON’T MISS OUT ON GREAT FINDS AT THESE LOCAL HOTS SPOTS:Clutter Consignment, 303-386-3423; Front Range Indoor Flea Market, 303-776-6605 Geri’s Antiques & Interiors, 720-890-4747; Greenwood Wildlife Thrift Shop, 303-245-0800; HospiceCare & Share Thrift Shop, 303-604-5353; Humane Society of Boulder Valley Thrift and Gift Shop,  303-415-0685; Lafayette Collectibles & Flea Market, 303-665-0433; Noble Treasures, 303-926-4060; Old Friends, 303-665-8886 Serendipity Vintage, 303-776-8511 The Amazing Garage Sale, 303-447-0147, Wise Buys Antiques, 303-652-2888