It smells like a mix of old library and early spring moss when I enter Brick + Mortar, an eclectic vintage homeware shop in West Midtown. The owner, David Kowalski, greets me warmly, but I’m already lost to a melange of typewriters, aged clocks, obsolete maps and faded globes, a towering record player, a vintage camera unfolded like an accordion, and ornate mirrors that render my image instantly regal. These are old world things—the material, textured stuff of a time before Google or Instagram, when you’d have to travel to a place in order to see it, and bring home a beloved object to remember it.
The shop is bigger than I expected, and its white walls, width, and sun-soaked windows make it airy despite all the furniture. As I walk through, I feel like I’m visiting a bunch of stylish strangers’ living rooms and reading nooks. Mid-century modern abounds, but the shop’s design stops short of prim or precious, and it’s more layered than some Mad Men copycat. David will tell me later that combining trendy mid-century pieces with more traditional styles, like—his favorite—sturdy, lived-in industrial Americana, “makes for good, more mature design than just doing one or the other.” So at Brick + Mortar, taxidermied beasts hang above geometric rugs and a vintage anatomy poster vies with slick Art Deco pieces.
Today I’m headed out with David to see where and how he acquires these treasures. I’m here for all the tricks of the trade he’s willing to share, and it appears they won’t be hard to get: he’s easy-going, quick to laugh, and downright chatty. The professional thrifter tips are here for the taking.
I soon learn about estatesales.net, which lists every upcoming sale with pictures of its items. I learn it’s a good idea to check out the stuff online ahead of time, so you can be an early bird if there’s something you really want, or you can save yourself the trip if there’s nothing enticing. I’ll learn that sales offer increasing discounts as the days go by, so David usually hits up the reasonably-priced companies on Wednesday and Thursday, and then the more expensive companies when their sales are 20-40% off on Friday and Saturday. I’ll learn the sales tend to become “more ‘Haverty’s’, more ‘Rooms To Go’” the further out in the suburbs you get, and I’ll learn that you should always travel with plenty of trunk space because you’ll probably find a beautiful dresser and your Honda Civic won’t cut it. I’ll learn it’s important not to lowball these estate sale vendors because many factors contribute to the price of a piece, but also that negotiation is part of the deal, and you should always feel comfortable walking away if something’s not in your budget.
These nuts-and-bolts tips are all helpful and true, but they’re not the most impressive or effective aspects of David’s process. To get the real inside scoop of a professional thrifter requires a little more time.
I’d assumed all estate sales took place at some grandma’s house, but David tells me the first one we’re going to is a little bit different. Every six weeks or so, estate sale companies open their warehouses to let people sort through everything that didn’t sell at individual sales. The warehouse does indeed smell like a grandma’s house though, and chandeliers dot the ceiling, gaudy paintings line the walls, and oriental rugs zigzag underfoot. The furniture is loud, too—engraved wooden eagles, claw feet, thick glass shelves loaded with porcelain knick knacks. There are a lot of floral dish sets.
It seems impossible to find Brick + Mortar’s caliber of beautiful, historied things in here, but David winds his way through, opening drawers and touching irregular edges. He pauses to look at a rug I’d walked right past. It’s a long runner, pink and tan, or, as David describes, “Not normal. Not the blue and red you always see. It’s pretty—do you like it?” Just then a company rep comes over. She knows David by name and they talk shop for a bit—she says the rug looks like “just your style,” and he asks her about a potential bulk sale of folk art. I stare at the runner and see now that I do like it, I was just moving too quickly to pay attention.
The rep takes us back to the staff-only section to see the folk art collection. Furniture is piled from floor to ceiling, parting for a narrow path that we follow as far back as it’ll go, until we’re in front of a huge steel bin loaded with paintings. David looks at it for about 30 seconds before saying, “So...cool, how should we do this?”
The craft of negotiation is, for David, endearingly chill. It’s not about posturing, bluffing, or swindling. It’s much more lighthearted than all that. ”You think he’d do it for $5,000?” he asks, more out of curiosity than driving any kind of hard bargain. You can tell he’s having fun.
The rep smiles, “I dunno but I want it outta here!” She says she’ll speak to the owner and call David, and we wind our way back to the main floor, pausing only when David points at something taxidermied on an upper shelf.
”Wait, is that beaver for sale?!”
We’re back in the car after a 30-minute deliberation about the tan and pink runner, which is now rolled up in the trunk. I ask David how he knows which sales are usually good, which are too expensive, who’s a stickler, and who will cut him a deal.
“For a long time, I had a habit of going to as many estate sales as I possibly could. I’m trying to be more efficient about it now because I just don’t have the time, but that’s how I got to know them.” David’s put in the time, and I’m starting to see that his business is as much about yuckin’ it up with middle-aged ladies as it is about finding and selling beautiful things.
“This next one is probably my favorite to go to,” he says. “Even though she’s rude, I kind of love it.” He tells me to look for the tattoo on her forearm, which says, “Serenety or Serinity—I can’t remember which, but she’s the type of person who couldn’t care less that it’s misspelled. You’ll see what I mean.”
When I meet Kathy, she can’t stop talking about her hair. David and I are already sitting in the pair of Ralph Lauren writer’s chairs he’s had his eye on, which are somehow bulbous and handsome at once. “Help! It looks awful!” Kathy locks eyes with me while teasing her hair with her fingernails. David’s bemused.
“I need you to give me a blow job!” she says.
“Oh my God Kathy, what?” says David.
“A blowout! You mean a blowout!” I shout.
She cackles briefly, “Oh yeah, that is what I mean.”
Under his breath, David explains that Kathy thinks I’m his ex-girlfriend, who is a hairdresser and who looks nothing like me. It’s a mix-up that takes a comically long time to sort out, and culminates in Kathy yelling upstairs—where I’m sorting through a room full of splashy necklaces and brooches—asking me to corroborate David’s story. There’s a practiced exasperation between them that would insinuate a mother-son dynamic if they weren’t so playful and funny. “David, what’s wrong with you—why won’t you text me about your love life?” Kathy pleads.
Over the next hour and a half, everyone “working” the sale seems to take an extended lunch break. We discuss miniskirts and Kathy’s pre-motherhood waistline. A jaunty co-worker demonstrates his worst dance moves. Innocent, mostly elderly bystanders ask how much things are. I wonder if everyone but me had tequila for breakfast.
David laughs, shaking his head intermittently, but mostly just sits in one of the Ralph Lauren chairs and repeats the price aloud to himself. He’s been texting with Kathy about the chairs for days, and she’s already dropped the price a good 30%, but he just can’t bite the bullet. She keeps saying she can’t take any more off until tomorrow, and he keeps accepting this for about 20 minutes, before wincing and smiling and asking for another couple hundred off. They go on like this until Kathy volunteers to call a guy who will buy two different chairs off of David, which she hopes will soften the blow of going in for the Ralph Laurens. It works—eventually. They make a plan for David to come back with his truck and his checkbook, which—to Kathy’s performative chagrin—he’s forgotten. She gestures at David and looks at me, “You see what I have to deal with?”
Surprisingly, delightfully, the best tricks of this trade all skew toward what might be considered “inefficiencies” in our modern, digital age: driving around in circles to visit people’s homes and sort through mountains of their belongings, handling physical objects and examining their textures, building face-to-face relationships with real humans, learning the stories and the histories beneath the surface of things, spending time, shooting the shit. While David’s business savvy is evident and he’s certainly no luddite, this side of his work, like the fascinations and furniture he collects, is profoundly analog. And the chatty hours spent amidst oddball characters and unique objects feels like a rare, almost illicit reprieve from our usual, hyper-mediated “reality.”
The last estate sale of the day has us driving home in a car so packed with white wicker porch furniture and wooden antelope that we can’t see each other from driver- to passenger-side. The top of an end table juts through the sunroof to fit, and on the highway I have to yell over the wind to tell David when he can switch lanes. Wedged between chairs, with assorted wooden animals in my lap, I can’t reach my phone to check my email. I soak up the sun instead.
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