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.
It’s been a little over a year since I opened Premium Transitions, my vintage shop on Etsy, and I remember my first sale very clearly. I had just listed a set of vintage Corning Ware”Grab-it” bowls from the 1970s and was thrilled when they sold the next day. It was my first inkling of how desirable these bowls are among collectors of vintage Pyrex and Corning Ware. As it turns out, it’s actually pretty rare to find undamaged grab-its at a thrift shop, especially with the fitted glass lids. I bought that first set on a whim but have since learned to be constantly on the lookout because they typically sell within days of being listed, with or without lids. It was my first vintage find and I was hooked!
At first, I thought vintage Pyrex and Corning Ware would be the main focus of my shop but I’ve since branched out into midcentury home decor and fashion accessories as well. Over the past year, I’ve learned a lot about how to list and promote items in my shop and how to pack and ship delicate items domestically and internationally. I’ve also learned more about which vintage items are most sought after by Etsy buyers. Some of the things I bought in my first month are still sitting on the shelf while others, like the grab-it bowls, have become best sellers (when I can find them).
My learning curve is by no means over. However, the one-year mark seemed like a good time to pause and take stock of how far I’ve come. Starting from nothing, I now have a sizable shop with hundreds of listings and about 250 completed sales. The following tips and “lessons learned” are gleaned from my own trials and errors since over the past year. I hope they’re helpful to anyone whose thinking of starting a shop either on Etsy or another online marketplace.
Develop a system. Before starting a shop, I didn’t give much thought to the hours I would invest in simply posting items for sale. However, listing can be a fairly time-intensive process, especially with a vintage shop. While it sometimes happens that I can directly copy or renew a sold listing when I list an identical product (such as the grab-it bowls), that’s rare because almost every vintage item is unique. However, once you establish a shop identity and a focus for the types of products you will offer, you can often copy a similar listing (such as a Pyrex casserole dish in a different pattern or size) and use most of the same tags and descriptors. You will still have to replace photos and customize, but it’s easier than starting from scratch.
Create a Mini Photo Studio. Photos are very important to marketing your products but can also be expensive and time-consuming to create. My first photos were pretty mediocre and could still be improved, but I’ve learned a few tricks to make my products stand out without paying a professional photographer or renting studio space. First, I try to take all my photos against similar backgrounds. My backyard, where I have a mini rock garden with a variety of oddly shaped marble-like slabs, is my current go-to spot. It’s turned out to be a nice staging area for things like purses, jewelry, and collectibles. Although natural light produces the best results, the weather isn’t always conducive to outdoor shots. For those days, I created a makeshift light box in my basement using a cardboard box, tissue paper, and a spotlight (check out this simple tutorial on YouTube). It works well for smaller items. Someday soon I will invest time in making a bigger one.
Work in Batches. I’ve found that taking multiple photos at once is easier than getting out my camera every time I have something to list (tip: an iPad camera works fine to start). I typically take photos of 5-10 things, then edit them in one batch. That way, they’re ready on my computer whenever I find a few minutes to create a new listing.
Develop a packing and shipping process. The importance of this step will become clear the first time you inadvertently switch mailing labels and send customers the wrong order (as I unfortunately managed to do early on–hopefully you will avoid this!) Problems arise when you’re packing up and printing out shipping labels for multiple orders. It’s fairly easy to put the wrong label on a package if you’re not careful, so I now take a couple of precautions. First, after packing an order, I lightly write the name of the item and first name of the customer on the box or envelope. Next, I put the packing slips into the corresponding packages and tape them up. At this point, I cannot see the contents of the box or the packing slip, so my previous labeling is a big help in matching the correct label to the correct package.
Pay attention to what sells. Some of the things I bought in my first few months in business are still sitting on the shelf. I’ve learned that not everything old or antique-y is desirable or conducive to easy shipping. For example, vintage kitchenware is popular but only for certain patterns or brands, such as Pyrex/Corning Ware and
Fiestaware. Dinnerware is generally difficult to sell but ceramic or novelty mugs are quite popular. Weight is another consideration as many customers are deterred by the expense of shipping, which can be as much as or more than the item itself in some cases.
Be patient. There’s no way to know everything from Day 1. Paying attention to what sells, listening to customers’ feedback, and learning about the products you sell takes time. I now feel more confident looking for new inventory at estate sales because I have a better feel for what customers want and how to set prices. I’ve noticed myself passing over things that I would have snapped up six or eight months ago. Similarly, I’m getting better at looking beyond labels and trusting my own judgement about what items will appeal to shoppers.
As I write this post, I realize that I’m only scratching the surface of what it’s like to own and grow an online shop. I hope you’ll stay tuned for more first-year insights and lessons learned as I continue on my entrepreneurial journey. I welcome your suggestions and 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.
I love seeing how people use antiques to create cool vintage displays in their homes. Possessions that have outlived their original purpose or been replaced by modern materials and sleeker designs–such as wooden printer trays or midcentury suitcases–are being repurposed as vintage decor to wonderful effect. Nostalgic items like vintage cameras and old kitchen utensils are being called back into service as art. I love the idea of upcycling these treasures, which might otherwise be relegated to a dusty storage space or thrown away.
The wooden printer tray is something that I’ve used in my own home. We found one at my mother-in-law’s house years ago and she gave it to my youngest son–a toddler at the time–to use in his room. Over the years, he’s filled up the odd-shaped compartments with tiny art objects found during family trips or at flea markets. Now 17, he still displays it on his wall and it’s like a snapshot of experiences and interests that he’s had over the years. Maybe someday he’ll pass it along to his own children.
Other Display Ideas
Vintage cameras have become very collectible in recent years. Some are used as working cameras by photography enthusiasts while others are purchased solely for display. A variety of attractive mid-century models can be had for between $25-$50 on Etsy, although they can range up to several hundred dollars depending on the style, manufacturer, and condition. Some come with weathered leather cases which really adds to their vintage appeal.
Vintage cameras can be integrated into an eclectic display or arranged as a collection of various makers and styles.
Old suitcases are also highly desirable as decor these days. Stack them or turn them into makeshift side tables or be really creative and use them as shelves, as one Etsy shop owner demonstrates below. Other ideas for cool vintage shelf displays include:
Classic hardcover books. You can pick these up cheaply at your local library’s used book sale (and support your library and the same time).
Antique mirrors and picture frames.
Old kitchen utensils, such as cutting boards, standalone graters, wooden spoons, pitchers, and food scales.
Vintage pottery pieces
Antique or colored glassware
Old black and white photos
Below are some fun ideas that I found around the web. Hope they provide some inspiration for your own vintage decorating!
Vintage fashion seems to be making a comeback and I’m constantly on the lookout for cool retro jewelry and purses to list in my Etsy shop. Still, I have to admit it seems strange to see younger people wearing styles that I remember from my childhood in the 1960s and 1970s. Truth be told, I have often thought we were well … Read more
Few of us can be as stylish as 1950s celebrities Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn but we can all add some vintage style to our look. Here are 5 tips to creating your own vintage style. “Vintage” is sometimes equated with “old” but what it really conveys is lasting quality–that’s what I think of when … Read more