Thrift store collecting turns trash into treasure

by Joseph Boushee 

Lamps, jewelry, toys and clothing—things a typical passerby might glance at sitting on a shelf or hanging on a rack in a thrift store.


A collector sees these things too, but often reads deeper into them. All of a sudden, it’s not just a lamp—it’s an antique oil lamp from the days before electricity; it’s not just jewelry—it’s a genuine silver necklace; that toy is an authentic Johnny West cowboy action figure and that piece of clothing is a vintage Rolling Stones concert t-shirt from a tour years ago.

Dakota Boys Ranch employee Julie Meyers sees this enthusiasm for collectables every day as people hunt for items in the store. “Quite a few people come in looking for things,” Meyers said. “What may be viewed as worthless by some ends up being just what a collector is looking for.” Meyers notices collectors looking for silver jewelry, pottery, broomstick skirts, plastic flowers and Mr. Potato Head toys.

Some collectors go so far as to ask thrift store employees if they have such odd things as kidney stones, gall stones, animal skulls, mannequin body parts and cardboard fireplaces. “They call for the weirdest things,” Myers said. Whether or not she can send a collector home with a new item, Meyers said she has encountered all types of collectors.

Meyers considers thrift store collecting more unique than garage sales or auctions because of the varied selection. Her experience selling to collectors has created a few interesting situations a more collectable-savvy auctioneer or private owner might face less often.

"We end up marking down (prices on) collectibles,” she said. Meyers said a collector will purchase an item, then after the sale, will educate her on the real value of the item.

These encounters have caused employees at the store to “keep an eye out for collectibles,” she said. Meyers said the large selection of items available adds to the appeal of searching for collectables in a thrift store.

Meyers doesn’t just sell collectables. In fact, she has quite an assortment of items of her own and they’ve all come from the thrift store where she works. With the wide variety of things that come into the store on a daily basis, just about anything could be considered a collectable to the right person, Meyer said.

“(I collect) just about everything,” she said. Namely, the bulk of her collection consists of 1970s memorabilia and Oriental dishes. “My house is full.”

Each item in each room has a purpose. Meyers adds that her collections accent the various rooms of her home. Meyers decks out her basement with 1970s furniture and pictures, and she finds a place for the oriental dishes in her dining room.

Jewelry used to be popular among thrift store collectors, but now Meyers said that the popularity has shifted more towards vintage clothing. That shift in collecting habits can be seen in collectors like Brian Hill.

One item that may never be remembered along with the most popular types of collectables—such as coins, stamps and baseball cards are t-shirts shirts made to commemorate a family reunion. Although they are vintage clothing in their own way, there isn’t exactly a big following for the shirts. Maybe that's why Hill began collecting them nine years ago when he was 14 years old.

“It was about going to punk shows and wearing the shirts,” said Hill, now a radio broadcaster at Q98 in Fargo. “It was a way to stand out a little.”

Growing up in Orlando, Fla., Hill remembers going with his friends to a record store in the city. The store had a small room for concerts that held about 50 people, complete with a stage for the band. This is where he and his friends would show off the shirts.

“They’re good conversation starters,” he said. People would see him in one shirt on a particular week, he said, then see him wearing a different shirt from another reunion the next week. Then they would begin to ask him about the shirts.

Hill’s shirts commonly have a logo on the breast pocket that advertises the last name of the family, or a sort of “family crest” on the back of the shirt.

Hill now has 25 to 30 shirts in his collection, but he doesn’t really wear them anymore as he did when he was younger. His collection remains at his home in Florida.

Hill said he acquired most of his collection by looking through the clothes at thrift stores and rummage sales. He also got them from friends who held family reunions of their own. Hill said he occasionally looks for them, but remembers searching back home for them when he was more actively collecting the shirts. “We used to go to five or six stores and maybe find one or two,” Hill said. “They’re not easy to come by.”