Found treasures: Decorating with Thrift Shop goods

The green table came from a friend's storage unit, which Holly then, "painted, stenciled, sanded and left outside for two years; [the] chairs I set out for free in front of A Gallery, painted and put new cushions on them." — Photo by Michael Cummo

For those of us who’ve lived a thousand lives in this single lifetime, moved a thousand times, identified more with Bedouin wanderers than, let’s just say, my Grandma Olga who never moved from her house at 12 DuMerle Street in Lowell, we discover that each new abode means empty rooms. And chances are, because we nomads give away more stuff than we ever take in (how else to stay mobile?), each new domicile means we’ll be begging, buying, and borrowing new household gear.

This peripatetic lifestyle goes hand-in-hand with a tight budget. Super-rich people may travel far and wide on their private jets, but they also own property, and whether or not this includes a villa in Antigua, an apartment at One Hyde Square, and a castle in the Inner Hebrides, this real estate is a fancy ball-and-chain. No way can a person in this position feel the sheer wanderlust of the holy fool who starts fresh with each new home.

And that’s where thrift shops, with all their offshoots — yard sales, friends-and-family giveaways, free stuff dumped at the side of the road — come into play.

If you’ve lived in the same place for more than seven years, if you collect and collect and rarely unload any of your domestic goods, and if, moreover, you’ve got forgotten junk in storage (and part of a nomad’s credo is that every item of any value should be used by someone and never tucked away to gather dust), or if — in the most extreme cases — you’re one of those bona fide hoarders, then you’ll fail to grasp how those of us caught up in a migratory lifestyle can sell for cheap or give away our goods like passing out bags of Oysterettes at a clam chowder festival.

But that’s what we do.

Here are a few of the scores of articles that over the decades I’ve relinquished:

— My great-Aunt Bertha’s monstrously heavy wooden box of silver wear. The year was 1974, I was leaving New York to return to L.A. to live with a boyfriend, a Beverly Hills lawyer, with whom I’d last for one measly month. I was romantic enough to stash all my belongings inside a wooden trunk. This came in handy when the guy sent me and my Siamese cat packing from his über-conventional ranch house in the Valley.

— An upright Wurlitzer piano bought for $1,800 from a dealer in Falmouth who shipped it to us in East Chop. When my son’s piano lessons ended as he left for college, and the buyers of our house offered a chiseling $400 for the Wurlitzer, I donated it to a Brazilian pastor. He and two parishioners loaded it into a station wagon, which sagged heavily as it bumped from our driveway.

— A queen bed given to me by an heiress girlfriend, with the best mattress I’ve ever slept on, and a princess-y frame of porcelain-and-brass. I donated it to friends who bought a vast Victorian manor, as I set off to a tiny apartment over my bookstore where the bedroom could fit a double bed at best.

— A Picasso ceramic pitcher acquired in ’71 from the master’s studio in St. Paul du Vence. A few years back I sold it on eBay for $1,000 — I needed the do-re-mi.

Get the idea? “You can’t take it with you!” ain’t just for the journey beyond the grave; for the authentic nomad it applies to each and every move that he or she makes.

Mother Nature created a small percentage of us this way. This nutty. This carpe diem-y.

So here are some of the thrift store — and cousins-of-thrift-store — finds I’ve cobbled together for my current apartment in the old deconsecrated Oak Bluffs library, with mansard ceilings and a loft-like ambience, with windows framing gingerbread cottages and luscious gardens. Two steps lead down to an ample bedroom and a dormer bumped out to support high, south-facing windows:

— A pale green dining table with stenciled pink flowers, distressed to a fare-thee-well, its antique French provincial quality cultivated by leaving it outdoors for two years.

— A small table painted with a pastoral scene of sheep, farmhouse, and the ocean, with decorative curly-cue clouds; this precious item picked up for $25 at the Vineyard Haven Thrift Shop, may God bless it for all time.

— A small, sea-foam-green breakfront with glass doors in which only one pane is missing: I sweet-talked it away from a friend in the midst of de-clutttering his Chappy farmhouse.

— An antique scroll-bed bought from a collectibles dealer who decamped before I realized the frame was too small for a modern mattress. I’ve got a regular double mattress squashed down into it, with bungie cords to keep the frame from pulling apart.

For the nomadic decorator, the key tool is an electric sander: Take an elderly item of furniture — an end table, a chair, a desk — paint it any color, sand it to bring out the pentimento hues of times past, as well as lovely wood grains that provide a marble patina, and Bob’s your uncle: all your furniture will be gorgeous.

And, of course, anyone can enjoy thrift shop and yard sale charm without having to pack up the camel and move every three years. There is always a need to replace, refresh, fill in with some new, funky old item (not forgetting sander and paintbrush).

These venues are gold mines of whimsical lamps, gently used slow cookers, baskets and boxes for attractive storage right out in the open, and beautiful throw rugs such as the six- by four-foot carpet I recently found at the Campground flea market, a little girl’s dreamscape of a cut-out doll with tabbed apparel right down to Sunday school frock, overalls, and skirted swimsuit.

I like it better than the Picasso pitcher I sold on eBay and I’m still $955 ahead of the game.