Patience is the key to buying second-hand furniture in Chicago

I was walking out of the Brown Elephant Thrift Shop in Oak Park when I saw it. Two employees were unloading a beautiful leather sofa from the truck, about to bring it into the shop. The cushions had been removed and the label was clearly visible. This was no ordinary couch; it was a Pottery Barn Mitchell Gold sofa with beautiful top-grain leather and fine stitching. I practically threw myself onto the sofa and followed those guys right back into the store.

“This here lady wants to check out this couch,” one of the delivery guys shouted to the manager. She took one look at the label and said “That’s a Pottery Barn in really fine condition. $600.”

I’d been looking for a couch for our basement TV area since December, but hadn’t found just the right one yet. This one seemed to check every box: high quality brand, the right size, in good condition and lovely to behold. Also it was leather, which meant the chances of it harboring critters or bad smells was dramatically reduced. (Although, I should point out that Brown Elephant has such high standards for their donated furniture that they refused a chenille loveseat I tried to donate a few years ago because it had a few cat scratch marks on the arm.) $600 was a bit more than I’d hoped to spend, but a leather couch from PB can retail for $3000, so I still felt like I was getting a deal.

“If you’re interested in it and you need to step away to call someone, you’d better ask me for a hold tag,” the manager instructed me. Other customers were sidling over and she actually told one couple “This woman saw it first–you can’t look until she walks away.”

The pressure was on. If I wanted this sofa, I needed to act fast. I texted a photo to my husband, but I didn’t even wait for it to go through before I was on the phone with one of their preferred movers, getting a quote to have the couch picked up and delivered.

I flagged down my new friend, the manager, and told her I wanted to buy it. She instructed one of the cashiers to ring me up, chirping “$700.” I reminded her she’d quoted me $600 just five minutes beforehand and that’s what I paid. Plus tax, of course.

I’m no stranger to second-hand furniture. My nine year old’s new bed frame and mattress were handed down from a friend, and replaced the loft bed we’d previously purchased from a local for-sale listserv. My dining table and chairs were previously owned, as is the mid-century buffet I bought from a very sketchy Craigslist seller in Uptown. Our 75-year-old console piano has been loved by at least two other families and quite a few of our decorative pieces used to live in my mom or grandmother’s homes.

Buying second hand, you can get furniture that’s higher quality and more beautiful than anything you’ll find at cheaper outlets like IKEA or Target. But you can’t be in a big hurry, because the key to scoring the best stuff is patience. Well, that, and a sharp eye for what’s walking out of the delivery truck outside your favorite resale shop. Our piano appeared on that for-sale listserv three months into my looking for one, and since I had my heart set on a large Room & Board table, I ended up waiting three years for the perfect set to present itself.

The movers had to take my basement door off its hinges to get my buttery soft Pottery Barn couch into my basement, but it looks just as I’d hoped when I started searching for it five months ago.

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