I Brake for Yard Sales

GMA cohost Lara Spencer talks about her not-so-secret passion and the inspiration behind it.

Posted in , Aug 26, 2014

Lara Spencer poses with some of her flea-market finds

I make no secret of my love for all things vintage and antique, and it all started because of my mom. She turned me on to the thrill of hunting for secondhand treasures at flea markets and tag sales from the time I was a toddler, and I have been going strong ever since.

With five kids to feed, there was no room in the budget for interior design, but that didn’t stop my mother! On the back of her station wagon was a bumper sticker that read I brake for yard sales, and she certainly did.

She loved to haggle for wonderful old paintings, silverware, furniture–anything she could breathe new life into. Mom always gave me a dollar or two on these outings and encouraged me to search for treasures as well. 

Some folks might have been turned off by the piles of dusty junk stacked up in strangers’ garages and driveways or lying scattered across their front lawns, but not me. I learned valuable lessons about life, lessons that I now try to instill in my own kids.

1. Don’t be fooled by appearances
You should see the dining table where our family has gathered every Christmas and Thanksgiving for almost as long as I can remember. When my mom bought it, years ago, at a St. Vincent de Paul thrift shop, I thought she had lost her mind.

She said it was only 50 dollars. We all thought it was 50 dollars too much! It was covered with layers of paint and all dinged up, but underneath, as she predicted, it was beautiful solid mahogany. Refinished and reborn, it became the centerpiece of our dining room and a true family heirloom.

I think I learned some of the skills I use as a journalist from my mom on our flea-market outings. She always asked questions, trying to learn more about the history of whatever she was interested in.

She looked for maker’s marks and checked the underside of pieces, searching for clues to the quality. When she found something she liked, she’d take it home and put some elbow grease into it and uncover a treasure.

Kids can be quick to judge. I learned to do otherwise from Mom, and to give things a second chance.

When I bring my own kids to a flea market, I will show them an old chair and point out all the beautiful features and quality workmanship underneath the worn fabric. I remind them never to judge anything, or anyone, on outward appearance alone.

2. Seek what you love
Bargains are great, of course, but don’t buy something at a flea market or thrift shop just because it’s a really good deal. Buy things that speak to you. Don’t grab a painting because you think it could be a lost Monet–buy it because you think it’s beautiful.

If you buy what you love, you’ll enjoy it. If it turns out to be valuable, well, that’s a bonus.

The very first thing I bought at a yard sale was a ceramic Snoopy. I was about eight years old and I paid a quarter for it. It got me started on a collection of Snoopy figurines that I still have today. Are they valuable? I doubt they are worth much money, but they are valuable to me.

Their value is in their memory–they remind me of a young girl’s happy Saturdays with her mom.

The first really valuable thing I found? I was just out of college, working in the page program at NBC, making next to nothing.

I went into a Salvation Army thrift store, hoping to find something to decorate the walls in my tiny rental apartment, and I bought a pair of prints for $35 that I later discovered were authentic Picasso lithographs worth over $2,000!

I had no idea when I bought them. I just loved the simplicity of the drawings. They made me smile.

Life is full of joyful surprises. If you’re always looking for a big payout, you’re bound to be disappointed. But if you look for happiness, you will be blessed.

3. Trust your instincts
Mom created heirlooms for us on a shoestring budget. I now have the antique wooden pie safe she bought for next to nothing at a tag sale. She put it in our kitchen to use for storing plates and place mats. I can still see myself taking out the plates to set the table every night.

I have also adopted the funky 1960s ceramic frog my mother found at a yard sale. It sat on our family’s coffee table in the living room. Today it lives on my coffee table, and my kids love it as much as I do.

One piece I thought I would never love was the dresser Mom once brought home, covered in horrible mustard-yellow paint.

“Lara, look what I found,” she said excitedly. “It was only fifteen dollars! Won’t it be perfect for your bedroom?”

I didn’t think so, but I should have known better. With a can of paint stripper and some serious elbow grease, it turned out looking fantastic!

It was probably from the 1930s, with sleek Art Deco lines and a lustrous sheen. I’m grateful that I’ve developed the same instincts as my mom–a sixth sense about a piece’s potential.

My eagle eye came in handy when I became the host of Antiques Roadshow, the appraisal program on PBS. It was my favorite show on TV, and I watched religiously every week.

When I stumbled across a tiny article in my monthly antiques newspaper saying that the show’s host had left, I knew I had to give it a shot. It was the perfect way to connect my passion and my profession. Thankfully the producers agreed.

I was a correspondent for Good Morning America already, but was able to do both because Roadshow only taped on summer weekends.

I did two glorious seasons of the show, and only stopped when I was blessed with another treasure–my second child.

4. It’s all good stewardship
I like to think that shopping at charity thrift stores is a little like making a generous donation. You buy cool stuff, and your money will go to a good cause. Talk about a win-win. In our house, I point out my secondhand finds with pride.

Even our dogs are secondhand! They are all rescued from shelters, and much like the cool things I find at flea markets, they are filled with personality.

These days, my daughter, Kate, often comes with me on my yard-sale adventures, and just like her grandmother, she has a great eye. She’s starting her own collections, and she knows when we go “hunting,” it is not just about what we find or buy. It’s about the time we spend together.

She also likes that we might find something fun, like the cool vintage lamp made out of miniature wooden tennis rackets that we came across one day. As a tennis player herself, Kate was pretty excited about that one!

Last week we had a long conversation about the Revolutionary War because of a set of toy soldiers we happened upon.

I believe we’re meant to do the most with the gifts God has given us. Same with the finds we buy secondhand, or third- or fourth-hand. That dining-room table received a second life thanks to Mom’s good eye and loving care. Many happy memories were forged around it.

“Look at this!” I’ll say excitedly to Kate, pointing at an old trunk that is just screaming to become a coffee table. She might think I’ve lost my mind, but deep down she already knows almost anything can be transformed with a little elbow grease and a lot of love.

There are treasures out there. Seek and you shall find.

Read Lara's tips for successful vintage shopping!

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Flea Market FabulousA cohost on ABC's Good Morning America and the host of Flea Market Flip on HGTV, Lara Spencer is also a best-selling author; her latest book is Flea Market Fabulous: Designing Gorgeous Rooms with Vintage Treasures (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2014)

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