Chicago Manual of Style—5/05/09

May and June are major months for yard sales, which means great deals for students shopping on a budget. Here are some tips for rescuing furniture from the refuse pile.

By Jessica Hester

Last summer, scavenging for curbside treasures became part of my morning routine. The loft I sublet in New York’s Union Square neighborhood happened to be right next to a theater company. Every morning as I strolled down the street to get my breakfast bagel, I would stop to check out their dumpster. The theater was doing a huge renovation and was tossing out some gorgeous seats and parts of old sets. My roommate and I salvaged some of the choice pieces, which were slightly flawed but far too appealing to be left in the trash heap. Our finds were “shabulous”—the perfect combination of shabby and fabulous.

Unfortunately, shipping some of the items back to Chicago was out of the question, and I had to leave them behind. However, upon coming back, I was pleasantly surprised to find that there is plenty of awesome abandoned furniture to be saved right here in Hyde Park. May and June are major months for yard sales, which means great deals for students shopping on a budget. Here are some tips for rescuing furniture from the refuse pile.

Sleep in and Score:

Hawkeyed early birds will rise at the crack of dawn to bag the best items, but these early finds will be out of a student’s price range anyway. Go later in the day when the pickings are slimmer and the prices lower. As the sale winds down, sellers who don’t want to drag the unsold merchandise back inside will often lower the price to get it off their hands. If you arrive right at the end of the sale, some items may be discarded and up for grabs. Last spring, my roommate and I picked up a massive leather couch, an antique secretary desk, a computer table, and a chest of drawers, all of which we got for free at the end of yard sales. These unsold items may be a little rough around the edges, but with a little T.L.C., you can get them back in shape.

Pile on the Paint:

Take a trashed table from shabby to chic with a fresh coat of paint. When refurbishing a table or desk, it’s easier to go for a darker rather than lighter color because you can useW less paint. A coat of matte or glossy black paint can lend contemporary sophistication to a simple silhouette, such as a bold square end table. If you are reluctant to paint the entire piece of furniture, think about sprucing up the surface with some stencils. Affordable stencil patterns are available at any craft store, such as Blick on State Street.

You could also create a personalized keepsake by using decoupage to affix photographs, postcards, or drawings to the furniture’s surface. My distressed old desk got a facelift when I covered the surface with beautiful postcards my friends and family had sent me from their trips around the world. Decoupage is a more permanent technique than painting: You can’t paint over it, and it’s difficult to get the items off. However, it’s the quickest, easiest, and least messy way to take your furniture from battered to beautiful.

Add Drama with Drawer Pulls:

Don’t leave an item behind because it’s missing drawer handles or knobs. Instead, take the opportunity to bring an outmoded piece up-to-date with stylish decorative knobs. When I worked at Anthropologie, I swooned over the delicate porcelain knobs with dainty floral patterns. Even if the item you rescue from the garbage heap has its knobs intact, think about switching them out in order to make the piece fit with the rest of your furniture.

Things to Avoid:

In order to score a great piece of furniture, you’ve got to do a little detective work. Be wary of suspicious smells—no matter how heavily you Febreze a piece of furniture, if it reeks when you buy it, it will stink up your apartment. Similarly, if you’re scoring a piece of furniture you found lying out on the street, examine it for water stains; it may have gotten wet and become moldy.

As the adage says, one person’s trash is another person’s treasure. With these tips, you’ll be prepared to take your loot from dilapidated to dreamy. Happy hunting!