Guide to thrift stores for photography studios
Whether you are a photographer looking for props, a model looking for apparel, or just the average person looking for a bargain, shopping secondhand can help you stretch your budget and you can find some really unique items. This great guide to thrift stores will help you. If you are doing a boudoir shoot , you may want something distinctive for the model to interact with. For example, at the Goodwill, someone donated their grandma’s threadbare brocade footstool which has been well – loved and shows it. But when a nude demurely sits on it ? The footstool takes on new life and adds layers to your print- and for only three dollars. And if you are a model doing a pin up photo shoot? Consider the vintage clothes and accessories you might find in the back of the Valley Care Thrift Store. At the Rewind Boutique you may find yourself paying above-original retail price for a vintage rotary phone or a yellow “Doris Day” negligee – but by being careful and keeping your eyes open, your pin-up shoot now looks authentic and you feel glamorous.
Thrifting. Some shudder at the very word. And then others, like those of us at Bay Area Boudoir Photography, get so excited that we get butterflies in our stomachs, and our minds shift into hyper drive. Thrifting isn’t like shopping at the mall: oh no. Trips to secondhand stores and antique malls require a sense of preparedness, mental acuity and physical stamina; not to mention the ability to be oblivious to the ick-factor that someone owned these items before you (which keeps a lot of people away, but frankly leaves more cool stuff for the rest of us). We are going to give you some tips in this guide to thrift stores and what you can do with that extra special score.
Rule #1 to Thrifting: Know your thrift stores before you head out.
Secondhand stores can vary wildly from upscale to downright skeezy. For simplicity’s sake, we are going to boil them down into four categories: Hospice Stores, Larger Charities, MegaThrift and the ‘Tiques. A hospice-type store is a small, volunteer-staffed charity thrift that often has higher-end items, good-as-new items that are available at low prices. The selection is pretty small in these stores, but you can find some real gems. And don’t be afraid to ask for help; the volunteers are often very nice and will tell you where the good stuff is hidden.
Larger charity stores, like Goodwill, Salvation Army and St. Vincent DePaul usually offer better selections and cheaper prices than smaller hospice-type stores. These stores are also pretty picked-over and can sometimes be ick-worthy. Don’t walk in expecting to find an organized venue or helpful staff. These stores aren’t for the faint-of-heart and are often what gives thrifting a bad name – although we have to say that Goodwill has done a lot in the last couple of years to bring their brand up in the world. Still, enter these stores at your own risk, don’t expect a lot, and you will be just fine. And one last word to the wise – if you are active in social justice, politics, or religion – know ahead of time where your money is going. Many of these larger charities fuel some pretty controversial campaigns and parent organizations (as do many secondhand stores of any size) so check before you shop if you care about such things.
MegaThrifts are just what they sound like – the warehouse stores of secondhand, and the wet dreams of thrifters everywhere. Well-organized, well-lit, and as big as a Home Depot, you will likely need several days to scale the shelves of these retailers. However, these stores are where you are most likely to encounter those rare secondhand finds – clothing basics (e.g. the little black dress, solid color shirts, tennis shoes), Jimmy Choos for two bucks, and never-opened party accessories. The only drawbacks of the MegaThrifts are: 1) Finding the time to give them a good scouring, and 2) Not blowing your budget.
The ‘Tiques can be broken down into boutique vintage/lifestyle and antiques. Antique stores can vary in size from a mall with many vendors, to a smaller retail space with a selective owner. Sometimes you can find something very unique at an antique store; a genuine 1800’s Japanese tea set, or a wrought iron birdcage, but proceed with caution – these items are expensive. Boutique stores are equally decadent and are the Bloomingdale’s of thrift. The items in the boutique are often high-end, next-to-new, and either in-fashion or true vintage. ‘Tique stores often take items on consignment – meaning someone else went to one of the other three types of secondhand shops, found these gems, and are now trying to sell them for a profit. Keep in mind – you will pay for that person’s time and effort. But if you are willing to take a hit to the wallet for the convenience, you will likely find some pretty spectacular antiques and retro clothes in the process.
Rule #2 to Thrifting: Familiarizing yourself with the store before browsing will save you money and make for a better shopping experience.
It’s a good idea to plan your shopping experience beforehand. Check the website for the store you plan on visiting (if they have one) and see if they have any coupons or special sale days – most Larger Charity stores and MegaThrifts offer both. But don’t be rigid in your plans – if you are driving and see a cool shop, stop – you may find that perfect rubber duckie or rocking horse for your maternity photo shoot. But before you walk into the thrift store, make sure you read the signs out front; don’t “judge a book by its cover”. First of all, does the store you are entering require that you leave all bags at the counter and that strollers be left outside? (Most of them do.) Does the store require that all hangers be left on the rack? (MegaThrifts do.) Does the store have any sales going on (e.g. pink tags are 50%-off today only? (Most secondhand shops offer daily specials.) Does the store have a dressing room or will you be eyeballing sizes? (Note: Most MegaThrifts and Boutiques have fitting rooms, but smaller stores don’t usually have the real estate for one – or they offer a “cattle call” changing room that you have to share with several other people. Or you may find yourself trying on clothes in the middle of the store.) Knowing the rules of the store you will be shopping at is just smart and will payout for you.
Rule #3 to Thrifting: Never go to the thrift store looking for something in particular.
You never know what you are going to get at the secondhand store. You might find a vintage Armani, a taxidermied squirrel, or a never-before-opened set of Legos. You also might find a lot of items that are more than just “gently” used, and broken or battered items that just need a little love to be brought back to life. The best part of thrifting is most of these items can typically be had on the cheap. The worst part is you must accept what the thrifting gods provide.
Rule #4 to Thrifting: Don’t confine yourself to what the item’s original use was – look beyond the manufacturer’s intention, and the sky’s the limit.
There is no rhyme or reason to the secondhand store unless you walk into a MegaThrift or a Boutique that has done of all the work for you. You must go into the antique or thrift store with a plan of attack. You can’t be afraid to look under things, inside things, or on top of things. You have to dig-in to the unsorted boxes of junk and racks of clothes that may include anything from a baby’s onesie to a man’s ski suit. It is best to keep an open mind, too. If you are looking for clothes, forget about size. That little girl’s frou-frou Easter dress might make a fantastic adult woman’s blouse paired with a pair of capris and some wedge heels for your Vargas homage. That ugly purple bridesmaid’s dress in size 24? The taffeta can be repurposed and stapled to a backdrop to add depth and color.
Rule #5 to Thrifting: Be prepared for your trip by dressing appropriately and comfortably, and be respectful to the items you choose not to buy.
Once you’ve opened your eyes to the possibilities, it is time to dig in. Some people like to start at the back of the thrift store, some like to start at the front. No matter your plan of attack, it is important you have also physically-prepared for what comes next. Not only will you be reaching high and low, twisting this way and that, and moving heavy items to see what treasures lay in the dark depths of the store, but you will likely be doing this for hours. Stretch! Also make sure you have eaten and that you are hydrated. Carry water with you if you can. And wear comfortable shoes (but ones that can easily come on and off for trying on shoes and ALWAYS wear socks). If you plan on buying clothing, you may also want to make sure and wear something that makes it easy to try on items in the stores without a fitting room. Tights and a skirt, a bodysuit, or an easy on/off sweater might work out well. Lastly, bring a stick of clear deodorant with you. After you have tried on clothes all day, you will appreciate this. And anyone who tries on items after you will appreciate the fact there isn’t white deodorant stains or body odor all over that cute cropped sweater you discarded.
Rule #6 to Thrifting: Always keep your theme and budget in mind and never buy anything you can’t think of at least one use for.
As you work your way through the secondhand shop, think about a theme. Is it post-modern? Is it BDSM? Is it Victorian? Is it Goth? Is it the Pin up? Are you just looking for a found object for your model to interact with? Looking over the shelves of the thrift store, you might see a lot of items that really have no use in your studio. But think about the possibilities of that stained lamp shade or that broken hand-mixer (Jill’s husband might like a photo of his wife “baking cupcakes.”). Or you may be going for something a little more alternative or kinky. Consider those tights or nylons for bondage shots, or that bag of brightly-colored clothes-pins for some pinching. And if you have no shoot in mind, keep an eye out for interesting and different objects at cheap prices that you can add to your closet or costume box. But be frugal and don’t buy the whole store.
Rule #7 to Thrifting: It never hurts to negotiate, but be realistic and recognize that the store is trying to make money, just like you.
On the subject of money: Many secondhand shops allow you to negotiate prices and we recommend that if a store is firm on their marked price and it is just beyond your means, you should consider leaving the item behind. If you are buying several items try and group them into one lump sum; if a sweater you’re buying is 10 dollars and the chair is 15 dollars, ask the cashier if they will take twenty dollars for both. Most places will, and the worst that will happen is they will say no; or negotiate to somewhere in between your price and the marked price and you both win.
Rule #8 to Thrifting: Rinse, wash, wipe-down and deodorize your secondhand purchase.
Once you’ve found that old knife with the carved ivory handle for your Elsbeth Bathory scene, or those black bloomers for your pin-up shoot, make sure you wash them before you use them. Let’s be realistic – do you wash your shoes before you give them to Goodwill? Do you make sure to wash and wrap all of your dishes and pans before you give them to the Yerba Buena Center for resale? No, and most other people don’t either. Although many stores will do a quick-clean for you, never trust that they will. Whenever you buy something used, think of the grossest thing it could have come in contact with and clean it accordingly. Now we don’t condone bleaching silk or ruining a pair of suede shoes with Lysol. But there is something to be said for wiping down items that you can’t wash, washing those you can, and sanitizing anything that someone may eat off of. And if it suits you, smudge or bless anything you believe may have bad ju-ju. If you are buying shoes, spray some Lysol inside and wash the bottoms (nothing ruins a Boudoir photo shoot like catching the price written on the bottom of a shoe in marker). If you buy something and it smells musty – even after washing it – put it in a bag (Ziplock or trash bag, depending on size) with some cat litter for a minimum of four hours. Like magic, the odor will be gone.
Rule #9 to Thrifting: Have fun with your secondhand item, but don’t let it ruin your day if it doesn’t work out as planned.
Whenever we buy something, we expect it to work out. But when buying second-hand, you may find that the item was damaged and you simply didn’t see it in the dim light of the thrift store; or it doesn’t fit; or the item just doesn’t accentuate the model as you had imagined in your mind’s eye. Or the item may distract from the subject of your photo shoot. Remember – you paid very little for this item and it will eventually get used for something – don’t let it get you down. That being said, most items WILL work out for the photographer and can set the mood for the shoot. If you have bought extra material and a shade of pink, this material may suddenly take your fetish photo shoot in a whole different direction than you had planned. Only you, the model and the second-hand piece can determine how a prop will influence a scene. And sometimes, a boudoir photography prop you just have lying around, like an old wooden ruler can take a stale photo shoot down a whole different road to sexy schoolgirl, As is that slightly used black cat and chair we shot with our model; the possibilities are endless.
Rule #10 to Thrifting: Reuse, recycle, and return the favor.
So you found your perfect prop for the photo shoot, used it, and now what? Well, if you keep a prop closet or costume box, store the object for future use. Sometimes second-hand items that we visualized in one photo shoot may make a surprise appearance in another – because you had it available and it worked well with the model or theme. But if the item has outlived its usefulness and your storage is overflowing with props, please consider re-donating it. In the ultimate Sansara wheel of thrifting, give your item a new lease on life again, by offering it back to the thrift store for someone else to use. Someone may actually use that apron in the kitchen, and you will have done your part to keep the landfills empty and the planet beautiful. Reusing, recycling and re-donating only helps us and others. And as photographers, the world is our backdrop. Use this guide to thrift stores to go out and be creative.