Summer Guide: Retail therapy doesn’t have to cost a fortune

Getting through the summer is no mean feat, and I find myself buying a lot more crap in July and August than I do any other time of the year, if only for the distraction. Recently I've found an amazing place to shop for really great stuff, but I can't tell you where it is. And I should explain, before troubling you any further, that by "really great stuff," I mean old things — lamps, framed daguerreotypes, throw pillows hand-stitched with the image of a dancing lobster — that are just this side of being true antiques. And by "shopping" I actually mean browsing, because none of this junk is for sale.

I can't tell you where I've been shopping because it's my parents' garage, and they'd probably be grumpy as hell if you turned up wanting to buy their old things. I've been spending a lot of time at my childhood home lately; my mother is ill and my father needs help taking care of her. And I've discovered something I'd forgotten about, which is that my folks never throw anything away, so everything I remember from my childhood — the old suitcases with the leather handles, the orange and avocado green plastic Kachina paper napkin holder, the fiber-optic swan-shaped glass planter — is all neatly tucked away in their garage. And their attic. And the guest bedroom closets. And the linen cupboard in the master bath.

I may be marveling over the stuff I'm finding (Look! Here's a box of flash bulbs from my first camera! Here's the painting of Humphrey Bogart I did in freshman art class! And here's my old Lady Gillette blow dryer with detachable hot comb!), but I'm not taking it home with me. Most of the stuff doesn't belong to me, and anyway, I have a feeling if I were to kipe something, my mother (who doesn't know what year it is anymore) would somehow know it. "Hey, did you take the salt shakers shaped like ostriches out of that box on the top right shelf of the garage?" she might say to me, even though on a good day she can't remember where the bathroom is.

Fortunately, there are places all over town where one can shop, summer and winter and any other time of year, for the same kind of neat old things my parents have socked away. I normally can't abide thrift stores, because they smell like pee, but I'm a sucker for Assistance League of Phoenix Thrift Shop (7044 North Seventh Street; 602-944-9845), a clean, well-lit store stocked with stuff snagged from the homes of rich people who've recently expired. I drop in as often as I can, because I always find an addition to my colossal collection of silver platters. Last time I found a two-pot coffee maker and a vintage chafing dish and dropped less than 20 bucks on the pair. I'm a sucker for old vinyl, and somehow Assistance League's records are always super-clean and really interesting, with none of the usual Journey and Streisand and disco stuff you see in most Goodwills — I guess because old dead rich people didn't listen to Steve Perry. I love the friendly, blue-smocked staff at this cool shop, and my only complaint is that they tend to spend the last half-hour the store is open reminding every customer that "We close at 3." I make sure I'm out of there by 2:30, if I can help it.

Flo's on Seventh (4116 North Seventh Avenue; 602-254-7861) stays open later than 3, and no one who works there seems all that interested in talking about the store's hours, which is fine by me. Just as clean and a whole lot bigger than Assistance League, Flo's is a great place to buy high-end, secondhand furniture and clothes. I always ignore the boutique side and paw through the housewares, where I recently found a crapload of rare, old-timey Blue Ridge pottery priced so low it was plain that neither Flo nor her minions knew what they were selling.

Speaking of scoring big on Seventh Avenue, last month I bought a slightly saggy but still serviceable Froggy the Gremlin doll at Rust and Roses (4200 North Seventh Avenue, 602-264-4999) for a mere $18, which almost certainly means nothing to you, dear reader, until I tell you I've never seen one of these sell for less than $200 on eBay. What I'll do with a 60-year-old rubber frog is anyone's guess, but he's mine now, and at a tenth of his usual price. While I was there I also bought a silver punch bowl and a Jadeware cup and saucer for someone I know who collects the stuff and is always griping about how pricey it is. Not at this place, which thrilled my editor so much when I took her there that I swear she was drooling.

I can understand that kind of reaction, though, because I recently spent an hour at the monthly Phoenix Antique Market at the state fairgrounds (usually the second or third weekend each month; 602-717-7337) where weekend dealers go to peddle their wares for impossibly low prices. I bought a pair of ancient bark cloth draperies for $30 (no, really!) and an unused vintage photo album printed with the slogan, "Enjoy your sunny stay in Sunnyslope!" for which I paid an entire dollar. And I, too, slobbered a little when I found a like-new wool trench coat at Vintage Solutions (3604 North Sixteenth Street, 602-604-1831) for a mere $40. Around here in the summertime, a wool coat is about as useful as an old rubber frog, but that's what bargain hunting is all about: Buying stuff that's neat and cheap, not because you need it, but because it takes your mind off the weather.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela