At the risk of sounding arrogant, I’ve never felt like a person who needed help shopping for antiques. I’ve been obsessed with thrifting for both clothes and decor since around the age of 12, and my passion has steadily grown in the many years since. These days, I tend to visit my favorite vintage stores multiple days a week, and I could probably count on one hand the number of non-secondhand items in my home. You get the idea. So, when Brooklyn-based, country-inspired home store The Six Bells recently reached out to me about going shopping with its founder, Audrey Gelman, to glean her best antique shopping tips, I’m not going to lie — I was skeptical. Honestly, what else could I have to learn?
Nevertheless, I agreed to join her; maybe I wouldn’t hear anything I didn’t already know, but I guessed it would certainly be fun to traipse around old shops with someone who shared my sense of cozy cottagecore style. So, we set up a date: Gelman was to fly to meet me where I’m based in Lexington, KY for a few hours of digging, first at Meadowthorpe Antique Mall, and then at Georgetown Antique Mall just outside the city. Like most antique malls, these were both large, warehouse-y type spaces comprised of hundreds of small booths, each stocked by different vendors with their own respective styles and whose inventory truly ran the gamut.
In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised when I did end up gaining valuable insight. First of all, Gelman managed to find two places I had never been or even heard of, even though I’ve lived in Lexington on and off for seven years. On top of that, the founder has a wealth of experience antiquing, which was obvious both from her stories of traveling around the country to shop as well as The Six Bells’ site, which boasts a curated antiques collection with an impressively honed sense of style.
Still, I was a little shocked by the end of our day together — not only by the fact that I had learned anything, but also because of the things I did takeaway. Gelman was not some professorial antique expert ready to give me in-depth history lessons on the fine details of wildly expensive pieces. (Not that I expected her to be, but I feel like that’s often what comes to mind when picturing pros in this arena.) Rather, the entrepreneur was there to get her hands dirty, to dig through junk to uncover charming treasures that would speak to her and The Six Bells’ customers, to have fun, and honestly, to do all of this quickly and efficiently.
Because of this, the antiquing tips I learned largely centered around finding what you really love, knowing when to buy it, saving time when you can, and, of course, what to look for when it comes to recreating The Six Bells’ rustic, English-inspired style. And fortunately, I think her advice can be utilized by both beginner shoppers and longtime thrifters alike — it’s simple, easy to apply to many situations, and doesn’t require any in-depth knowledge of antiques to put into practice. Keep reading to find out what I learned, straight from Gelman herself.
Start Digging Right Away
Everyone has their own approach to tackling antique stores and malls — some do a quick pass around the entire place first, and some start digging right away. Gelman claims the latter method: “I start where I start and just sort of scan,” she tells me as soon as we enter Meadowthorpe Antique Mall. And it’s obvious she means it — The Six Bells founder starts picking up items from the store’s vendors almost immediately upon entering. “I like the feeling that every different booth is a surprise, so that’s why I don’t go through the whole [store] first,” she explains. In other words, rather than doing a quick browse of the entire place, and going back to revisit the booths that catch her eye, Gelman does an in-depth scour of each booth she’s interested in as soon as she sees it. As she notes, that feeling of surprise she’s able to get from seeing something for the first time helps her hone in on the pieces that really resonate with her.
If You Feel Overwhelmed, Take It Slow
For Gelman, antiquing is a part of the job — thus, she utilizes a lot of time-saving hacks to ensure her trips are as efficient as they are fruitful. (More on those later.) “Often when I go on trips like this I’m trying to hit several different places, so every minute counts,” she explains. However, that’s not going to be the case for everyone. For those who don’t have as much experience (or are lacking any at all), Gelman actually advises slowing down. “I think there’s a pressure to keep moving and get through it,” she says. “[I would feel that] at the beginning when I hadn’t really done it before.” But, if you’re just antiquing for fun, resist the urge to rush and take your time. Should you find that difficult, “Sometimes you can even listen to a podcast to calm you down,” Gelman suggests. And, if the big shops still feel intimidating? The entrepreneur recommends starting at smaller stores and eventually working your way up.
Trust Your Gut
If you’ve ever gone antiquing, you’ve probably noticed that most places are made up of countless booths supplied by different vendors — and thus, you’ve likely also felt a sense of crippling indecision over whether to visit them all. At least, that’s always the case for me: I’m constantly torn between looking at everything and simply walking past corners that just seem, well, not my vibe. So when I noticed Gelman skimming over a few spots, I asked her to shed light on her own approach. Put simply, “I kind of just keep going,” she explains of the displays that don’t stand out to her immediately. This is, in part, to save her time. That said, it’s also because she trusts her instincts and her eye to find the things she loves. “I think a lot of these things find you,” she explains. “So you can be looking around and these pieces just jump out.” If nothing does? Keep moving along — your instinct is probably correct.
Utilize Time-Saving Tricks
The second we started, I realized that Gelman was not a small-scale shopper — when she shops, she seems to go big. And it was clear right off the bat that she’s found many ways to make her trips more efficient. The first thing she told me? “I always get a shopping cart.” I thought that was funny at first, but I quickly understood why. After mere minutes, the small trolley she had grabbed was halfway full of finds, and had already saved her multiple trips to the checkout to drop things off. Honestly, I was annoyed at myself for never having thought of that before; I’m usually the person precariously juggling valuables in my arms and handing items to store clerks every five minutes, but this was ingeniously more efficient.
Another basic-but-smart trick of Gelman’s I learned was to ask the cashier to start wrapping up items you know you’re going to buy before you’ve finished shopping. If you’re buying in bulk like she does, this can be a massive time-saver — not to mention, it prevents both headache and embarrassment when you go to check out and there are several people impatiently waiting in line behind you.
Set Your Standards
Throughout the day, Gelman revealed products and styles she’s always on the hunt for — spongeware and wooden cutting boards among them. But even when it came to priority pieces, she never failed to mention the standards she’s set in place for each. That can look different for everyone, of course: Gelman, for example, says she would never buy ceramics with a crack, and she only looks for baskets that are durable enough to actually be used daily. Once you’ve decided what you’re hunting for, you can set your own criteria for each piece — and you’ll have a much easier time making decisions when you come across something you love.
And don’t forget: That may mean, for certain pieces, you can live with any degree of damage or wear. At the end of the day, it’s not about the parameters that others set in place; it’s about what you love and what works in your home.
It was obvious from the get-go that, when shopping for The Six Bells, Gelman always has her eyes peeled for certain pieces. Not only is that a solid takeaway from our trip (i.e. decide your must-haves and always keep them in mind — it will make shopping much easier); her own list (part of which you’ll find ahead) is a great place to start if you’re looking to recreate the brand’s charming English cottage vibe.
“I’m always looking for spongeware,” was one of the very first things Gelman told me. She wasn’t kidding: I lost count of the amount of pretty, colorful pottery pieces she picked up throughout the day. For her, they’re the perfect double-duty items; not only are they able to serve as decoration when displayed on shelves and in cabinets, but they’re also functional for everyday use.
Gelman explained that quilts are a major priority when shopping, and I definitely noticed how much time she spent inspecting the stores’ selections. In fact, she says that “classic American quilts that are just white and red or white and blue” are one of her unicorn items (aka a piece that’s difficult to find but at the top of the shopping list). “Pristine ones are something I’m always looking for,” she shares. “Those are really rare and collectible, especially if they’re in good shape.”
Wooden Cutting Boards
Take a look at The Six Bells’ site, and you won’t be surprised to learn that Gelman’s on the perpetual hunt for wooden cutting boards. “I have so many different older vintage cutting boards; something about the really rich wood that’s aged is so beautiful in a kitchen,” she tells me. While, of course, you can find reproductions of antique styles in many stores, Gelman proved to me that the *actually* old ones are always better. Not only do the thrifted pieces have stunning, buttery wood, but there are also styles you’d likely never find in a big-box retailer today. Case in point: The bread-shaped board she discovered on our trip that had a “bite” carved out of the corner.