Thrift store lore tells of people finding objects that mistakenly sell for far less than their actual value. Four years ago, for instance, a man was shopping for golf bags at a Goodwill store in Phoenix and found a 1959 Jaeger-LeCoultre Deep Sea Alarm watch. He paid $5.99 for it, then sold it for $35,000. There is a story of a woman who found what’s believed to be an original Jackson Pollock drip painting at a San Bernardino thrift store, bought it for a few dollars, then later learned the painting is worth at least $50 million. (Though the authenticity of the painting remains contested and she hasn’t sold it, the find garnered widespread media attention.) Then there are trendy 1960s vintage Redline Levi’s that sold for $4 in the 1960s and now sell on eBay for several thousand dollars a pair.
For some patrons of thrift, the hunt for a valuable item hidden under a layer of dust or anonymity is what keeps them coming. Others are in search of nostalgia, or something practical at a bargain price. For retiree Robert Dunham, a resident of Carmel, it’s a passion for finding distinct items for less. Dunham, who frequents his favorite thrift stores throughout the Monterey Peninsula nearly every day, does not lollygag. He pursues treasures single-mindedly like he’s seeking a gold nugget.
He moves quickly, scanning as many items as possible so he can move from store to store without wasting time. A recent morning brought him to the Carmel Rancho Lane next to the Barnyard shopping center, an area that’s home to seven thrift stores: The Yellow Brick Road Benefit Shop, Yellow Brick Road Bookstore, John’s Consignment and Home Decor, SPCA Benefit Shop, Joining Hands Benefit Shop, Deja Vu Carmel and Perch Decor. Dunham is a pro thrifter, but his target is elusive. He is not a reseller looking for what might turn a profit; mostly, he likes the magic of discovery.
Today, his rounds begin at Yellow Brick Road Benefit Shop. There’s a brass fireplace fender that is priced right but is not what he wants. Dunham is off for the next store.
He stops in at John’s, where he spots a Persian rug on the floor, cream-colored with silver-blue and coral inlay. He flips one corner over and kneels for a closer look. He loves buying Persian rugs, he says, but this one is not in good enough condition – up and out the door, he goes.
Next is the SPCA Benefit Shop, where Dunham stops to admire the selection of vinyl records and talks about how he saw another thrifter repurpose them into drink coasters by cutting the middle out. He then heads to a separate room in the back where there are racks of old picture frames. Dunham is looking for supplies for a hobby: He transforms frames spoiled by years of sticky shellac into his own creations.
There is a method to his thrifting. Once Dunham sees an object he likes, he checks the price tag. If it’s more than he is ready to easily spend, he considers whether he can risk waiting for a 50-percent price drop. Dunham is after the take-me-home-now treasures and sometimes the price isn’t a dealbreaker.
“You don’t think you are looking for anything and then in a moment, there it is – that’s what I need, a pewter alligator-embellished nut and candy tray,” he says.
Within 45 minutes, Dunham has visited all seven stores in the shopping center. On his way out of his last stop, Joining Hands, he pauses to see what’s in the jewelry case and admires the selection of French cufflinks.
“These items are available at Macy’s and cost you a fortune, but the magic occurs when you find them for nearly nothing,” he says. “Here, the silver is always polished and the Waterford collections are rare.”
It’s only when a truck full of donations rolls up and customers need to make way for men hauling a 200-pound brass vanity that Dunham loses focus and gets out of the way. While there’s minor chaos as the storekeeper tries to find a place to put green ceramic elephant-shaped plant holders, a leather couch with brass studs and faux ficus trees that are soon to be weighted down by Christmas ornaments, Dunham makes a beeline to the book section, looking for automobile and nautical books to add to his collection.
Around the corner, back at Yellow Brick Road, store clerk Susan Lindsey McCabe keeps a lookout for things she thinks Dunham will like. She’s gotten to know his style, and for him and other regulars, she’ll either set aside an item or give them a call. (She also alerts her regulars to when 50-percent-off days are coming.)
“Our shoppers come in and discover their memories,” McCabe says. “We had a lady come in who swears the dresser was hers as a child. That was special to hear about. And yes – she bought it.”