Secondhand Adventures: Thrifting in Iowa

Some of Meredith’s favorite finds: vintage teacups and a red chair.

Every once in a while my mom and I just like to hit the road. Doesn’t even matter which direction we drive, we just like to drive. Sometimes you need to feast your eyes on something new, ya know? And maybe spend the ten dollars burning a hole in your pocket.

One impossibly gorgeous late-summer afternoon after a totally improvised excursion to Memphis, Missouri, thrill seekers that we are, Mom and I decided to loop eastward for a stretch. Why in God’s name would anybody want to drive home the same way they came on such a perfect Sunday? Pink, lavender, and white tropical hibiscus trees were in full glory down there—seems like everybody had one blooming in their yard. (Amazing how the climate just one hour south of the Iowa border can support such exotic species!) Cruising down the state highway we felt like Thelma and Louise, but without the convertible or the abusive boyfriends.

My mom said out of the blue, “If we see a garage sale, we have to stop.” Well, of course. Who did she think she was talking to? I’m the queeeeeen of finding sparkling gems in a junk pile. “One person’s trash” is definitely my treasure. (Hold the fleas, please.)

Somewhere around Kahoka, we turned our wheels northward, and as we hit the gas close to the edge of town, we blurred past a sparse collection of furniture and toddler toys displayed in a neat little row at the edge of someone’s yard. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the sign, Yard Sale. “Whoa, Betty!!”

I pulled a U-ey (scandalous!), and as we edged our car closer to the yard in question, my eyes fell upon the objects of my desire. A couple of wooden chairs, painted fire-engine red, sat sparkling there in the sun. It was an eerie little yard sale, though. There was not a soul in sight. Sitting inside the car, with the motor still running and sunglasses on, we felt like spies.

I wanted those chairs. Real bad. But I quickly realized I’d blown all my dough on a reuben sandwich at the Gingerbread House restaurant back in Memphis. Mom reached into her purse and pulled out the last of her cash, two five-dollar bills. We were in agreement: if that pair of chairs cost ten dollars or less, I was taking them. I tiptoed out of the car, all the while wondering if the homeowner was watching me through the windows, and crept across the lawn. As I sidled closer to those little ruby beauties, I spotted a pencil-smeared piece of masking tape on one of the seats. I held my breath. “$5 each,” it said. We made out like a couple of bandits.

Over the years, I’ve collected all kinds of treasures from garage sales and secondhand shops. My habit started in 1985 at the Bargain Box on the Fairfield square. Chandi Cain, Merrit Roney, and I used to fart around on the weekends, riding our bikes back and forth between the MIU campus trade fair, Main’s Market (for spicy baked potato wedges which we would then eat together in the Central Park gazebo), and the Bargain Box.

Our greatest Bargain Box find—besides turquoise and pink leather belts— was a waist-cropped wool military jacket, decorated with badges, in mint condition. The broad shoulders and flashy embroidered stripes were appealing to us Madonna-loving 11-year-olds. But my favorite part was the yellowed, ruffle-edged meal card we found in the breast pocket. (I wish now I could remember the man’s name typed on it. James something, I think.) With that army meal ticket tucked inside, this was no longer just a cool and ironic garment for a bunch of fifth graders—it was a story.

We chipped in and bought the jacket together for $3.50, as I recall, naming ourselves the Sgt. Pepper Club and generously sharing the warmth (and unparalleled kick-ass vintage style) of that green army jacket on subsequent Saturdays. Today, as I looked for pictures of it online, I’m pretty sure we had our hands on an Eisenhower “Ike” Jacket, worn in service starting around 1944. Needless to say, I’m kicking myself for having lost track of the thing.

I still love the Bargain Box. I recently found a chip-free antique teacup and saucer there for my new collection. I like to think I have a knack for making crap-tastic apartments look coherent and colorful, and a tiny teacup menagerie is my latest plan to spruce up a blah kitchen wall.

A few weeks ago, totally by accident, I discovered the mother lode of collectible teacups in downtown Kalona. My mom and I cruised up there in February to get the heck out of Dodge, and we stumbled upon a strip of antique shops along the charming B Avenue drag. The Pink Begonia and English River Antiques & Collectibles next door offered display after mind-boggling display. How does a person possibly choose the best five teacups out of a pile of, say, 150!? Two hours later, when I was starting to go a little cross-eyed, I narrowed down my choices to the few cups and saucers that were calling my name the loudest, with a vow to return on another rainy day.

Atomic Nebula, vintage Western

A whimsical display of Western items graces the wall at Atomic Nebula.

China aside, the options for thrifty shopping in my neck of the woods are surprisingly abundant. Almost overnight, the strip of stores on Broadway in downtown Fairfield has become an avenue for treasure collectors. Atomic Nebula (the new resident of the old Walker’s Office Supplies space) is vast, and bit-by-bit getting filled with funky furniture, vinyl, clothing, farmhouse art, vintage books, and games. I found a great little two-tone wicker waste bin there for my bathroom. Next door is another fun stop: Remixes. Right now, from my second-floor office lookout, I can see a painted grey cabinet, decoupaged with a teddy bear illustration, displayed in their window. I’d like to get my hands on it. The owners of both of these establishments were both genuinely helpful in a friendly, non-salesy way. Much appreciated. I will go back again and again.

atomic nebula, nic lesner

Nic Lesner relaxes in the Atomic Nebula “living room.”

And on Broadway just east of Court Street, check out Flair Vintage Decor. I’m not sure how it took me all these years to discover it, but OMG. I stopped in to see if they had some kind of wall-mounted shelving unit for my new teacups, and it’s like they knew I was coming. I didn’t find the perfect shelf; regardless, I could easily have walked away with half the store. Some crafty person(s) had refurbished dozens of rustic-looking vanities, coffee tables, and cabinets in my favorite shades of aqua. If I hadn’t already splurged on teacups the weekend before, I really would have been in trouble.

But wait, there’s more! The Collector’s Store and Gypsy Wagon have also found homes on Broadway. And don’t you dare forget about My Lucky Day on North 4th Street. When I moved back to town a few years ago, I scored a wooden bedframe and a collapsible silvery garden shelf adorned with soddered-on ivy leaves. (It was my lucky day!) And I have to say that the Goodwill on Burlington Ave., with hundreds of shirts and sweaters arranged by color (thank you!!) makes for an exceedingly happy afternoon. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten comments from friends and strangers. “Now that’s a cute sweater! Where did you find it?” I smile slyly. “Goodwill.”

Speaking of goodwill, you’ll also want to check out the Habitat for Humanity ReStore at 909 W. Broadway. I bought an actual door there for $14, some hard-to-find light bulbs, and several colorful flower pots. Feels awesome to help such a great nonprofit while saving mucho dinero at the same time.

I beg of you. If you’re looking for something for your home or garden (or your arms or legs), don’t go to Walmart or Amazon first. Have a secondhand adventure instead. You just might find that thingy you needed . . . and a couple other thingys you didn’t know you needed. The best part is, an impulse buy at $5 a crack (especially when you’re supporting your community) is nothing you’ll ever need to feel guilty about. Happy thrifting!


Meredith Siemsen

Meredith, an Iowa native, was baffled when she earned her high school's writing award in 1993. It wasn't until twenty years later that she discovered she actually enjoyed wordcraft. (Too bad she's still a two-fingered typist.) Thanks for reading, friends!