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The true confessions of a thrift store junkie

Armed with $100, one shopper finds bliss and nostalgia in her favorite South Tampa thrift stores.

© St. Petersburg Times
published July 12, 2002

TAMPA -- I thought I had died and gone to Palm Beach.

There I once stood in tony South Tampa, face to face with a pair of perfect pink-and-green Lilly Pulitzer slacks.

My size.

Five dollars.

Call me chintzy. Call me cheap. But I am a child of the dusty and wild.

Naturally, I gave in to an offer of a $100 thrift store shopping spree on behalf of City Times, snagging more than 30 items. (Check out the lime green dress. Carole Little. Mint condition, $2.50.)

I have always known how to wangle a bargain, even before I moved to Tampa in 1998 from Springfield, Ill., and set about the task of decorating my shabby-chic Davis Islands apartment on a budget.

The look was in and I knew how to get it.

I bought hand-painted furniture, vintage needlepoint pillows, crazy art, great used books, decorative hats, lamps, old cookbooks, ceramic '50s-era pineapple dishes, china teapots, flowered pillows and Floridiana -- all for a song.

(Contented sigh.)

Jerry Hibbs, second-hand shopping sage, knows this feeling.

He calls it "the rush of finding a bargain that's really worth much more money."

He is thrift-store coordinator for Lifepath Hospice. But in his heart of hearts he nurtures a love for used Pyrex.

A few years ago, he bought 12 place settings of rare china for $150. The early 1900s set, he says, is now worth over $14,000.

"My nest egg," he calls it.

That rarely happens.

The secret is not to get rich or get face-time on Antiques Roadshow.

The secret, says Hibbs, Mr. Pyrex, is to "buy what you really love."

For people 40 and older, nostalgia makes for sweet romance.

"We have people who don't need to shop here, but who come in every day because they like being around the old stuff," says Ken Korka, manager of the Salvation Army thrift store at MacDill Avenue and Bay to Bay Boulevard.

Korka points out that the store attracts a wide variety of shoppers, from serious collectors to "people who have nothing more than a bike to their name."

Priests drop in. So do judges.

The purists among them prefer true thrift stores, places where the items are donated and a percentage of the proceeds go to charity. Thrift stores drip with dirt-cheap goodies, bargains-in-the-rough for those willing to wash or iron or re-paint.

In contrast, pickings are easier at resale shops, with goods prescreened -- and often, precleaned -- by merchants, who charge for their efforts.

Consignment stores tend to be pricier than traditional thrift or resale shops, but savvy second-hand shoppers know that merchandise is regularly marked down.

Vintage stores are antique stores by another name. They're great if you're in the market for a beaded flapper dress or a '60s lava lamp, but I don't include them in my bargain-hunting repertoire.

Thrift stores outnumber McDonald's restaurants in South Tampa.

But we all have our favorites.

Given $100 and carte blanche to bargain shop, I chose the stores favored by my closest thrift store confidantes -- me, myself and I.

* * *

My day began at Simply Spring, the first-rate thrift store run by Tampa's domestic violence shelter. I couldn't resist a mint condition, pink-floral two-piece dress for $6.99. With its shoulder pads and bauble-like, crystal buttons, it looked awfully cute and, well, suspiciously late '80s.

Did I mention that I loved the '80s? Adored them. The linebacker shoulders made women look put-together, crisp around the edges.

I also buy a pink heart box with sequins for 75 cents, three pairs of dangling fish and watermelon earrings for $1 a pair, and, for another $1, a pink decorative bottle, that, in my sunny kitchen window turns the color of a gulf sunset.

I also found two antique record albums for 50 cents apiece, plus empty jackets the clerk tossed in for free -- just crazy enough to hang on a wall.

At Second Image, I buy a gorgeous antique field guide on butterflies. A real find. And just $1.91.

I am beside myself with all this good luck.

At the Salvation Army, the creme de la creme of thrift stores for South Tampa girls on a severe budget, I buy a big white wicker trunk with a brass lock and hinges for $7.50. I also buy a vintage bargello butterfly wall hanging for $1.50 and a huge, 49-cent straw fan. All three items remind me of the apartment of the '70s girl I miss the most: Mary Tyler Moore.

For $1.50, I find a wooden, Chris Evert Wilson tennis racket, lingering past my alloted hour -- a fortuitous delay, because I stumble across perhaps my best find of the day: the sleeveless, short Carole Little dress in a saucy lime-green fruit pattern.

Before I'm done, I've bought a swell natural-history mug for 49 cents and a couple of sweet children's books that totaled $1.50.

At Triage, the hip Henderson Avenue consignment furniture and clothing store, I buy a $16 bamboo tea table that reminds me of the furniture in my grandparents' basement.

At the Sunshine Thrift Store, I buy an astrology book for $1.97, a women's walking guide for 40 cents, an old Kodak Instamatic camera for $1.91, a never-used pink paisley make-up bag and jewelry case for $3.03 and a pair of pink gingham shorts for $1.

At Passing Fancy Classic Consignment, the lovely place where I once snagged the $5 Lilly Pulitzer pants, I buy a kitschy plastic beach bag for $4.

At the Olive Branch Thrift store, I buy an original painting of Fort DeSoto Park in a funky frame for $14.95.

At Life's Treasures, the thrift store run by Lifepath Hospice, I stumble upon the mother lode: a $4.99 antique phone table; a heavy silver-plated antique brush and mirror, 99 cents each. I see the light (a purple lamp shade with dangling lavender crystals for $1.99 and a green lamp base for $5.99). I buy a Ouija board (mint condition) for $2.99; a pair of old wooden Dutch shoes for $2.99; a purple teapot for $1.99; a pink mug for 39 cents; a saucer for 59 cents; two Mexican paintings on barklike paper for 39 cents each; and a floppy denim hat for 49 cents. I buy four items -- an orange blazer, a pink knit shirt, a rose floral blouse and a pair of purple shorts -- for $1.50 total.

Eureka! I'm just 6 cents over budget, excluding tax.

Perhaps the most interesting find was the Kodak Instamatic 104 camera at Sunshine Thrift, the squarish black and silver kind that took cartridge film and flash cubes.

After a search of the Internet, I learn that it was made in the mid-1960s, and originally sold for $15.95.

Standing in the back of the store among the discarded bric-a-brac of the late 20th century, I bring the view finder up to my eye.

We must have had a half-dozen of these lying around the house in my childhood.

I took one to camp with me.

Looking through the lens, I half hoped I'd see the girls at Camp Greystone and Ton-A-Wandah again, perhaps my grandmother at the little pink motel we used to stay at in Sanibel.

Long gone.

I'd never find this archaic camera in a real store. In fact, I realize that it has traveled a half-a-lifetime before ending up here.

Hmmm. Maybe, it's mine.

-- Elizabeth Bettendorf is a freelance journalist who lives in South Tampa.

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