Last weekend I mapped out several sales I wanted to check out on Friday and Saturday and they ran the gamut in terms of appeal. I live in Connecticut in a region dotted with quaint villages and incredibly scenic landscapes. Town welcome signs proudly proclaim their establishment in the 1600s and, after driving through a string of these, I start to think of those founded later, say the 1800s, as modern upstarts. On a typical drive, I pass by impossibly idyllic farmsteads bordered by stacked stone walls and white picket fences, with cows grazing happily in the pastures. As I follow the turns to the next sale dictated by Google Maps, I’m expected to drive up to a sprawling estate with lots of treasures inside.
However, there’s another side to country living and it isn’t as pretty. I looked around confusedly when the familiar Google Maps voice said, “You’ve arrived,” then noticed a small single-lane street with a few cars positioned along the edge. I parked a short distance away and walked toward a “house” where a few people were coming and going. It was really more of a shack with a few steps leading up to a one-room affair. Inside, stuff was piled and thrown everywhere and some people were picking through the dirt and grime in hope of finding something precious or valuable. One older woman lifted a colored glass bottle in the air, effusing, “My mother used to have all sorts of these but she threw them out” (for good reason I expect). I’m all for scavenging but I draw the line at the risk of contracting airborne diseases or coming upon dead rodents in my search. It was the sort of place that should be wrapped in warning tape and condemned by the health department. Yet, the woman running the sale noted happily that she would be there all week bringing in more stuff from some unknown nearby stash. My husband doesn’t usually come with me to these sales but he happened to this time and I found him standing outside with his arms folded and a stern look on his face that said, “what are we doing here?” Needless to say, we left empty handed.
Happily, very few sales turn out that way. Most are located in longtime family homes that are being cleared out by relatives or estate sale pros. That’s not to say they are lavish estates. In fact, they are often modest looking bungalows or split levels but they’re stuffed with interesting treasures that the owners have accumulated over time. One sale was at a midcentury-style split level, the home of a recently deceased elderly couple who were enthusiastic collectors of southwest-style and Native American art. Another was at a lovely two-story colonial filled with nostalgic pieces from the early to mid 1900s. The owners were involved in the dairy industry and had these wonderful old wooden milk crates (which I didn’t buy because of the price, but will probably regret). I also passed on an antique sewing machine and a beautiful ceramic stove/oven with warming cabinets (too big). But I found some great old books, jewelry, and purses.
Below are some my finds from these particular outings (photos link to listings in my Etsy shop). All in all, a satisfying (and edifying) first couple of weeks of estate sale hunting!
One of the best things about going to estate sales is never knowing what you might find. Each time I plug an address into Google maps and follow the twists and turns a sale site, I never know quite where I will end up. Of course, I’m familiar with the general vicinity but not what the neighborhood and house itself will look like, and quite often the outside of the house belies what’s inside. I’ve found gorgeous purses and collectibles inside modest bungalows while leaving fancier places empty handed.
Recently, I found some interesting things at two very different sales. The first was inside a tony subdivision in a nearby town, not a typical site for an estate sale and I was skeptical of finding anything suitable for a vintage shop. I almost got back in my car when I found out that the organizers were only letting five people into the house at a time and making everyone else wait outside in the sub-30F degree weather. While we waited, a neighbor started yelling at us from across the street that someone had parked in front of her trash can and had better move…the morning wasn’t starting out so well.
However, I’m glad I stayed because I ended up finding some nice inventory for my shop. It turned out that the owner collected tea sets and cups, which sell fairly well on Etsy. The upstairs level was a bust but the lower level was brimming with collectibles. I browsed though a whole table of porcelain demitasses and teacups, all beautifully preserved with their matching saucers. On another table, I found some pretty ceramic bowls hand painted in Italy. Take a look:
The next week I found myself at a completely different type of home in a blue collar neighborhood on a street lined with tiny, well kept bungalows. The weather had warmed up and so had the reception: the woman holding the sale had the side door open and welcomed me in before her advertised start time. Again, I was a bit skeptical about finding much in such a small place but it turned out to be a very good day. The sale hadn’t been widely advertised so only a few people showed up, making it easy to do some low-pressure browsing.
The sale encompassed only a few rooms on the main floor but those were chock full of vintage wares accumulated over several decades. Kitchen counters were lined with all manner of dishes and gadgets and the entire dining table was covered with fine china, including–you guessed it–more tea sets! The organizer was willing to consider a discounted price if I bought several things so I decided to take an entire set that included a coffee pot, sugar bowl, and five demitasse and saucer combinations. I also picked up a midcentury serving platter, an Incolay stone trinket box, and some hand carved plates from Poland. Here are a few pictures:
Find of the Week
And finally, the find of the day was this whimsical brutalist art piano man. Turn the music staff wheel in the back and it plays the theme to “The Sting” — you can’t get much more nostalgic than that! I listed it that night and it sold a couple of hours later.
Running a vintage shop can be really fun. I love going to estate sales never knowing what I might find. While some women love a day at the mall, my idea of fun is poking through mountains of stuff accumulated over decades that for one reason or another is being discarded. The more piles and stashes, the more nooks and crannies, the better the shopping experience. I’m perfectly content to sift through all manner of junk in search of treasures, and I often sink into a kind of trance, in danger of forgetting that I’m supposed to be working. Estate sales are where I find most of my inventory for my Etsy shop, Premium Transitions. With that in mind, I try to reign myself in and limit my purchases to things with potential resale appeal.
The danger for me, as someone trying to build a vintage resale business, is getting so caught up in the fun part–estate sale finds–that I neglect the real work involved in actually making sales. A few great finds during a morning estate sale run and I’m riding high–then reality sets in after I arrive home and survey the work ahead. Everything has to be cleaned, researched, priced, photographed, and listed. I’ve become more efficient since I opened my shop over a year ago but these steps still take up significant time. Researching and pricing, in particular, can bog me down for hours. Google search is a little like going down Lewis Carroll’s proverbial rabbit hole which, according to Urban Dictionary, means to “enter a period of chaos or confusion”–a very apt metaphor.
Anyway, don’t mean to discourage anyone! I have, actually, become better at the researching and pricing game over time so thought it would be a good topic for a post. Of course, I’m still learning. But here are a few tips I’m able to share so far:
- Bookmark. Harkening back to the rabbit hole analogy, it’s very easy to click your way through a research session without tracking where you’ve been. The excitement of finding a piece of information that actually relates to your item can make you forget about saving the source. I’ve found it very useful to create folders on Chrome, such as “Vintage Purses,” where I bookmark useful sites. Having these valuable resources at your fingertips can save a lot of time and frustration down the road.
- Review Similar Listings. One of the first steps in my research is looking at similar items on Etsy and other online marketplaces, like eBay. On Etsy, it’s not unusual to find the exact same item listed in other shops but at a range of prices. Finding “sold” listings is somewhat helpful as it tells you that the item is desirable but Etsy does not list the sold price. When looking at what’s available, I try to get a sense of the price range and price mine somewhere in the middle. Others might be trying to sell the same item for much more but price doesn’t equal value. I try to get a feel for the range of prices and land somewhere in the middle. Remember, shoppers see the same range in their search results and know they can get the same item for less at another shop.
- Pay Attention to What Sells. Continuing to use purses as an example, I eventually settled into a few price points based on what was selling. Most of my purses sell for somewhere between $18-$55 depending on the condition, label, materials, and style. Beaded bags made in Japan or Hong Kong often sell on the high end while basic satin or faux-leather clutches with no labels are on the lower en
d of the range. Certain bags, such as mesh pouches from the 1920s or 30s, can fetch a lot more if they’re attractive to collectors. Once you decide on a general price range, put it out there and monitor its views in your shop stats. You can always make changes as you go. Correct pricing often comes through trial and error. No matter how much you might think or hope something is worth, the market dictates its value to buyers.
- Don’t Lowball. While you shouldn’t overprice your items, neither should you undercut the market if you’re trying to build a quality brand. Low prices might help attract bargain hunters but they can also make your shop look cheap. Besides, your prices should also reflect the time and effort you spend as a curator of vintage goods. Think of it this way: Scouring estate or yard sales is not everyone’s cup of tea no matter what bargains may be waiting for them. By shopping on Etsy, they have access to a curated selection of vintage goods that they can browse at their leisure on their computer and have delivered to their doorstep. That’s worth something!
- Specialize. When I first started my shop I tested things out to see what would sell, and I’m still doing that to some extent. However, specializing in a few types of items makes sense in terms of efficiency. In my case, I started with vintage Pyrex and Corning Ware, which are still dependable sellers, then expanded to other areas such as vintage purses. Once I started to accumulate a number of midcentury bags I began to recognize names on designer tags and to differentiate between genuine vintage and modern lookalikes. I spent some time reading vintage fashion and purse blogs, like Bag Lady University and Collectors Weekly, among others. Now, I am not only much more likely to pick up a genuine vintage bag at a sale but also better able to describe and price it in my listing.
That’s it for now. Stay tuned for more tips on running a vintage shop and check out my last post on Lessons Learned from my First Year on Etsy. I welcome your comments!
Early to midcentury cameras are popular now, both among practitioners of old-fashioned film photography and vintage collectors looking to create attractive displays. Many come with matching leather cases and straps and other accessories that add to their vintage appeal. I’ve picked up a few these cameras at estate sales lately and have been learning a bit about their history and features in order to list them in my Etsy shop.
Although I dabble in photography, I am by no means experienced in using old cameras or well-versed on their technical features. However, I did start my journalism career back in the days when young reporters often took their own photos with actual film. I never set out on an assignment without a fully stocked camera bag, which came to seem like my de facto purse. I wish I still had the Pentax 35mm I carried back then but alas I seem to have given it away during one of our many moves, not anticipating that they would come back into fashion.
Anyway, here are a few of my favorite camera finds of late. I absolutely love the worn-in leather of the cases and straps!
Genos Rapid. The Genos Rapid is a German box camera introduced in 1950 that was made of Bakelite. Box cameras did not have all the bells and whistles of more technologically sophisticated cameras but their simplicity was a big part of their appeal for the general public and inspired many people to try their hand at photography. The earliest box cameras were made of wood or metal and allowed no control over focus, aperture, or shutter speed. The Genos Rapid offered a few more frills, such as a shutter button, a flash sync socket, and switches that allow you to choose aperture settings. For these reasons, the Genos is still popular among serious collectors who actually use the cameras they buy. However, it’s boxy appearance also gives it a very appealing vintage look. This one also came with its original leather case and sold quite quickly. I’m now on the lookout for more!
Argus C3. This lovely looking camera was introduced in 1957 and was nicknamed the “brick” for its boxy shape and solid construction. Rick Schuster, who writes about photography at Shot on Film, says the Argus C3 is “beautiful in its weirdness,” with strange design features involving dials, knobs, and lens stuck to the outside. However, it was a best-selling camera in its day and all the exterior gadgets were sometimes a selling point, making it seem more legit from a technical standpoint. It was also reasonably priced compared with other 35mm cameras. I love this one that I found at an estate sale because it was obviously so well cared for by its owner, who–judging by all the framed photographs and art books on display throughout the home–was an avid and skilled photographer. It also came with a very nice case in near-mind condition, as you can see in the photos below.
Voigtlander Vitomatic I. This model was made in Germany from 1957-60 by Voigtlander, a very old and established company that was founded in 1756. The first generation of Vitomatics were viewfinders as opposed to the rangefinder models that followed later. Made entirely of metal and glass, this camera is quite compact and extremely sturdy. A cool feature noted on the photography site, Lomography: the Vitomatic I never needs a battery because the selenium meter absorbs power from the light in front if it. As for the technical details, this camera has a Prontor-SLK shutter and a color Skopar lens 2.8/50. It comes in it’s original leather case, although the strap is missing and there are a few scuffs on the leather–but I really like the worn-in look.
Voigtlander Prominent. Voigtlander is a stalwart in the camera world and the company was known for its quality construction and technological innovations. It was the first to introduce a zoom lens and built-in flash units for 35mm cameras. The Prominent, a 35mm rangefinder, is among it’s top achievements but was probably been ahead of it’s time, according to CameraPedia, which notes that it wasn’t as popular as some of it’s competitors, such as Leica and Contax, when it came out in 1950. The Prominent was the most “intelligent” of the top German cameras but it’s quirky design made it less attractive to casual photographers. “The public was not ready for such a product,” says CameraPedia, “It needed some knowledge of optics. Today we can state that its basic design is still ahead of general top products.” Desirable features of this model include its Synchro-Compur shutter and Ultron 1:2/50 lens. This particular camera, which I purchased from the estate of an avid photographer, also includes a vintage metal film canister and cylindrical leather case. The case attaches to the leather strap, giving the photographer easy access to film while out on a shoot. Plus, it looks really cool!
Agfa Super Solina. This 35mm rangefinder camera by Agfa was made in Germany in the early 1960s. The Super Solina, also sold as the Super Silette, is part of Agfa’s Silette series that started in 1955. It has a flat top plate, a recessed rewind knob flush with the top, a top flash attachment plate, and a Prontor-SVS shutter. This camera comes with a nice weathered leather case that is missing it’s strap. Agfa is another well-known name in photography. The company’s roots extend back to mid-19th century Germany, when it produced it’s first box camera in 1930 and its first 35mm in 1937. The Silette series introduced more modern design elements, including an autoexposure button and capability for 126mm film. It produced it’s last film cameras in the early 1980s and gave up production in 1983.
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