Maybe it’s the hint at prestige that chipping paint seems to signify, the (outdated?) given that anything old—money or a half-moon table—is somehow better than the same thing, new. Or maybe it’s mystery, of past houses and lives gone by, or that patinas can be so rich they’re just as much watercolors as rot and rust.
But don’t lose sleep over the reason: Antiques have always be in, vintage is very in, and even if the term changes we can count on the fact that old stuff will always have value. Shopping for it, on the other hand, can be weirdly uninviting: What business do I have being in this store, and what exactly should I be buying?
I spoke with Andrea Stanford, a past vintage editor at One Kings Lane and now the brand director for Everything But The House (a very cool company that brings estate sales to your computer screen), about this intimidating aspect of antique shopping. She rattled off a dozen reasons, hardly stopping to breathe, that anyone should feel confident vintage shopping—and here are my favorite ten of them.
1. “Don’t be intimidated.”
The first step towards finding a treasure is to go looking for it. You do have business rifling through old furniture, no matter how deep—or puddle-like—your knowledge of Louis XVI chairs (they look like this, in case you’re wondering). Gravitate towards styles you like, and inquire about them, with confidence.
2. “Start where there’s sort of a lot.”
Find your local flea market, Andrea encourages. (If you live in the Northeast, Brimfield is [a massive one] and Roundtop is another; if you live in a less trafficked part of the country, you can rejoice in the fact that your local fair is going to be much, much less picked-over.)
Being able to browse a larger selection of vendors will allow you to “start doing comparisons,” as Andrea calls them. See one stash of mid-century ceramics? Note the prices, the look of them, and then when you see another pile at another stall run the numbers against each other. These trips are as much about educating yourself as they are for shopping: “Once you build a knowledge base,” Andrea says, “that’s when it becomes fun.”
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3. “Ask, ask, ask.”
This goes back to not being embarrassed. “So many of the true dealers are so passionate about what they do,” Andrea explains, “that they want to tell you.” Knowledge about a certain style, or genre of collectible, or about how to fix up an old thing—that knowledge has been passed through generations.
4. “Start with something you love.”
Andrea’s a poker player, so when she started collecting she focused on vintage cards. “At first, I just bought the ones I liked and we played with them—and over time I started learning about the various brands and artists.” It was inexpensive, relevant to her personally, and fun.
5. “Start small.”
If you’re interested in mid-century (or 18th-century, or non-Western) furniture, try mid-century (or 18th-century, or non-Western) ceramics first. “Ceramics are such a great way to add a vintage touch,” Andrea says, “on a tabletop as part of an arrangement, or in an office to hold stamps”—though if you’re here, you probably already know that.
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6. “Embrace the imperfect.”
It’s going to be much more trying (and expensive) to walk away with something that’s old but looks perfectly new. “Is it great to find something in mint condition? Absolutely. But sometimes there’s going to be a little scratch, or you find seven glasses instead of a full set of eight—but you probably would have broken one on the way home!” she says, comforting me for having done that many-a time.
And if you do find the perfect, reasonably-priced pair of lamps, of course, her best advice is to not think twice and grab them up.
7. “Don’t leave home without a measuring tape.”
Since nobody knowns better than Andrea that some of the best vintage shopping can be done online, she can't stress this point enough, and it goes for shopping in person, too. "You look at something and it seems perfect," she warns, "but don’t get wrapped up in that feeling—measure!" Before you hit the flea and while you're shopping, too.
8. “Find out where other people are shopping.”
Andrea admits that she relies heavily on word of mouth to find the best sources—but those words aren't limited to private conversations: Write it down when you see a flea or thrift store that intrigues you on Instagram or Pinterest, and always ask for recommendations before traveling.
Before we hung up the phone, Andrea and I swapped ideas for East and West Coast favorites at her urging: I told her to go to Scott's, a big flea in Atlanta, if she found herself down south, and she encouraged me to hit up Lost Art Salon, a tiny art store in San Francisco (I'd asked about finding original, less expensive art—and this shop is a treasure trove).
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9. “Shop in packs!”
Besides the fact that it’s just going to be more enjoyable, we agreed, Andrea stressed that “volume discount is real!” (That is, if you both buy a few things at a single store, the owner might give you a break on the lot of it. And if you’re hunting for something specifically, having a pack will allow you to “divide and conquer, too!”
10. “Read books.”
Andrea tells me that she’s standing in front of her bookshelf while we’re chatting, and she rattles off the list of titles she references the most: Vintage Furniture by Fay Sweet, and a host of monographs on her favorites (a book on African gold weights because she’s started collecting those, and on Carl Auböck, Axel Vervoordt, and the Cliff May houses), plus Furniture & Interiors—a series that covers decades of styles in mini volumes. She also considers perusing sites like 1stDibs, eBay, and Etsy an education, too.
Perhaps nothing can replace person-to-person expertise, of course: “I found a modern master on Eames,” she tells me, “and learned more in ten minutes talking to him than I could have reading up on him!”
This article first ran last year, but we brought it back to get you excited for or upcoming Lawn Party at Brimfield, which opens next Tuesday. We'll be there through Sunday; come see us!