Sec­ond-Hand Shop­per

One man’s savvy strat­egy for lux­ury style on a dime

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ICONFESS, I some­times wear dead peo­ple’s clothes. You got a prob­lem with that? On an other­wise aim­less Satur­day af­ter­noon, my friend In­grid – who hap­pens to live in a condo in one of Canada’s wealth­i­est neigh­bour­hoods, Toronto’s For­est Hill – phoned to let me know there was a base­ment sale at an Angli­can church near her.

Don’t know how I’d missed it, but get­ting there late meant ex­peri- enc­ing one of the great tra­di­tions of rummage sales: the fill-up-a-garbage-bag-for-$10 fi­nal half-hour. As ex­pected, even the rem­nants of the castoffs of the one per cent were a cut above. I snagged prac­ti­cally new gloves, a Nike ath­letic shell, a Hockey Canada wind­breaker, a cash­mere scarf and then …

It was the Holt Ren­frew la­bel that caught my eye. A rust-coloured cash­mere-blend Canali jacket that looked like it had never been worn. It fit per­fectly. Into the bag it went.

My wife, Bianca, stud­ied fash­ion in col­lege and worked in clothes buy­ing early on. And she was wide-eyed. She Googled Canali and dis­cov­ered the jacket had been at least $1,500 new. It was the kind of de­signer schmatte I’d ad­mire in GQ and then laugh when I saw the sug­gested re­tail price. I’ve worn it to events since, and it’s drawn com­pli­ments and a lot of ad­mir­ing fab­ric “feels.”

I’m talk­ing well-heeled peo­ple like Galen We­ston who hap­pens to own Holt Ren­frew, and Ge­orge Co­hon

of McDon­ald’s Canada. So, I imag­ined the jacket was re­ceived as a gift by some­body who maybe didn’t like the colour or fit and thought noth­ing of toss­ing it to char­ity.

“Or maybe they died,” Bianca added help­fully.

All very pos­si­ble. As yard-salers and es­tate-salers since the ’80s, we have in­her­ited an aw­ful lot of dead peo­ple’s stuff at fire-sale prices – clothes, paint­ings, fur­nish­ings, gar­den pieces, ob­jets d’art. Some­times we come up empty, but snag­ging “stuff” is only part of the rea­son we do it. We reg­u­larly see parts of the city and neigh­bour­hoods we’d never other­wise have an ex­cuse to visit.

And, par­tic­u­larly at es­tate sales, we get a glimpse of lives. Re­cently, through an on­line vin­tage tech site, I bought a vac­uum tube that brought a 1955 AM/FM ra­dio back to life. The es­tate sale at which we bought the ra­dio was full of an­cient elec­tron­ics, TVs, gui­tar am­pli­fiers, “hi-fis.” (For some rea­son, the late owner also pos­sessed ev­ery episode on DVD of the ’60s sit­coms Be­witched and Get Smart.) We tour their homes and pos­ses­sions and dis­cover tin­ker­ers, handy­men (handyper­sons?), seam­stresses (seam­sters?) and fit­ness nuts.

Any­way, I like to think I brought a lit­tle bit of the pre­vi­ous owner’s spirit back to life when the 63-yearold Pana­sonic be­gan play­ing with a warm, rich sound.

The most un­ex­pected thing we ever un­earthed from an es­tate sale was an en­ve­lope taped to the bot­tom of a drawer. It con­tained 10 crisp ’80s vin­tage $100 bills. We’d bought the chest of draw­ers for one of our young sons’ rooms, and it had sat in that room for two years be­fore Bianca dis­cov­ered the taped trea­sure. We couldn’t even re­mem­ber where we’d bought it, but I think we paid $20 for it.

Why would some­one hide a thou- sand dol­lars un­der a drawer? It turns out hid­ing bits of money for a rainy day is not un­com­mon among the el­derly. I re­cently helped a friend empty out her re­cently de­ceased grand­fa­ther’s apart­ment, and we found nu­mer­ous $20 bills slipped in and be­tween books and CDs.

In any case, the C-notes caused a com­mo­tion at the bank, as em­ployee af­ter em­ployee de­manded to see the an­cient pa­per notes. Some of our other favourite“finds ”: A plas­ter bust of Shakespeare that – ac­cord­ing to the pa­per that came with it – is one of three “stud­ies” for one that sits in bronze at Strat­ford. We picked this up at the Rosedale es­tate sale for the mother of the ac­tress Di­nah Christie. Bianca, who is ob­sessed with old fab­ric, had re­peated vis­its there. In ac­tion, she will chat up the rel­a­tives and ask ques­tions like, “So did this be­long to your mother? Oh, your grand­mother!” (Eyes light up).

A line draw­ing by the late fig­ure-skat­ing leg­end and painter Toller Cranston. The seller was “a good friend of his,” who needed the money.

From the es­tate sale of an an­tique store owner, a 19th-cen­tury oil-on­board paint­ing of dead game birds hang­ing, signed and in the style of the British artist Edgar Hunt. It could be real. It could be a copy. I may wait for An­tiques Road­show to come to town to fi­nally get it ap­praised.

A brand new king-size Beau­tyrest mat­tress with mem­ory foam. Still in the plas­tic. The con­tents clear out at this new-ish house was de­scribed as “a mov­ing sale.” But who buys a new $2,000 bed and then leaves it un­opened when they move? Our best guess – a quick di­vorce (there were kids’ rooms, too). Di­vorce was said to also be the mo­ti­va­tor be­hind a con­tents sale in the big­gest home we ever “saled” – a 30,000-square foot house in King City, Ont., with a dol­phin­sculp­ture foun­tain out front. Judg­ing by clos­ets of clothes left be­hind, the man of the house had a 30-inch leg and a 40- to 42-inch waist. Tony So­prano, maybe?

And liv­ing in “Hol­ly­wood North” adds an­other wrin­kle to our bar­gain hunt­ing. Ev­ery­thing Must Go prop and wardrobe sales fol­low the wrap of movies shot here and the can­cel­la­tion of long-run­ning TV shows. (A $200 Zegna shirt for $10? Got it.)

The best prop sale ever in this city was un­doubt­edly the one that fol­lowed the can­cel­la­tion of the North Amer­i­can ver­sion of the ca­ble se­ries Queer as Folk, which ran from 2000 to 2005. That’s five years of wardrobe for five well­dressed gay char­ac­ters and their friends (to say noth­ing of taste­ful Euro­pean fur­ni­ture and house­wares). The sale was held in an air­plane-hangar-sized ware­house in the city’s west end. Fans of the show even had the op­por­tu­nity to buy clothes worn by their favourite ac­tors (sev­eral racks of clothes were sorted by char­ac­ter).

It’s ob­vi­ously been a while since that sale. I re­mem­ber buy­ing a pair of shoes for $20. They were Ital­ian.

The au­thor in his lux­ury es­tate finds

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