Feature: Try That Secondhand

Conscious consumers are spending wisely, and don't compromise on quality
by Stephanie Singer

The quest began two months before my sister’s wedding. I wanted to buy her the perfect gift, but unfortunately I was in a personal recession, between jobs and with shrinking funds. I decided to try my luck finding something used. Every weekend I scavenged flea markets and garage sales. Weeks went by, and though I saw plenty of treasures, I was beginning to lose hope.

That’s when I saw it: a wrought iron Singer logo from an old, disassembled sewing machine table. Singer is my family’s name, and very soon it would be my sister’s maiden name. I gave the seller a dollar; he gave me the beautiful piece of iron and my 50 cents change. As you might imagine, this symbolically rich gift brought tears to my sister’s eyes.

For more and more of us, saving money and reducing expenses has become a priority. The surprise that many people are learning is that a low budget does not necessarily mean you need to skimp on quality. In fact, shopping secondhand often means discovering living artifacts from the not-too-distant past, when furniture wasn’t designed to be left behind when you moved. Beyond the appeal of owning quality, buying secondhand is an excellent opportunity to differentiate your home. A particularly unique piece will add a spark that you can’t get off-the-shelf, and then struggle to assemble with an Allen wrench and glue.

Feelin’ Crafty?

While there are times when the perfect piece emerges from secondhand shopping, other items require imagination, creativity and a little industry. By adding paint, stains, fabric or something as simple as new knobs, you can personalize your find in a way you never thought possible. A recent project of mine was taking a table left on the street and covering it in a mosaic of discarded broken tiles from the outlets on Washington Avenue by 22nd Street. Glue and grout cost less than $10, but the final product is, as they say, priceless.

If you feel inspired by a piece that needs new fabric, then head to historic Fabric Row (4th St. between Bainbridge and Catherine). Looking for something a bit more modern? Try Spool (1912 South St., 215-545-0755). They even offer classes or one-on-one support to help you create your own instead of buying it ready-made.

Perhaps projects like these don’t fit into your busy life or skill set. Don’t worry—there are locals who can help. Mike Piontko of Rejuvenated Furniture & Finds (7430 Frankford Ave., 215-624-2707) in the Northeast started his business seven years ago after experiencing frustration shopping for durable, stylish furniture for his kids’ rooms at an affordable price. “I checked thrift stores and everything seemed to need work. I was really looking for something that was ready to put in my home.”

Catherine Cifonelli, of Behind Closed Doors (752 S. 4th St., 215-238-9055) also saw opportunity in this market. She uses her talent to reupholster shabby old furniture into something “new” and fabulous with designer fabric. “They don’t make furniture like they used to,” Cifonelli says, so she seeks out older pieces with quality craftsmanship and intricate design.

Do Your Research

Craigslist.org, the free classified ad website that has revolutionized buying and selling, is a great place to start. Go to the “for sale” section on Philadelphia’s page and refine your search by using keywords like “dresser” or “pine” to find the item you’re seeking. You can often name your own price. Selling is just as easy—simply upload pictures of your items for sale. No luck selling before your move? No need to trash it, just post under “free” and let others know what you have and where it will be sitting on the curb. Bye-bye, futon!

For those of you who enjoy the in-person shopping experience, you can click the garage sale link to see where random sidewalk vending is for that day. All of the big Philly flea markets are always posted here. (The Uhuru Flea Market at Clark Park is on Saturday, August 8, starting at 7 a.m.) Or push your stuff on your corner and post the hours that you’ll be outside. Take the extra step and organize a multi-family yard sale with your neighbors. Chances are the collective selling will drive more foot traffic your way.

Whether you find yourself as a seller, buyer or perhaps both, the secondhand economy provides an outlet for community exchange. I’ll bet you 50 cents that you find something you love.