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Secondhand Smokin' 

by Dennis Held & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & W & lt;/span & ant to drive a small but pointed spike into the great unfeeling heart of Corporate Capitalism?


Not really? Then would you like to save 90 percent off the retail price of many of the items you buy every month, unearthing hidden treasures worth hundreds of dollars while paying mere pennies?


Thought so. By shopping secondhand, you can do all that and more. Once you get into it, secondhand shopping will make you wonder why you ever bought anything firsthand. And those capitalist running dogs will feel you nipping at their heels.


There are two major sources for secondhand goods: yard sales and thrift stores. I'm mostly a store shopper, myself, but especially in spring and early summer, yard sales can be the source of some great finds.


A friend of mine -- who hates shopping at thrift stores but is a serious garage-saler -- recently paid 50 bucks for a Mutascope machine at a yard sale in Spokane Valley. (The machine flips a series of photographs at a speed that makes the scene look like live-action.) She recently sold it on eBay for $2,700. Boo-yah!


Serious yard-salers like my friend are up at the crack of dawn every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, mapping out their routes ahead of time, clutching the want-ads in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other as they race from house to house, stalking the elusive bargain.


Others, myself included, prefer a more relaxed method -- the shopping, after all, is supposed to be fun, a type of recreation where the journey is more important than the destination. I like floating along on the outskirts of town, searching for yard-sale signs, guided by intuition and luck instead of the newspaper. I tend to linger at the sales I like, talking to the sellers. After all, it's not just the bargain: it's the human history these objects contain -- their stories -- that drives our fascination for "mere mortal things."


The vagaries of yard-saling have been well documented elsewhere, but here are a few reminders. Always carry cash; bring loose change and small bills. Be willing to dicker, but don't insult the seller with a ridiculously low offer. (Don't go lower than half of the asking price, as a rule.) Most important: Shop early and shop often. Frequency is the key to success. And one more thing: Look for Sunday-afternoon bargains, when weary sellers may be willing to accept a low-ball offer just to avoid hauling their former treasures to Goodwill.


One very successful eBay seller here in town only shops at estate sales. Traditionally, an estate sale is the final selling-off of a person's goods after they are "no longer with us." The sellers, usually hired professionals, are often willing to negotiate, and the prices can be quite low. (This tradition has morphed into "living estate sales," which are actually more like yard sales with a funereal marketing twist. Yucko.)





Picking Your Way Through Thrift Stores & r & That's enough to get you started in yard-saling. Of course, once winter sets in, the yard-sale season winds down. For great secondhand shopping all year long, you can't beat the secondhand stores. Now, I'm what they call a "picker" -- a person who cruises the stores, skimming off the nicer goods, often just as they're placed out on the floor. In shopping as in the rest of life, my friend, timing is everything.


Thrift stores come in all shapes and sizes, from spiffed-up and shiny-clean to unkempt and, shall we say, organizationally challenged. Many of my favorite stores are tucked away in nearby small towns: Newport has a couple of gems, while thumbscrews and blowtorches couldn't get me to name my favorite "fishin' hole" in Sandpoint.


Most of what I find goes into my house: glassware, oil paintings, a sweet little library table. I also buy useful items, like clothes and shoes. But my favorites are the oddments and whimsies I keep around to stir the imagination: a 1930s clown makeup kit, blown-glass fish for the garden. The rest I give away as gifts or barter for goodies, horse-trading my way up.


In the end, it's not about the value of the objects. The real joy is in the search, or, more precisely, in the find: that indescribably delicious moment when your eye falls on the as-yet-unclaimed prize, when the day's treasure has been uncovered. It's the reawakening of our childlike delight and capacity for wonder that makes secondhand shopping so compelling, so downright addictive.


And think about this: Every time you buy a secondhand item, you're into the most fundamental form of recycling: You've found a new use for an object that would have otherwise been discarded. No one in India or Pakistan or North Carolina will have to slave away for pennies a day to produce that shirt, that table, that gift or gewgaw that you didn't buy from a big-box store. Instead, you bought it secondhand.


And most thrift stores benefit good causes. Goodwill, St. Vincent de Paul ("Vinnie's," to the regulars), the Teen Challenge stores -- all use their profits to help people in Spokane. By spending your money at one of these places, you're helping someone here, and you're keeping a dollar out of the hands of the corporate capitalists who don't give a fig for local folks and their problems.





Where To Go, How To Shop & r & When I shop, I'm looking for items in two distinct categories: 1) everyday goods that I can get cheaper secondhand, and 2) the more valuable treasures that await the discerning eye.


I play a lot of basketball, and I'm always on the lookout for good shoes. At the moment, I own a pair of Nike Air Monarchs and a pair of Air Jordans, both purchased "like new." I paid less than $4 for each pair -- that's what I'm talkin' about! My house is stocked with linens, furniture, books and kitchenware that I paid pennies for, and they're all high-quality goods in great shape. If there's a flaw, a tear or a chip, I skip it. This means being extra-careful when examining your goods -- before the purchase -- and passing up a raft of great stuff that might only have one minor defect. Remember: There's always more stuff. Don't settle for second-best, just because it's secondhand.


The real treasures are the overlooked gems of the past, mixed in with the usual dross of a wasteful society. On a recent trip to a Spokane-area thrift shop, I found an English biscuit tin. The box itself, more than 80 years old, was a righteous $4. Inside, I found a collection of handmade brass beads, each one hand-worked, each one unique. Do these come with the box? Of course -- the box, and everything inside, said the nice ladies. Four dollars, please.


When I got the box home, I found a layer of tissue paper at the bottom. Underneath were a pair of silver and jade earrings. They're the new favorites of my sweetie, and I'm the luckiest man alive. Not bad, for four bucks.


I make a similar discovery about once a month, and the best advice remains: Shop early, shop often. I tour a handful of favorite stores here in town, and I try to stop at each once a week, between errands.


When I asked my friend with the Mutascope if she shops the stores, she said no, it was too time-consuming. She's right, in a way -- if you move slowly, picking through everything, it could take you all day just to make it through one big store, like the downtown Goodwill. Most of us develop a shopping strategy, which evolves over time. Some people rip right through, hitting as many stores as possible in one day, skimming lightly over everything.


I prefer to visit the smaller stores, hitting them often. That way, I can keep an eye on their basic inventory, and skip over most of it at a glance. When they bring new items out -- the source of most good finds -- I can tell right away, because I'm familiar with the day-to-day look of the store. And by the way, some of my best scores have come before the goods are actually put onto the shelves. Most places bring a shopping cart full of merchandise to put out, and if you're careful and don't break anything, they usually don't mind if you sort through the cart as they're setting things out. When in doubt, it's always best to ask. You want to be friendly with the clerks and other store employees -- they hold the keys to the kingdom.


The rest is up to you. The key to successful secondhand shopping is spending your time wisely -- and to me, that means enjoying yourself as much as possible while spending as little as possible. Take that, Sam Walton!

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