the cardinal rules of second-hand shopping

24Aug08


Last Monday, we were in Denver, picking up a pallet of batteries. While we were there, we checked out our usual house-building haunt, Boulder’s ReSource store. This place is great– it’s a big yard full of recycled building materials that have been removed from existing buildings, or were un-needed for some reason. We were hoping to pick up a couple of doors for our shed, but nothing really seemed “right,” despite the fact that they have a huge inventory of doors. It was actually lucky that we didn’t buy anything big because it would have been a huge hassle to somehow slide a ton (literally) of batteries underneath the doors. We got some copper fittings, which we paid too much for because we disobeyed the cardinal rule(s) of shopping at second-hand stores. Though perhaps never-before codified, the rules are as follows:

1) Find a good employee to give you pricing on the item(s) you want. You can “test” an employee by asking for a price on an item that you’re not really all that interested in. Eavesdropping on other pricing transactions is also a good way to evaluate an employee’s attitude toward pricing.

Some employees are interested in “making a sale”, and will price items with the understanding that you are buying rain-soaked items, which you’ve had to pick out of barrels of other used & un-wanted items. These employees, (known as “under-pricers”) will glance at the item, and estimate a price that is somewhere around 10-40% of the item’s retail value- (i.e. the price you would pay for the brand new item in the store, with a warranty & the right to return it.) Other employees, however, do not have such a good sense of the “value” of their water-logged merchandise (can you tell that it is monsoon season in Colorado?). These employees (known as “over-pricers”), will carefully pick through the box of items you’ve selected, and add up the estimated retail value of all the items, multiply by about 80%, and then round up to the nearest $5. If you make the mistake of getting pricing from one of these “overpricers”, be prepared to enact rule #2:

2) Always be willing to admit that your treasured item is actually a piece of crap and “walk away” from it if the price is too high. Trust me on this one—you’re never going to lie awake at night, wishing you had purchased that rusty padlock (with missing keys). On your deathbed, will you think of the $45 frost-free faucet that you plucked from anonymity at the bottom of a bucket of rusty nails? Even the best deal can be walked away from, if you are faced with an intractable “overpricer” who wants you to pay $25 for the privilege of taking home an item that is missing a few parts & had to be rescued from a moldy cardboard box hidden beneath a pile of broken boards. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that we have violated cardinal rule #2 many times—and our garage is a testament to this fact!)

Once you have determined that a particular employee is indeed an “underpricer” you can go about your business, and gather together all the treasures that you want to bring home. Get a box, and create layers of items (archaeology style)– make sure to put the most valuable items at the bottom. Then attach yourself with glue to your favorite under-pricer. But remember, don’t be annoying, and don’t whine, because the price can be directly proportional to how annoying you are perceived to be. However, when it comes to determining a final price on things, pretend that you are in India, screw up your courage, and bargain on the price.

(At this point, Luke would like to remind all six of you who read this blog, that once you have herded a “critical mass” of miscellaneous items into a box, any additional items that you chuck in the box are basically “free”. The $10-40 price that you’re likely to pay for a cardboard box of random items isn’t going to change just because you add another shiny widget. If you run into an employee who notices a bit of copper in your box, and suddenly wants to add $5 to the price, please return to cardinal rule #2, –or if you can pull it off– cardinal rule #1.)

After leaving Boulder’s Resource store, we decided to check out a used plumbing store in Denver called “Do-it-URself plumbing”. Our old standby, Rayback, has unfortunately gone out of business, so we were hoping to scope out a new source for used plumbing stuff. Plus we need another toilet. Due to our laziness (and the fact that our house was regularly 2° below zero last winter– inside), we have cracked a number of the disease-ridden toilets that came with the house. We are not (necessarily) shopping for THE toilet– you know, the toilet that shows up in the glossy magazines– just a decent toilet that is reasonably efficient and doesn’t feature pink ceramic or fuzzy accessories. We need a stop-gap toilet. Kind of like the geek you dated in high school while waiting for THE ONE to come along. A nice enough guy, but not necessarily someone that you want to be stuck with for the rest of your life.

Anyway, we got to Do-it-URself plumbing. They have thousands of used toilets, strewn about a large yard, protected with a chain-link fence, and a sign that says “beware of dogs.” We didn’t see any dogs, but apparently toilet-theft is something of a concern here. Or maybe they are just worried that people will illegitimately “donate” some unwanted toilets to their stash.

Now let me say, that we are just about the most tolerant purchasers of second hand items (or worn out crap) that you are likely to meet in normal society. Since Luke places much of his self-worth on his ability to fix anything & everything, we are pretty tolerant of broken or missing parts, and other hazards of eschewing Home Depot for the second-hand yards. If something is very high-quality (and therefore worthy of being fixed), we’re inclined to drag it home and let it lie around for a few decades before fixing it. But Do-it-URself Plumbing was too much, even for us. We’re supposed to sift through acres of mis-matched toilets whose bowls have been estranged from their tanks? And then we’re supposed to chase down an absent employee to tell us that we’ll have to pay 85% of the retail price for the privilege of taking home one of these non-functioning items that looks like it has recently been ripped from a public restroom in Delhi?

I just don’t understand the business models of some second-hand stores. Last time I checked, our society is awash in unwanted crap. Second-hand stores get most of their merchandise DONATED, and most are unable to handle the volume of donations that end up on their doorsteps. Why not make every effort to make a sale? Sell the stuff cheap, and move the merchandise through so that there is room for “new” used crap. What attracts us to certain second-hand stores is the knowledge to every time we go there, they will have new stuff, and it will be easy get a reasonable price on it. If we keep coming back, we keep spending money. And all that stuff is diverted from the landfill… right into our garage. (Are you listening, Urban Ore in Berkeley? I didn’t think so.)

As we were leaving Do-it-URself (having not spent a dime), I noticed something. We were the only fools wandering through the acres of used toilets. At Boulder’s Resource store, there are always dozens of people, wandering around with tape measures & starry eyes, hoping for the perfect doorknob. At Do-it-URself? A ghost town. Tumbleweeds were practically rolling past our legs. This leads me to cardinal rule #3 of second-hand shopping:

3) The best second-hand stores are the busiest second-hand stores. Beware if you’re the only person in a particular store. Unless the economy has suddenly improved dramatically and President Bush has just neglected to notify you, there should be lots of people coming & going– some people treasure hunting, and some donating back the previous purchases that their spouses didn’t approve of. People shop in second-hand stores because they can get a bargain. Not because they find it thrilling to re-unite a toilet bowl with its matching tank. The joy of re-uniting bowl & tank is only worthwhile if it comes with the parallel thrill of getting to install your new family of products for a VERY rewarding price. People who aren’t thrill-seekers go to Home Depot, which conveniently locates its toilet-bowl-merchandise near to its matching toilet-tank-merchandise.

And now, before ending this overly-long missive, I must confess the real reason that we shop at used building material stores: QUALITY. The reality of our lives is that we’re a couple of cheap bastards who are just skimming above the federal poverty line. But we also hate much of the cheap China-made crap that is out there for all of us to consume in large quantities. (And then quickly dispose of so that we can all go out and buy more cheap crap with our economic stimulus checks.) We have reached a point in the advancement of our civilization where it is easy to buy a plastic faucet with a chrome-like veneer that is guaranteed to leak within 30 days, but it is very difficult to buy a brass faucet that will still be functioning beautifully in 30 years (unless you want to take out a second mortgage on your house). But second-hand stores often fill that gap. There are a lot of idiots out there who watch too much home improvement television and replace their old brass faucet with one of those chromed plastic faucets that are ubiquitous at Home Depot. Most of the brass faucets end up in the landfill, but a few find their way into the second-hand stores. Where we’re happy to pay a fraction of the price for something that is of much higher quality than the Home Depot stuff. Plus, I’m married to the only man I’ve ever met who has a much-prized valve collection. Recycled building supply stores provide the perfect venue to feed his addiction.

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6 Responses to “the cardinal rules of second-hand shopping”

  1. Great post… and thanks for the warning on the plumbing store, as I might have ended up there at some point!

    I love the ReSource in Fort Collins… I haven’t been to the one in Boulder yet. It’s best to go on an early afternoon, as they are sorting the new donations, and don’t ahve them priced yet.

  2. 2 buzzardroost

    An interesting variant of the used problem came up a month or so ago. I had a side wall leak on a chevy truck trailer tire and wanted a junk yard replacement tire and wheel. The one big junk yard is directly adjacent to the massive mountain of a landfill on Grade Lane in Louisville, KY. Before metal prices went sky high, you could saunter around about 30 acres of cars and had a good chance of finding your part. Upon walking in the yard, I soon discovered that they had converted to a scrap yard. People were coming in with anything metal to be weighed. They had a token number of cars for parts but the rest of the yard was stacked five plus cars high in wait for crushing. I know there was a wheel and tire in that stack but, alas, it was destined for a ship to China or India to make new (and crappy) steal. Yes folks, we are DOOOOOOOOMED!

  3. 3 lauracm

    Jennifer– thanks for the compliment, and thanks for reading!

    Buzzardroost– I agree. Doomed. Possibly even DOOOOOOOOMED.

  4. 4 Sara

    We have several great salvage places here in Seattle, one with a searchable online inventory (that I check a little too often). We have acquired, among other things,two old bank cabinets for our computer desk for $40, a stainless steel library cart for kids books and toys, and our greatest salvage purchase – maple bowling alley flooring that is now a dining room table. I am loving your blog – glad to be one of the six!

  5. 5 lauracm

    Sara–
    So glad you’re reading– along with the other five. And it’s nice to see that someone actually uses the stuff they pick up at salvage places– instead of just hiding it all somewhere, like some sort of blotchy skin disease.

  6. Hi,
    Love your site. (fyi…when I got my PhD at Cal you didn’t even get a sucker!)
    Just a thought on buying used stuff. I’m an entomologist and bed bugs are a big deal in my life at present. Would be great if you would advise your readers who purchase used furniture, clothing, purses/luggage…basically anything that could have come from a bedroom, living room or closet, to put it in a plastic bag or wrap it in plastic before putting it in their car/truck. And then put the unopened bag in the sun (on asphault is great) for a couple of days before opening it and bringing the items into their homes. We’re moving a lot of bed bugs and bed bug eggs around with second hand items and this ‘Highway 61’ treatment will prevent them, at least in summer. Putting the bags in an unheated garage or outside for a few subfreezing days in winter will accomplish the same objective.

    George Rotramel


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