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Treasure hunting with Rachel Ashwell

Rachel Ashwell, the creator of Shabby Chic design shares pro tips on shopping the flea market.

blueberry_crates-10 Floral fabrics give old boxes a classic Shabby Chic look.
Credit: All images by Wynn Miller & Cathy Mogull

Even though it’s been 15 years since Rachel Ashwell’s “Shabby Chic: Treasure Hunting & Decorating Guide” was released, the queen of thrifting still sees people walking around flea markets with the classic tome in hand.

“It’s become a little bit of a flea market bible,” she admits.

Well, navigating those antique-filled aisles just got a bit easier as HarperCollins recently re-released the book in paperback. To further help your scavenging adventures, we checked in with Ashwell for tips on scoring the best trinkets and treasures.

Early bird gets the worm
“Start early. Be there the minute the market is open, if not before. You gotta find those treasures and if you snooze, you lose.”

Have a game plan
“When I go clothes shopping I get overwhelmed if I don’t have my shopping list and end up coming back with nothing. If you’re a specific shopper, then have items in mind.”

Measure beforehand
“Know the size of a table or cabinet you’re looking for, and not just the size of where it’s going live, but how it’s going get there. There’s nothing worse than measuring for a beautiful, big cabinet but it has to go through a teeny hallway.”

RachelAshwell “Flea market shopping is not instant gratification. It’s not Pottery Barn or Restoration Hardware, where you go online and you click and buy 12 things. But I find it the most pleasurable way to shop. In the end, you have collections of pieces with meaning and uniqueness.”

Note the vendor’s location
“If you buy something and want to pick it up later, make sure you write down where you’re going to pick it up from, because, at the end of the day, all those aisles look the same. And write down a phone number!”

When to negotiate
“Before I even look at a tag, I ask myself, ‘What’s the most I’ll pay for that mirror?’ So I already know where the price needs to be. If it’s higher than that price, I’ll ask respectfully, ‘I’m sure it’s worth that, but for my purpose I can only pay $50. I don’t want to insult you, but I’d love to buy it for that. If not, no hard feelings.’”

Don’t go crazy with tchotchkes
“As long as an item is beautiful and functional — meaning as long it gets used. I can’t bear curiosity cabinets that are just filled with pretty things that are never going to get used. So make sure it has a purpose before you buy it.”

A little paint does wonders
“I like to find things that have authentic paint on them. I love the original patina. But obviously, if you go to garage sales, you can find these huge tables or cabinets that cost nothing because they’re an awful dark mahogany. Paint can really go a long way with bringing something back to life.”

ShabbyTreasure pb c

Get lamps checked professionally
“No matter what, I always get any vintage lamps and lights checked by a professional, even if they’ve been re-wired. I still go that extra mile just to make certain.”

Watch out for fake distressed pieces
“To me there’s nothing worse than seeing a fake distressed piece where every bit of it is full of flaky paint. There’s a very authentic way that something becomes distressed. It should be distressed in the appropriate places. On a table, chances are it’s going be around certain edges and on the top. Legs on a table don’t usually get that beaten up, so think about it intelligently. ‘If this is going to get beaten up, where would those spots be?’”

Spruce up your finds
“When I find authentic pieces I like to embrace it’s authenticity, i.e. its finish. Then I like to give it a little bit of a new life with perhaps some new or vintage hardware. Also, make sure to clean items well first. I use a big bucket with warm water and soapy suds with a sponge. Sometimes drawers or cabinets are very musty. Try lining them with wallpaper, that gives it a nice fresh feel.”

vintage_turq_table-4 Rachel Ashwell says her favorite place to flea market in the U.S. is
Round Top, Texas.

Shopping tips
Great items to scour flea markets for:

• Wall mirrors

• Lamps, chandeliers

• Cabinetry

• Mixed-matched china

• Candlesticks

• Glassware

 
 
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