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Holiday treasure hunt

We search high and low for great gifts at thrift and secondhand shops

Is it trash or treasure? The editorial team here at the Portland Phoenix compiled this year's incarnation of our annual local gift guide by searching for diamonds in the rough. Thrift stores, secondhand shops, even one of those massive New England antique barns: Surely, there's great stuff in there, we thought. Turns out we were right. It took some doing, but we did manage to take advantage of the recyclables-as-commodities trend and score some good finds, without breaking the bank. We competed to see how many gifts each of us could buy with a total of $20. (Pro tip: Going to these places with a couple of friends makes things a lot less dystopian than standing alone, staring around a warehouse-sized building filled with gewgaws and thingamajigs cast off from others' lives.) We proved it's possible to get really good gifts at completely low prices. Here are our three perspectives on the search, what we found, and where.

DIY dreams

DEIRDRE We're all familiar with the expression "my eyes were bigger than my stomach." But! Did you know there's a parallel version of that aphorism? Here it is: "My DIY aspirations were bigger than my skill set / available time / patience / dexterity." In my world, this truth rears its ugly head most ragingly around the holidays, when I envision myself as something of a Martha Stewart but often end up with lots of raw materials and little to show for it.

That didn't stop me, of course, from purchasing five small, glass punch cups and tumblers (99 cents apiece at Goodwill — and one was on sale for 49 cents!). These, combined with candle-making supplies from Michaels (melting wax, wicks, and scents are available for a little more than $20 total; an even cheaper way to approach this project would be to melt down candle ends you have lying around the house) are destined to become homemade scented candles (or else dust-catchers in my closet).


However, at Goodwill I also found the building blocks for a slightly less energy-intensive project: A set of four glass photo coasters, plus a wooden holder, for $1.99. Each of the square coasters has space for a 2-by-3-inch photo, set off by colored paper matting (black, blue, gold, and green). At first I was going to put photos of myself in them, and give the gift to my parents. But then I realized that I didn't want people putting their drinks on my face. Instead, I'll print copies of a friend's beautiful photography — flowers, snow-covered branches, salamanders, and a pinecone — and give her a present that honors her talents while serving a handy purpose at the same time.

At the Habitat for Humanity of Greater Portland ReStore, a treasure trove of gently used and recycled building materials, appliances, and some furniture, I was hoping to find some old claw feet for my boyfriend's mother, a woodworker who enjoys antique hardware. No luck. But I didn't walk out empty-handed. Instead, the DIY demon siren-called me over to a bunch of window shutters, where I was reminded of an online tutorial on how to transform old shutters into photo displays. By removing the hardware, painting the shutters to match their décor, and using binder clips or clothespins to attach memorabilia and pictures, these otherwise unremarkable items become cottage-chic, and the perfect gift for my mom and dad. I purchased one shutter for $5.25 (including tax).

It was at the enormous antique emporium in Arundel (where, I confess, my senses were overstimulated) that I spotted the wooden stair basket — plain, functional, $5, and exactly what we need to help keep things orderly in our tiny, two-level apartment. Placed strategically on the first two steps of our stairway, it'll be a catch-all for scarves, books, magazines, and the other odds-and-ends we usually let clutter up the landing. The rule is simple: When the basket's full, bring it upstairs. In gifting this treasure to my boyfriend, I give him not only a useful item for our home but also freedom from having me harp on this messy hot-zone at least once a week. This may not be the most visually stunning piece (as is, the basket's pine slats are unvarnished), but it's certainly practical. Should DIY fever overcome me, I may decide to paint the thing; for now I'll vow merely to remove the cobwebs from the bottom.

Had I more time at the antique barn, I would have continued my search for claw feet and other historical hardware, or a cheaper version of the fantastic picnic basket I saw for $40 (vintage, wicker, and complete with dedicated space for two wine bottles). Alas, our treasure hunt was coming to an end. All told, I spent $16.45 on gifts — three definites, and five maybes (we'll see about those candles . . .).

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Related: Gadgets for both sides of the Occupy divide, Gifts for the 1%, Gifts for the 99%, More more >
  Topics: News Features , Portland, Holidays, Shopping,  More more >
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