8 Invaluable Things You Should Always Buy At The Thrift Store

In these instances, buying the vintage version will last you decades longer than a newer model.

March 8, 2017
shopping at a thrift store

If you’ve ever had a cell phone croak right before your two-year contract was up, you’ve likely been the victim of planned obsolescence—an engineering gimmick that many tech companies use to keep customers coming back for the latest and greatest thing. And while planned obsolescence is legendary in the gadget industry, it’s hardly the only sector where it happens. 

“Companies are basically making things so they break,” says Julie Kearns, who owns Junket Tossed and Found, a secondhand shop in Minneapolis, MN. In fact, built-to-fail is becoming such a problem that last year the French government mandated that companies give a suggested lifespan for their products—and replace them if they break within that time. (No plans yet to do that here in the U.S.)

Older items—especially those produced before midcentury—tend to be built with longevity in mind. “If you can access certain things on a secondhand basis you’re going to get a real quality benefit,” says Kearns. Not sure where to start? Here are eight items you'd do well to purchase secondhand. 

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figs on a cutting board
Lucia Lambriex/getty
Wooden Cutting Boards

Plastic has become the go-to for many manufacturers, since wood gets a bad rap for holding onto germs. But research from UC Davis shows that this actually isn’t the case. Wood is more porous, but the bacteria tend to crawl into it and then die. With plastic, the bacteria stay on the surface and re-infect whatever you cut next. 

Why older is better

Your grandmother’s thick wood cutting boards will last forever, and they won’t dull your knives the way plastic boards do. Plus, you don’t have to worry about tiny bits of plastic being shaved off the board and into your food while you cut. Once you've snagged one from a relative or the thrift store, follow these steps to clean and restore the new-to-you wooden cutting board

(Vintage cast iron is also pretty rad—see the video below for how to care for it.)


You don’t have to love the movie Office Space to appreciate a vintage Swingline stapler. “These things were built to work,” says Kearns. If you see one at a thrift store, snag it. 

Why older is better

You'll get decades of authoritative stapling out of one of these vintage beauties versus the months or years you’ll get from a cheap, plastic version. (Kearns also seeks out old-school metal pencil sharpeners, which will chew through thousands of pencils without cracking or breaking the way newer plastic versions do.)

dress and suitcase
Graciela Vilagudin/getty

The premise of fast fashion is that if clothes are made cheaply (and quickly), customers will buy new things every season. Skip the trends, and go for dresses from the vintage section of your thrift store or eBay. These timeless classics were meant to be worn for seasons—plural! 

Why older is better

You need not be a skilled seamstress to see the differences between how a Forever 21 shift and a vintage party dress are constructed. The vintage item will almost always use natural fabrics—Kearns says to look for 100 percent cotton, silk, or wool—since these fabrics hold up to years of wear. Silk linings, seams that don’t have ragged edges exposed, and fine tailoring—like darts on the bust and hips—all indicate a quality garment. Treat one of these vintage pieces correctly (hand wash or dry clean it, depending on the fabric) and you’ll hand them down to your kids.

Related: Why This Fashion Designer Is Bringing High-End, Recycled Outfits To The Catwalk

flipping pancakes

If you're in need of a spatula, skip big box stores in favor of the thrift store's kitchenware section. “The ones I use are made of a single piece of steel, and I'm guessing they were made in the 50s,” says Kerns. 

Why older is better

Unlike today’s plastic versions, they won’t melt if you accidentally drop them on a burner, and you’ll never find bits of spatula plastic in your scrambled eggs. One note, though: You probably shouldn’t use these on a Teflon-coated pan, since they could scrape that coating off. (Here are 8 more kitchen items you should always buy at the thrift store.)

leather shoes
Yagi Studio/getty
Leather Shoes

A vintage pair of cowboy or work boots will last forever. In the good old days, “leather items were often hand-stitched and cut,” says Markowski. 

Why older is better

Few leather goods produced today are meant to age gracefully. The leather is usually lower quality. Plus, the factory farming and slaughterhouse conditions faced by most animals are hard to reconcile with ethically. 

Related: How To Remove Winter Salt Stains From Pretty Much Anything, Including Leather Shoes

metal strainer
Metal Strainers

“Give me a really nice strainer over punched plastic any day,” say Kerns, and she’s right. Plastic strainers are a mess. Sure, they’re cost effective, but when you put a large load of pasta or another heavy material in them, they twist, turn, buckle—the handle can even snap. 

Why older is better

A metal strainer will do its job without complaint and never let you down when you’re trying to move three pounds of pasta from the sink to the stove. 

old bike
Gianluca Prioli/getty

For those looking to win their next race, a vintage tank of a bike may not be for you. But if you just want to cruise to and from the library, an old Schwinn single-speed can be the most glorious way to go. 

Why older is better

Most new bikes are made of aluminum—which is lightweight, reasonably sturdy, and won’t rust: all good things. But steel is a much more comfortable ride, and though it’s heavier, you’ll find no shortage of cyclists who prefer it to aluminum. “Steel has a ride quality that feels warmer than the buzz of most stiff aluminum frames,” explains Mark Bibbey an airline pilot and vintage bike connoisseur. He loves his 1985 Italian Faggin racing bike, which he uses as his “daily driver” around town. 

Related: How To Make An Old Bike New Again

wooden table
Wooden Furniture

Thanks to stores like IKEA, Americans expect furniture to be cheap, says Kearns. We won’t pay a lot for a table or chairs, so companies cut costs with subpar materials and rely on low-wage labor versus employing skilled craftsmen (unless you shop here—these guys are great!). Joints buckle, drawer pulls fall off, and within a few years these pieces land in dumps. Older furniture, in contrast, was made to last for generations—get a bureau that's old enough, and you'll be able to pass it on to your kids instead of leaving it at the curb in a few years. 

Why older is better

When you buy antique furniture, you generally get all-wood construction, says Kearns. If the piece is old enough, that wood may even contain beautiful old-growth wood with stunning grain patterns. That’s something you literally cannot buy new, no matter how much money you have, since almost all old growth forests are gone. If you can, look for pieces with dovetailed joints in drawers, says Pablo Solomon, an artist and designer. “The really top-of-the-line old furniture—e.g. Texas walnut, pine from the 1840s, Mexican colonial, and French provincial—use mortice and tenons (two super-steady joint techniques) and often pegs instead of nails. Now everything is screwed and glued—which is functional but not good craftsmanship."

Related: 7 Toxic Thrift-Store Finds That Aren't Worth The Bargain