Spellbound by Savings

Thrift stores and Halloween go together. Like the Blair Witch and shaky camera angles. Like Scooby-Doo and musical chase scenes. Like Bruce Campbell and sarcasm.

Thrift stores are where you go for that shirt so campy, you just have to build a costume around it. Thrift shops spawn gypies, hobos, and disco-dancers. They're the places where bridesmaid dresses are fit for a queen. And a Western shirt can make you The Duke.

And if you're short on time or creativity? Stores like the Goodwill or Salvation Army often have ready-made costumes available, donated from stores like Target, or smartly gathered together by staff throughout the year. Adults... children... pets.... hey, there's something for everyone here.

Speaking of pets, meet Paddington, a friend's cat, as she silently... DEEPLY... resents her thrift store chapeau. ("If I WERE a witch, I'd turn you all into mice and EAT you!... Stop laughing, it's not funny. NOT. FUNNY.... Oh, get a hobby!") The schadenfreude we experienced over this alone was worth the 59-cents for the costume.

But say you're not into humiliating your pets. Say you're more of a Halloween decor person. Well, a savvy thrift tore shopper can still find what they need to celebrate the season, either ready-to-go or by letting the imagination run free.

I'd estimate a good 50% of the items I used for my Harry Potter party came as thrift store finds, including these candlesticks and potions bottles.

The potions bottles were just plain old jars, bottles and decanters in their previous life. I made the labels for them in Microsoft Word and adhered them with a glue-stick. Alone, they're ho-hum, but together and filled with questionable potions (the Polyjuice Potion is Nickelodeon Gak), they really do the trick.
So to speak.

By the way, craft stores are another great source of inexpensive Halloween decor. The photo at the top of the page, and here below, shows my dining table decorated almost exclusively in craft store and thrift store items. The faux pumpkin, chargers, mirror and assorted creatures all came from craft shops (heavily discounted and well before the holiday! LOVE it!). The table cloth isn't a table cloth at all-- it's purple velvet curtains I bought at the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store.

So if you'd like to get into the spirit of Halloween, but you're spooked by the prices in traditional stores, thrift stores and craft shops can offer some very devilish solutions!

Material Girl

If you’ve gone into fabric stores recently, you’ve probably noticed how expensive fabric is these days. So in my thrift store journeying, I always pause to take a gander at the bedding section. Not only is there a possibility for the kind of textiles that work wonderfully in a romantic home as-is, but vintage sheets and curtains-- with a little out-of-the-box thinking-- can be reused in tons of ways.

Heavy brocade and velvet vintage curtains work well for reupholstering projects. In fact, the very chair I sit in to design this web site is covered in a fabric shower curtain. (Shhh, don’t tell anyone.)

But lately I’ve discovered vintage sheets offer a whole new realm of possibilities. Cut with pinking shears so they won’t unravel, they can be used as soft, pretty cushioning for items inside gift boxes, replacing standard tissue paper. They can be used in place of tablecloths or, secured with a vintage pin, can become easy-to-clean chaircovers. Draped artistically, they can become cheap window valences. Or hung outside, they can be a quirky shade from the sun.

Because, as I’ve mentioned before, I am all thumbs when it comes to folding standard wrapping paper, I’ve discovered that seasonal fabric tied into a sack with a fancy fabric ribbon becomes an easy, attractive way to wrap oddly-shaped gifts.

And thinner fabrics like cotton sheets or satins, with a little craft glue, are effective for covering things like paper magazine holders, boxes or photo mats.

Plus, you can’t beat the distinctly old-fashioned look of some vintage fabrics. I bought this one sheet a few weeks ago simply because it brought back memories of the sheets my grandmother used on the guest bed when I’d visit. I don’t have a plan for it yet, but at $1.00 a panel, it was worth buying to set aside for the right project

At Home with Richard III

Richard III and I go way back. I guess if anyone told me years ago that I would invite a maligned historical figure to be a permanent guest in my home, I would have been wondering what meds they were on. But once Richard made himself comfortable and I got to know him a little better, he’s become a unique and compelling fixture in my life.

It was Edwin Austin Abbey who first introduced us. Abbey was an American illustrator during the Victorian period, who honed his craft in England, influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite movement. His work was theatrical, with a widescreen-like composition featuring crowds in dramatic, often Shakespearean, action. For example, the print below-- one of his illustrations for King Lear.

The Abbey at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, called The Penance of Eleanor (viewed here) , has been a favorite of mine since college. There’s just something about the Gothic atmosphere, the rich reds and purples, and that creepy magician in the corner that simultaneously fascinates and frightens.

Then one day a routine visit to an antique store uncovered an amazing find. Across this precariously-stacked shop was a chromolithograph of a work I was sure I recognized. It was Abbey’s Richard, Duke of Gloucester.

And after a bit of quick negotiation with a dealer who seemed politely befuddled why I would want such a thing (poor Abbey has found himself terribly out-of-fashion in the Art World), I brought the four-foot-long, heavy oak-framed piece home. Richard had found his place.

Since Richard took up residence in my living room, I’ve learned quite a bit more about him. For centuries, texts have analyzed the questionable circumstances surrounding the disappearance of his nephews-- heirs to the throne Prince Edward and Prince Richard. Whether or not he locked these children in the Tower of London, and murdered them to usurp the crown, has been a rich source of continued, often-passionate debate. Was Richard the hunchbacked, duplicitous monster that Thomas More, Shakespeare and Allison Weir have said? Or is it possible that he was a fair ruler, a decent uncle, and history has done him a great disservice (as Revisionists like Horace Walpole, AJ Pollard, Bertram Fields and, er, Blackadder I, suggest)?

Having read theories from both sides, visited the Tower of London in person, and witnessed the propaganda machine of our own tumultuous politics, I have begun to feel ol’ Dickon may have, in part, gotten a bum rap. No one can be as wholly unredeemable as writers like one-note Weir have made him out to be. And that’s human nature, not just history.

Ironically, a second antique store brought me a mezzotint of the supposed victims in this 600-year-old mystery, Millais’ The Princes in the Tower. So now, to the right side of my original “Richard,” young Prince Edward and his brother wait on the stairs for all eternity-- fearful, listening, as an approaching figure casts a shadow in the cold, stone corridor. Is it the approach of their protector or their doom? Minds a lot sharper than mine have yet to answer this question.

Now I do recognize that having one of medieval history’s most notorious villains as the focal-point of the living room is probably not everyone’s cup of mead. First and foremost, interior design should be something you can live with. But honestly, since he’s come to stay, Richard’s been just no trouble at all-- the ideal guest in many ways. And if anything, the artwork serves as a constant reminder that whether you surround yourself with family photos, cherished landscapes or even loathed Shakespearean antagonists, art should be something that sparks your interest and your imagination.

Follow-up Fun:

  • If anyone has an Abbey similar to mine, or has any information regarding the origins of this particular print, I’d love to hear from you. This piece came just as you see it here, and I’ve been trying to track down any info on its provenance, age, etc. The print has become almost as mysterious to me as Richard himself!
  • To learn more about Edwin Austin Abbey and his work, click here. This site has some pretty good overview information and shows a number of his well-known works. Sadly, the bulk of his collection is underappreciated and undisplayed at Yale, due to space constraints and current trends in modern art. (How many great things are out there, I wonder, that we never, ever get to see?)
  • To learn why Richard III may have had a seriously bad PR problem thanks to the Tudor spin-doctors, click here. This will take you to the Richard the III Society, a group of revisionist historians working to clear Richard’s name. Viewpoints run from the logical and relatively-balanced to the sincere but far-fetched. Still, you have to appreciate folks who can get this jazzed about things that happened in 1483!

Hominidae Grabbitus

I don't know, maybe for certain folks, thrift shopping taps into a primal hunting-and-gathering behavior. Some innate id-driven reaction to limited resources and survival of the fittest.

But as a result, there are two good rules that can help you survive merrily in the competitive world of thrifting:
  1. Never step away from an item you think you might want
  2. Until you've paid for your treasures, be prepared to defend them. (Within reason, of course. Please: there's no violence in the world of thrifting, 'kay?)

Now you probably can imagine where the first rule comes from. You don't make up your mind quickly enough about a potential purchase (BIG mistake!). You leave just a moment to make your decision. And you return, only to find it bought out from under you...


(Just accept it gracefully, my friends, and move on. Such is the way of thrift store life.)

The fact that there's even a need for the second rule, however, leads back to my primal hunting-and-gathering theory. It just seems like-- for a small percentage of people-- an item in someone else's possession becomes automatically MORE DESIREABLE than the item ever was on the shelf. And they feel compelled to make you, er, AWARE of it.

Now most of the time, people are lovely. I've had pleasant conversations with older ladies who see something I have in hand, and it leads them down memory lane. And I've had nice chats with others who simply want to discuss a good find.

I love that.

But I've also seen people rummage through other people's unattended carts and remove choice bits for themselves. And about once a year, I will have a fellow thrifter actually get vocal with me because he or she never even noticed the item in the store before, but now is annoyed because I have it.

The last time I had this happen, I was at the Red, White and Blue. I had just found this nice pair of vintage gold-toned candlesticks. I had them in my hands and was finishing my perusal of housewares, when a man stopped me and said in an accusatory tone:

"Where did you get those?"

I was three feet from the shelf. I blinked confusedly. "Er, here... in the store... ?" (Was he a house detective? Were these somehow not for sale? What did I DO, Officer?! I planned to pay for 'em, sir! Honest! Don't send me up the river on a bum rap!")

But the man just scowled from the candlesticks to me and said, "I didn't see those when I went through!"


Clearly his eyesight was becoming my issue.

Realizing he was just a somewhat over-passionate shopper and not some angry store security guard, I smiled politely and gave him a shucks-sir-them's-the-breaks kind of shrug. Most people openly acknowledge that thrift shopping is based on the highly sophisticated principle of First-come Finder's Keepers. I figured that was the end of it.

But the man was noticeably more annoyed: "And I was looking for brass!"

And here's me again, pretty sure they were gold-plated white metal but afraid to say so now, because this gentleman wasn't exactly proving himself to be Captain Rational.

I was starting to get just a LITTLE BIT WORRIED.

Also, I still really wanted the candlesticks.

So I tried to be upbeat. "Ah! Well, there's sure a lot of good stuff here today! So, er... I hope you find something really great!"

But now the man was reaching to take the candlesticks from my hand: "Can I see those?"

This was more surprising than the accusatory tone. "Well, sure, I guess, uh..." Me, stammering, looking around thinking, 'Help? Is anyone else seeing this unconscionable breach of inter-shopper protocol?'

In a last-stitch effort to keep my little find, I added, "...Er, as long as I get them back, of course."

I did get them back, by the way. And then the guy just went off grumbling about how they were good candlesticks and he'd been looking for brass.

Maybe he had mental problems. Maybe he'd been one of those kids who Doesn't Play Well With Others. Maybe it was a rough week for him selling on Ebay, I don't know.

At least he wasn't waiting outside in the parking lot for me.

The point is, thrift shops have their own unique culture. So if you're new to thrifting, don't be scared off. Just be polite, expect to meed the occasional interesting character, keep your treasures close, hone your decision making skills, and have fun.

And if, in your thrifting delight, ancient hunting-and-gathering instincts begin to overwhelm you? Please keep your hands to yourself, okay?...

People are trying to shop here.

Sweet on Decorative Tins

I believe in decorative tins. At one time, they held English toffees, nuts, cookies or maybe even Aunt Mildred’s fruitcake. But these now-empty containers-- available at virtually any thrift shop-- can be a gift-giver’s dream.

I’m particularly grateful for them because, when it comes to wrapping presents, I am completely tape-and-scissors impaired. Too much paper, too little paper, bunched paper, over-taped paper… Most of the time, my finished packages look like they’ve been cobbled together by Dr. Frankenstein. And reanimation of the dead just doesn’t say “Gifting” to me.

But a nice tin looks good all by it’s little ol' self. And with a wide array of colors and patterns to choose from, the right tin can actually enhance a gift.

As for usefulness, once the gift is opened or used, the packaging is also ideal for storing loose change, paperclips, pencils, what-have-you. It’s a gift that keeps on giving, really.

So I try to pick up interesting-looking tins all year round. I look for different sizes and shapes-- you never know what size you’re going to need someday. And I won’t hesitate to buy a pretty Christmas tin in mid-July if I think I might be able to use it.

One particular brand of tins I find regularly is Daher. This was a Long Island New York company that manufactured tins in both England and Holland. They’re usually very colorful, often floral, and have an authentically vintage or retro look to them. The picture here is pretty representative of the later Daher tins.

When buying tins, make sure you open them up before you buy them, to verify that they’re in good condition. Some vintage tins may have been exposed to moisture over the years, and that moisture can corrode the metal. If you open the tin and discover significant rust, I would recommend avoiding that tin. It might be possible to treat it with a rust-preventing paint, but you run the risk of exposing your gift to rust, and given that most tins run in the fifty-cent to one dollar range, it may not be worth the effort.