A Bargain Takes Elbow Grease

Once in a blue moon, you find not one but two amazing bargains. At least if you are lucky that is. I have often advised treasure/junk/antique enthusiasts to hunt for what you covet but always be prepared to snap up a real bargain that you chance upon.

Case in point, my BFF and I were in wine country recently, just working our way through the usual lineup of our favorite antique and thrift stores when we chanced upon a parking lot tag sale at one of our regular haunts. We wandered through the parking lot but didn’t see much and headed inside. I went straight out back to where they keep all the yard and garden decor and spied a tin mold. I realized it was not for outdoor use, it was a bread mold. Dusty, dirty, it was molded metal with scalloped folds in the bottom so that when the bread bakes, it automatically has slices baked into it. No price. I brought it up front where the unfamiliar sales attendant shrugged and said he was only there for the day because of the big sale.

“Five dollars?” I ventured. He nodded, completely uninterested. Sold. My BFF rolled her eyes to show her approval. It was a real bargain.

As we wandered back outside, I noticed a dirty box on the ground. Always go for the dirty boxes by the way. The seller was packing up. There were five or six cast iron pots and pans piled in the box. I tapped it with my toe. “How much?” I said smiling. He shrugged, sweating in the heat. “I am tired of toting it around. It’s heavy. How about $20?”

I nodded and handed over the cash quickly. He even loaded the box in my car. My BFF did that jaw drop, eye rolling you just got a major deal again thing. It was a massive bargain, given that cast iron pans run $60 or more. Each. They were all rusty of course but I knew that elbow grease would take care of that.

“You realize that was a huge bargain, right?” my BFF said as we climbed into the car. “Oh yes,” I replied smiling. “A major deal.”

I am forever on the hunt for cast iron. I love cooking with it, gifting it, baking with it. I cannot get enough cast iron. I have long searched for cast iron and found no genuine bargains until this one time. It was a rare find and worth every penny. I knew I’d hit the jackpot.

Returning home a few days later, I quickly discovered that decades of rust build up were not going to be removed via the usual vinegar and water mix. I consulted my friend Dr. Jerry, a Harvard-educated chemistry Pd.D. who told me what to buy. For another $9, I was able to procure a food safe solution and am working my way through the pots, pans and an actual cast iron grill pan that were all piling untidily in that dirty old treasure box. It is slow going, I don’t have a lot of free time to stand around and scrub, but I find the activity curiously soothing and reassuring, knowing that I am bringing back to life real treasures. I have so many now that I am gifting a couple to my daughter and her family. Turns out, they love cast iron too. Clearly, a love for bargain treasures runs in the family. As I work my way through the set, I’ve learned that several are very, very old but one is a designer brand, and much more expensive than the others.

So, I keep scrubbing, toiling away to bring these treasures all back to life and back into the kitchen. I am probably a little different from most antique and treasure hunters in that I prefer to use rather than simply display, my finds. I like useful treasures which is why I also bought a large mixing bowl on my last treasure hunting excursion. Bright sour green and made of heavy, glazed ceramic, it was in pristine shape and inexpensive (likely because of the unusual color which I love). I knew I could and would use it in many of my baking projects because of its size if nothing else. I also like to collect depression green glass but only buy items I can use when entertaining. I confess that is most likely during the holidays, but I still use them all. I find my best bargains have come from wandering through thrift stores that were likely unaware of what they were pricing so cheaply. Bowls, cups, saucers, desert trays and more, I’ve found most of my collection in the random stacks and jumbled shelves of glassware at charity and thrift stores, all for just a few dollars each. Once I go into antique stores, the dishes I covet are generally priced much more expensively, closer to what they are actually worth (or more). Because of this, I rarely find green depression glass bargains in antique stores though I am always on the lookout.

So, some frugal hints for treasure hunting:

  1. Like I already said, always go for the dirty boxes. Don’t be afraid to dig where the persnickety and germaphobes refuse to dig and then ask the seller for a deal.
  2. Head out back of antique stores to the potting sheds and garden areas where outdoor decor is usually kept. You never know what you will find amid the old pots and garden gnomes.
  3. Hunt thrift and charity stores where they price things much cheaper. Find out what day they usually restock.
  4. Hit estate sales on the last day, the final hours. You may be able to get real bargains at that point, same for parking lot tag sales and flea markets.
  5. Check out garage sales and again, don’t be afraid to dig or ask for a better price.
  6. If you can’t get the price you want, try the classic bundle strategy. Pick out another item you like and see if you cannot get a better price by bundling several items together. My BFF and I have picked out items together, bundled them and gotten a much price better this way.
  7. Not every item is going to be in pristine shape. Be aware of what you are willing to do to bring it back. I am good at painting and scrubbing but restoring a costly chipped antique picture frame or reweaving the seat on an old wicker chair are skills well beyond of my abilities. Know your limits. That being said, I once touched up a lovely Limoges China tray that had a tiny chip in the gold paint edging. I was successful but anything beyond that and I’d probably pass. Because of the chip, I got the dish for a song and was willing to try and touch up the paint. It worked but again, be honest with yourself about what you can and cannot do or are willing to do.
  8. Get and stay on everyone’s good side. Ask when the next parking lot sale is happening. Sign up for email alerts (which antique stores still call mailing lists). Keep in touch. And more than anything else, say please and thank you. A clerk remembered how kind I’d been to her when she was apparently having a bad day months earlier even when I did not recall the incident myself until she brought it up. She then went out of her way to alert me to new treasures being stocked that very day and gave me a nice discount.
  9. Often certain merchandise will be discounted after 30/60/90 days. Ask. And learn what different colored price tags mean. Often some indicate a recent price cut.
  10. Be prepared to walk. I found a darling little fire truck, circa 1940s, now meant for the garden as a planter. The salesclerk called the seller and then quoted me an outrageous price. I said no and walked. She came after me in the parking lot claiming the seller wanted to bargain but the counteroffer was also well beyond what it was worth. I declined again, nicely. It was not the clerk’s fault the vendor was being so unreasonable. I was nice but firm the entire time. And I also showed both the clerk and the vendor that I knew what the item was actually worth, less than 40 percent of what was offered. No thanks. We were too far apart. Pretty sure that little toy truck is still sitting at that store, gathering dust and rust.

But then again, that store is having a sale here again soon so maybe I’ll stop by and see if it is being discounted which brings me to my final frugal tip for treasure hunting:

11. Patience. You have to be incredibly patient to find treasures at a reasonable price so keep at it, never give up and always be open to a genuine bargain that may somehow come your way. You never know just what the next dirty, dusty box will hold.

Happy Hunting!

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