The past two years have been good to the secondhand economy. Thrift shopping has gone from a catchy 2013 pop song to the way to find everything from a perfectly grandmillennial floral sofa or an almost-new Le Creuset, to a slim-lined Parsons-style desk. But so many terms get thrown around in one secondhand bucket — thrifting, vintage shopping, antiquing, estate sale hunting — what do they all mean? Can they be used interchangeably, and if not, what are their differences? And how do you start your own secondhand love affair?
Finding these pre-loved treasures is about more than affordable price tags. “What I love most about vintage and antique goods is the story of the paths these pieces took to get here today,” explains Anne Griggs of Hoskins Creek Home, an Instagram vintage shop and antiques booth in Tappahannock, Virginia. “Where did they come from? Who did they belong to? It’s living history.”
Whether a recent purchase is vintage, antique, or neither, it’s still special.
“Thrifting for your home is pure freedom. Whatever strikes your fancy, whatever you’re looking for to feather your nest — you can find,” adds Megan Powell, owner of Goods Resurrected, an online vintage shop. “Between creating a style all your own, saving money and saving items from a landfill — it’s truly one of the best ways to create a home.”
Thrifting is straightforward. It includes scouring thrift stores, including those run by charities, churches, and other non-profit groups, as well as stores like Goodwill, for secondhand items. When you go thrifting, it’s all about the thrill of the hunt. You stroll down linoleum-covered aisles, squinting under the glow of fluorescent retail lights, eyes darting from mustard yellow Pyrex to abandoned wedding crystal. Beneath stacks of grocery store dishes, you spot a winner: a full set of 1950s Fiestaware. And the price? It can’t be beat.
Jamala Wallace, a thrifting fanatic and creator of the Instagram community that shares their finds under the hashtag #lifestyleofthethriftandfamous, notes that shopping for decor at charity-based thrift stores is often the best way to find intriguing (and unique!) furniture, art collectibles at affordable prices — plus, your purchase often goes towards a good cause.
“Thrifting is all about being at the right place at the right time. You never know what you might come across,” adds Griggs. “And, sometimes you don’t find anything at all — which keeps you coming back.”
Vintage shopping for home decor is closely related to vintage shopping for incredible statement clothing items. You’re often hunting through thoughtfully curated boutiques for that one standout piece that will come into your home and announce, “I am here.” Perhaps it’s a mint condition Barcelona Chair, a lacquered Henry Link desk, or a lithograph from a 1960s pop artist.
As Wallace explains, “The pieces are less common because items are hand selected by their shop owners. Although prices may be slightly higher, the items are usually pristine and/or designer brand.” These days, vintage home stores are often associated with mid-century and 1970s decor, with their perfect marriage of minimalism and bold gaudiness.
But don’t think that vintage shopping means there aren’t deals to be found. Powell shares an insider secret:“While the dealer has done the hunting and research for hours, there’s always that item that the seller might not know what they have, or that you value more.”
Similar to vintage shops, antique shops and malls are more intentionally collected spaces — and often have higher price tags. The primary difference between vintage boutiques and antiques shops, beyond the prevalence of Federal-style dressers, oil painting, and mahogany demilune tables, is the age of the goods. Vintage generally means the pieces are less than 100 years old, while antiques are the grande dames of the secondhand world.
While antiquing, you’ll peruse artfully arranged vignettes and booths where dealers often specialize in a particular era or provenance. Love quirky Art Nouveau? There’s probably a dealer out there who hunts down the most stunning, intricate pieces. Prefer a simplistic Shaker style? Make your way over to one of the early American dealers.
For that reason, Powell says, “Antique stores can be easier to shop. Most dealers have a style or look, and you can hone in on the spots that work for you. Plus, in an antiques mall, I love knowing I’m supporting tons of small businesses in one spot.”
Dusty, mothball-filled closets and pantries full of pastel china often come to mind when thinking of estate sales, and while those images aren’t exactly wrong, they don’t even begin to scratch the (sometimes fragile) surface of all the gems waiting within the homes of those recently (but not always) departed.
There’s an entire system to estate sales that can be intimidating to newcomers. There are previews, lines, set times, different prices for different days, bidding, negotiations and rifling through what often feels like a time capsule. There are days when you’ll go to a sale at an incredible mid-century house only to find nothing but romance novels and chipped china, and other times when a roadside sign leads you to a solid wood, delicately carved dresser for $40.
Griggs explains that it’s often worth checking out the estate sales ahead of time to see whether their taste catches your eye. “With estate sales, there is usually a preview online or a walkthrough beforehand,” she says.
Plus, it’s not just furniture waiting to be found. Wallace adds that you can also pick up other household items at a bargain price while you’re there. “You can find items such as lighting, clothing, cookware, household cleaning supplies and even tools!” she says.
If the idea of combing through someone’s grandmother’s belongings has you a bit uneasy, know that you’re not alone — but you’re also potentially saving these items from a dumpster.
“Shopping someone’s actual home can be an odd thing, especially since most people have passed away, but it’s an amazing look into their life. You’re essentially walking in on collections after collections, cleaning products, family photos, toilet paper and anything else you can imagine,” Powell says. “If you’re willing to dig — you can find gold!”
The sometimes subtle differences between thrifting, vintage shopping, antiquing, and estate sale hunting tend to boil down to the same result: a fascinating purchase. One upside to our country’s insatiable consumption, Powell says, is that we’ll never run out of things to uncover in the cluttered aisles of a thrift store — and no two shoppers’ tastes will ever look identical. There truly is something for everyone.
This post is part of our Thrifting Package, a celebration of all things secondhand. Head over here to read more about everything from how to restore a thrifted item to the best thrift shops in the U.S.