5 more tips from readers: How to find vintage lighting at affordable prices

mid-century-string-light

Midcentury Moe string light from Morning Glory Moderne.

Stop at every garage sale. Ask new neighbors if they want their home’s old fixtures. Don’t forget the town dump. These were just a few of the crazy-in-a-good-way suggestions from our resourceful readers left on our recent story six tips to find affordable vintage lighting in a midcentury modern market gone mad, which bemoaned rising prices. These new suggestions can get results! Thanks to our determined readers — not too shy to share their methods for getting the good stuff cheap — here are five more tips to help you find that vintage fixture of your dreams.

vintage-moe-light

Reader Modspell’s vintage Moe light fixture.

1. Dumpster divers and demolition trackers unite!

Janet in CT says:

I started collecting in the mid-nineties although everyone thought I was nuts! The word got around and I have cleaned out many old houses, the best of which was my landlord’s grandfather’s house, an old 1700’s cape but full of mid-century stuff! They were filling up trash bags with everything because they were so sick of cleaning it out. I went through DOZENS of trash bags, and some fellow stopped and took the bags I went through for the same purpose! I have never gotten so much “stuff” out of a house as I did that one! I have enough saved to furnish our fifties ranch up in Maine short of mattresses and a TV, which my husband wants new. I have a garage full of my stuff and a cousin who does the same, and I figure I will have plenty left over to sell when done, which is what she does in her retirement.

Annie B. says:

Don’t be afraid to be a trash pick-up “gleaner.” You never know what might appear curbside the night before a scheduled trash pick-up. You can get really lucky sometimes. I know that I’ve set out all sorts of things with still usable parts in hopes that a “gleaner” might come by before the trash truck does – and they do.

David says:

Another way to score vintage lighting or anything from that period is be aware of homes that contractors or home owners will bulldoze. While driving around I will notice a zoning sign for a house they will demo and follow up on it regularly. Often times if you contact the developer he will give it to you free or cheap. It is a way to keep things out of the land fill. Or at an estate sale they may be ok with selling the item that you can take off easily or they may be listing the house as a teardown so the fixtures will be for sale too. I will in addition look on Craigslist for things under teardown, demolished, bulldoze etc. and often times get great items.

vintage-pendant-light

This mystery reader’s pendant light was from an old movie theater.

Jamie D. says:

We have a local resource in my city’s historic district called the Artifacts Bank for this stuff. When old buildings are in disrepair and get gutted or demolished, some of the contractors try to save what they can and donate (sell? I’m not sure exactly how it works) stuff to the Artifacts bank, which they end up selling and then a portion of the proceeds goes to maintaining the historic district. The midcentury items are few and far between, but there are frequently MASSIVE drainboard and farmhouse sinks, doorknobs, doors, small quantities of beautiful old tiles, and light fixtures.

JP says:

Don’t forget office buildings (or schools). A lot of commercial and insitutional building have great stuff that often finds its way into a dumpster. Ever pay close attention to the furniture and lighting in old schools, police stations, and other government buildings? I’d say more $$ for public spaces went to Herman Miller than residential $$s.

Mary Elizabeth says:

Oh, and I forgot my husband’s favorite vintage find location, the share table at the local transfer station, a.k.a. the town dump. This year’s scores were a large abstract stained glass window hanging for our bay window (not Frank Lloyd Wright, but similar in feel) and a stone base for my bird bath. He’s also seen stuff we weren’t looking for, like candle holders and a huge TV console. If you bring your trash to a transfer station, keep your eyes open for stuff left outside the bins and ask if you can take it.

NOS vintage lighting

Reader Wendy discovered this time capsule lighting store in St. Louis.

2. Stalk every place you can think of

Wendy in St. Louis says:

Yes, the glory days of regularly finding cheap mid century gems, lighting or otherwise, are sadly over for the most part. I have been collecting 50’s and 60’s stuff since…lord I’m old…1980ish when I bought my first vintage radio at a flea market. Then I got into estate sales and could fill my car for very little money. It’s really sad to me that prices are so outrageous. My tips:

  1. Garage sales. ALWAYS stop, especially in older neighborhoods. Even if it looks like a bunch of junk or all kid’s stuff from the street, there might be a dusty fixture that was hauled up from the basement or stored in the garage. And ASK them if they might have any fixtures – some people don’t bother to put them out because they are “junk”.
  1. Estate sales. ALWAYS stop. This is a lot harder, since the dealers get there *early*, but treasure is still to be found. I go to the basement first, then the garage. [So does Pam – see her 8 tips for shopping an estate sale here.]
  2. Flea markets. ALWAYS stop. (sensing a pattern here? ? ) Especially if they’re off the beaten path.
  3. If you spot fixtures at a sale that aren’t for sale, write down the address. Write a letter expressing your interest, and mail it to the address. Whoever is liquidating the estate, usually the children, might sell to you. Be polite, and you also have to tell them you will replace the fixture with something new. This is a little more expensive to do, but depending on the fixture, it can be worth it.
  4. If they won’t sell to you, keep the address and monitor the real estate listings. Contact the new owners when the home sells. (Again, write a polite letter.) In this case don’t offer to replace the fixture, just offer whatever you’re willing to spend towards a new fixture.
  5. Watch real estate listings in zip codes that have older homes. Go to the open houses. Ask the agent to make an offer to the sellers – you’ll replace the fixtures with nice new ones for the old ones. This is a long shot, but it’s a free upgrade for the sellers…they might bite. Changing a fixture is easy, you just need a ladder and some very basic tools and an assortment of wire caps. Don’t forget to turn off the breaker to the light!
  6. Know any real estate agents? Have them alert you if they get a listing with “goodies” and proceed with suggestion #5.
  7. Teardowns. If you can find out the companies that do teardowns in your area, ask them to call you whenever they have a new demolition scheduled. Some companies already advertise…do a web search with ‘demolition sale xxxxxxx’ (xxxxx being your city.)
  8. “We Buy Ugly Houses.” There is usually one in every city. Call them and tell them you’re interested in their ugly fixtures.
  9. Builders. Look for neighborhoods with a lot of teardowns. Find out who the builders are – usually there’s a sign in the yard “Coming Soon…” Many builders don’t bother trying to salvage fixtures, or they sell to scrappers. Contact them and try to set up a deal. They’ll get more $ from you than they will from a scrapper.
  10. Craigslist. Prices can be high here too, but there are still good items. You have to be prepared to drop everything and get the item right away, or you might lose it to someone else who offers more money. Yes, I’ve gotten callbacks from sellers cancelling our deal because of this. Pffft!
  11. Vacations. Allow extra time to go to sales, junk stores and flea markets in the area. Bonus if you’re driving… there are many huge flea markets/junk barns along rural highways that aren’t advertised other than an old billboard or just “Flea Market” painted on the side of the building.
  12. Friends, coworkers, neighbors, acquaintances. Make sure they know your interest in vintage fixtures. If I meet someone new who asks what I do, I mention my job, and then mention my interest in vintage. Two examples: Someone in my best friend’s office mentioned he was getting rid of a bunch of old stuff, so she asked for any things from the 50’s or 60’s. I scored a triple cone table lamp (the cones are black, white, and orange!!), and a Culver cocktail set. For free. A coworker of mine bought an old house and told me about it since he knew I “liked old stuff”. Unfortunately there were no goodies, but the more people who know you’re into it, the better. You never know!
vintag-progressive-light-500x359

Jacquie recently scored a deal on this NOS Progressive light fixture — found on her local Craigslist.

3. Don’t give up on tried and true methods

Erin in Ohio says:

GARAGE SALES. My husband and I have had great luck at garage sales over the years, especially at garage sales in rural or small towns where people see midcentury items and still only think of it as “old stuff.”

Mike A. says:

I would still look at ebay, Craigslist and shopgoodwill.com. I recently bought a starlight ceiling light on ebay for $50 with shipping, the same as at Rejuvenation (Nimbus), which sells for $210. I just had to put in a new socket. Also check out local auctions/salvage places in your area. On ebay try the ‘Buy it nows’ and offer less. Also, with a lot of the ceiling type fixtures, it is the shade that is expensive. Buy a simple base or use off another light and get a used shade that fits properly.

pyrexmaniac says:

I’m surprised that nobody has mentioned consignment stores. I have residences in both Buffalo and Toronto and I find that antique stores, co-ops and estate sale purveyors are already “on” to the hot market for lighting, meaning that there are very few bargains to be had. Consignment stores, on the other hand, typically price their merchandise to sell. The two biggest ‘home consignment galleries’ in Toronto sell what I would consider top-quality, mid-to-high end furnishings from all eras at VERY REASONABLE prices.

Amy says:

I get a lot of great deals on ebay… they are there to be found. Not $5 Bertoia chairs, but for example I got a GORGEOUS pull-down lamp with a swoopy glass shade, and in near perfect condition, for $65 + $25 shipping. So, $90. Not $10, but you could easily spend $90 at IKEA on a chandelier. That’s how I think of all my vintage purchases: Might I spend this much on something similar at IKEA? If the answer is “Yes,” or “Nearly,” I almost always make the buy, because I’ve owned a lot of IKEA in my day and it won’t hold up as well as something that’s already 40-60 years old but in fab condition.

My ebay tips are:

  • Look thru the whole categories — not just Antiques / Periods & Styles, but also Collectibles. Instead of searching for very specific terms, look more generally. Like “pair lamps” not “pair atomic lamps.”
  • Yes, you have to wade through a lot of “junk” you’re not interested in… but that’s how you find bargains.
  • A lot of professional sellers take advantage of buyers’ search/research laziness, that’s how they can command higher prices.
  • Also: note that a Buy It Now is never fixed in stone. Just cuz it’s listed as BIN, doesn’t mean it will sell for that. (I see the same stuff listed for sale for months — no bites.) If a price is nearly what you want, you can ALWAYS email the seller and ask if they’d consider working with you on your budget. For me, this works 8 times out of 10.

Just use your new powers for good… and don’t go up against me in a bidding war

retro-pendant-light

Reader Modspell rescued this light from an old 1960s Burger Chef restaurant.

4. Ask nicely and you may recieve

Lynne says:

Really, don’t be too afraid to knock on a door. This past summer, the house up the street sold. That house was built by the same contractor as mine, and they had identical Andersen windows. Not long after they moved in, we noticed a Pella truck parked outside. Sure enough, they were replacing all of the old windows. So, I summoned up my courage, knocked, introduced myself, and explained that we had the same windows that they were replacing. Long story somewhat shortened, we now have all the necessary window cranks, and replacement parts we will ever need to keep our original Andersen’s in good working order. All for free. They welcomed me to take anything I needed or wanted. They also told the installer to expect us to come poking around.

Also, make nice to the Habitat folks. After a little while, I became known, I like to think of it as affectionately, “the pink toilet lady”. They knew what sorts of things I was looking for, and actually put my phone number up on their bulletin board in the office. They called me whenever anything that might interest me came in.

Victoria says:

As for the tip on scouting renovations in your neighborhood — we got a whole set of parts for our 1960 cooktop, as well as diamond backplates and cabinet handles from the tear out next door by just being interested. They didn’t want the stuff. We also got a couple of good pieces of the cabinet wood that matches ours that we can use in case of repairs. Don’t be shy. Most people — still — are throwing the stuff away, unaware that it has value.

5. Get out of the city

Robin, NV says:

Here’s my tip – get off the beaten path. Out here in rural America, mid mod madness has not hit. Thrift stores sometimes have lighting for cheap. Even antique shops might have some and they still sell it cheaper than Victorian and Arts and Crafts fixtures.

NOS-reflector-lights-green

Part of a stash of 45 NOS reflector lights salvaged from an old factory maintenance room.

Lynne says:

Were auctions on that list of where to find vintage lighting? The small local and farm auctions are great sources.

Oh dear readers, how we love thee. Thank you for sharing some of mid mod mad ideas for finding the good stuff — even if it does make us all sound a bit off our rockers. For those on the hunt for that vintage lighting deal — or deals of every kind! — good luck and may the Retro Decorating Dods be with you.

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Comments

  1. David says

    Be patient should be another factor in finding fixtures. A cool home went on the market a few months ago in my neighborhood with neat lighting. Monitoring the sale I watched as a new buyers work crews came and started renovating. I stopped regularly to ask and after this went on for about a month I was able to score six mid century lights for free. They said “take them off, we are replacing them anyway”. At another house a flipper bought about a block from my house, there was a three lamp hanging fixture I wanted. I let the contractor know and gave him my cell #. Finally three months later he called to say it wwas removed and to come and get it. Free. So patience!

    • pam kueber says

      Yup! Way to go! Not only did you get them for free — it sounds like you saved them from a horrible and unnecessary dumpster death! Awesome!

  2. Stacia says

    Wendy–whatever happened to the time capsule store in St. Louis? I’d love to know if that’s still around!

  3. Robin, NV says

    Another technique would be to keep your ear to the ground via the local newspaper or evening news – they will sometimes mention major demolitions going on, especially if it involves a federal agency. A lot of our older federal buildings were built from the 1930s to the 1960s. When buildings are demolished, federal agencies are required to make the materials available to the public. Some of the stuff ends up at the Restore, local thrift stores, or sales on military bases. I can’t promise that the lighting will be cool or nifty but lots of other things are salvaged and offered for cheap – cabinets, sinks, bathroom fixtures, doors, furniture, etc. The 1960s era housing at my base had birch cabinets and turquoise countertops. Very cute.

  4. says

    I love all these suggestions!

    Patience is indeed the key. Almost all my lighting came from garage sales.

    During your renovation, be willing to put up the not quite perfect fixture until the perfect fixture shows up.

    And remember, many fixtures come down for a reason. Often it’s a broken shade. Buy it anyway, many parts are standard sizes and you will find a replacement. Broken switches are also common. Rewiring a lamp isn’t rocket science but it has to be done correctly. There are lots of how-tos on the web. Or you can usually find a reasonably priced service or handyman to do the job.

    A couple years ago I found an original Sputnik chandelier with two badly cracked brass candelabra socket covers. I bought it for $ 3.00. I replaced the broken covers with new ones from an online lamp parts supplier where I also bought the correct bulbs. I stripped the lacquer from the new parts and then used a little ammonia to match the brass patina. I got close enough that nobody would notice. As the style was not my particular taste I sold it on ebay to a collector in Thailand, and yes, I disclosed the new parts.

    That little endeavor was fun and profitable. Always be vigilant. You never know what you’ll find!

  5. Jay says

    All good suggestions! Time is what you need – time to get to all the antique/vintage/consignment shops, house sales and the thrifts.

    I just went to a local church’s fair days and a person selling garden stuff had one of those green Westinghouse fixtures – it had the W sticker as well as the old wires coming out of the top – obviously used ($25). I thought of that post.

    I snagged a black floor lamp with three swiveling heads for $5 only because they mentioned additional stuff for sale on the back porch.
    No provevance but good looking.

    And the trips to the Restore finally paid off – found an old glass diffuser for the light over the kitchen table.

    I do look at the on-line real estate listings for similar houses in my area but usually the fixtures have been replaced or are too mediocre.

    As they say, it’s the thrill of the hunt!

  6. sara says

    We have a great store in our town called Around Again. Their location is genius…right before you get to the dump! They’ll take donations of just about any household/building related item. I’ve found many great things there, including this past weekend when I found a 60’s vintage bathroom light fixture for $2! Can’t wait to take down the junky gold 90’s fixture and replace it with my $2 treasure.

  7. Sid says

    Being in the remodel business, I have to add to the “scouting renovations” point:
    -Don’t just look in high-end neighborhoods. Many homes that have been well cared-for were already gutted in the 80s and 90s and usually don’t have many interested items. The good stuff is in the neighborhoods where most people haven’t been able to afford to remodel every 20 years. I come across many more mid century items in smaller, modest homes than I do in the affluent neighborhoods around town.
    -Don’t overlook homes that were built well before the 50s. Many homes built around the turn of the last century have fixtures that were part of a renovation done in the 50s-60s but haven’t had much work done since. Again, usually in more modest neighborhoods where landlords haven’t cared to do many improvements.
    -Speaking of landlords! They’re good to know. Rentals almost ALWAYS have much older fixtures, appliances, etc. than owner occupied homes. There’s not any emotional attachment to the property either, so a lot gets tossed out to make way for something new and cheap.

  8. tammyCA says

    Every time I see one of those signs, “we buy ugly houses” I think yeah, so you can make it uglier?! Strip off all the charm, slap on the swamp colors, stucco it some more, make it look more like a giant Lego, don’t forget the massive granite inside the little mid-century modest house…where has design gone?

    • says

      AMEN! So sad to see this happen in Glendale CA especially. The newcomers hate vintage heritage and remove it at once… hello cardboard columns, faux window panes, bullnosed granite and white on white on white. I see it all the time.

  9. Mary Elizabeth says

    All good suggestions. And speaking of good finds, DH left me a phone message while I was out yesterday to say he had driven to the next state to buy something on Craigslist. I couldn’t imagine what wonderful mid-century thing he would come back with and was surprised to see it was a duplicate of his own trusty table saw–40 years old. When I asked what was up with that, he beamed and said, “parts!”

    So like the Anderson window find mentioned by one of the readers, don’t forget potential replacement parts for light fixtures, plumbing, and the tools you use to do all your retro projects.

    To his credit, I have to say that the garage and basement are mostly his domain, and the new table saw will be dismantled and parts labeled and neatly stored.:-)

  10. says

    I am proud to have two lamps featured in this write-up (thanks Pam). There are many more pics in the vault!

    Definitely get the word around to your friends and neighbors that you are a vintage collector. Maybe not say too much about reselling for big $, but that you just love to rescue old things. You’ll start getting calls and letters about people selling off their old house etc, and that you may want to check it out. Once known as a picker, people love to help out.

  11. says

    Another resource (though this requires LOTS of patience) is Freecycle. Many areas have one, and the quality of the giveaways varies with the area. But for the low low cost of free, it can be worth keeping your eye on the listings. And it works both ways: you can request items you’re looking for. It can be a good source for parts.

    And, having recently had to liquidate an estate (via an estate liquidation company), I learned that most of them have email lists and many post photos on their websites of upcoming sales. They don’t post all of the sale items, but enough to give you an idea of whether there might be MCM goodies to be had, vs. lacy doilies and spoon collections.

  12. Sam R says

    Commercial buildings that are being demolished can be a great (if sometimes sad) source of interesting lights. This bit of plastic fantastic goodness came from a local roller rink that had been in business since 1977. It’s being plowed under for a badly designed intersection, but I was able to secure a bunch of these lights from the owner.

    http://i928.photobucket.com/albums/ad121/SamCogley/House-FinishedWork/4F72D85F-2771-4856-B8CE-5EEBE260E429_zpshpiwcjah.jpg

      • Sam R says

        It’s kind of bittersweet. I love it there, and it’s a nice reminder of a place that was a second home to me, but I really wish a backhoe wasn’t digging into the building.

  13. sharon says

    Because of the last post on this topic I summoned the courage at a recent estate sale to leave my card for the owners after expressing interest in what appeared to be a highly unique chrome modernist-meets-deco chandelier. Well, to my amusement it turned out to be a flimsy mostly PLASTIC retro fixture, but I was so giddy that leaving my card WORKED I took it anyways and gave him $20 for his efforts. He seemed genuinely pleased it was getting a new home. 🙂 I look forward to my future attempts to score unique treasure!

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