Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Holiday Treasure Hunt

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Is it trash or treasure? The editorial team here at the Portland Phoenix compiled this year's incarnation of our annual local gift guide by searching for diamonds in the rough. Thrift stores, secondhand shops, even one of those massive New England antique barns: Surely, there's great stuff in there, we thought. Turns out we were right. It took some doing, but we did manage to take advantage of the recyclables-as-commodities trend and score some good finds, without breaking the bank. We competed to see how many gifts each of us could buy with a total of $20. (Pro tip: Going to these places with a couple of friends makes things a lot less dystopian than standing alone, staring around a warehouse-sized building filled with gewgaws and thingamajigs cast off from others' lives.) We proved it's possible to get really good gifts at completely low prices. Here are our three perspectives on the search, what we found, and where.

(What follows is just my part of a piece co-written with Deirdre Fulton and Nicholas Schroeder.)

JEFF Our first stop was right up on Congress Street, where, at 604 Thrift, I made my way among the racks and shelves, waiting for something to grab my attention. (I almost never browse when shopping; my style is more surgical-strike, with a specific item, and often price, in mind before leaving home.) I poked at the books, the used CDs, and some of the assorted trinketry; there was some interesting stuff, but nothing that grabbed me. On my second trip through the downstairs, I paused and looked up in semi-exasperation. There, right on the wall in front of me, I scored, spying a mounted lithograph of colonial Alexandria, Virginia (a DC suburb), where I have family. They're the type who love history and like a wide variety of art on the walls; a light-touch image of the past will go smartly in a quiet corner. For just $3.14, I was well on my way.

At Goodwill, I found a few things that were funny to make jokes out of (or story ideas: see the "Gifts for the 99 Percent" piece in the Gift Guide supplement!) or marvel at the provenance of. I'm no shopper; perhaps my subconscious was telling me that I needed a good, stiff drink if I was to keep this up. So I stuck to glassware — of which there is a frighteningly broad selection, most (but not all) of which comes in pairs or matching sets. With some focus, and not a few scary encounters with patterns no glazier should ever have imagined, I made good again, finding a pair of very nice tall glasses that are perfect for cold cocktails on hot summer days. They're the right heft, shape, volume, color — and price. I'll give them to one of my very favorite hot-summer-day-drinking pals, perhaps with some gin, tonic, and a lime. Maybe I won't even drink it before wrapping it! At $2.08 (99 cents plus tax per glass), I was barely a quarter of the way through my sawbuck, and had two decent gifts to show.
Sure enough, the universe told me I should quit then — I struck out at the ReStore entirely, though Nick, Deirdre, and I did enjoy checking out the extremely varied collection of furniture and kitchen appliances.
The following week's excursion proved fruitful for me again. After what seemed endless hours of meandering in massive rooms with overwhelming piles of schlock (and, it must be said, a goodly amount of decent stuff) at Arundel Antiques, I spotted a small carved wooden loon (signed by the carver, the price tag helpfully informed). It's a nice little reminder of our family's annual time on a loon-haunted New Hampshire lake, and I'm hoping it'll go well on the windowsill of the room of the youngest attendee. It was $5.25, more than the cost of the print and the cocktail glasses combined, but I'm hoping it'll go over well.
I also found some stocking stuffers: Arundel Antiques has at least two (and maybe more; the place is massive) rotating displays of magnets, which are $2 each, or three for $5 (I think there are bigger discounts for even larger quantities). I was able to locate three — one of penguins, another of Portland Head Light, and a third of loons — that will do nicely as tiny tidbits to spice up Christmas morning.
All that and I still had $4.28 left over. Gotta find another place to hunt!