Simply Priceless: Travel, Treasure Hunting & Kijiji

One of the fun things we do as “everyday tourists” is to visit second-hand stores (both when we are away and at home) hunting for buried treasures (yes, they are often buried under or behind the other junk). It might be an artwork, vintage home décor item or even clothes. Sometimes we keep them, but most times we display and enjoy them for awhile and then sell them on kijiji.   

Brenda loves to find hidden gems, sometimes things look interesting but she is clueless as to what they are.  She then can spend hours looking for them and then hours researching them - half the fun is in the research!  Often it leads to fun travel back in time.  There is an “eureka moment” when she finds out what they are and their history.

But the fun doesn’t end there.  We both love the people we meet (even if for a just a few minutes at the door) and the stories they share with us about why they are purchasing the piece which often involves some more time travel. 

 Everyday Tourist's world headquarters Kijiji Division 

Everyday Tourist's world headquarters Kijiji Division 

FOR EXAMPLE 

Just this week I wandered into Brenda’s kijiji headquarters and on the floor was a vintage-looking licence plate.  Turns out that same day she was in a Calgary Salvation Army store and spotted an unusual looking license plate in the cart full of things a staff member was just putting out. 

Side story: Brenda is like a sniper when it comes to spotting treasures in the rough.  She loves second-hand stores that are full of junk where you really have to hunt. Who doesn’t like a challenge? 

In this case, she found a clean, mint condition, authentic, aluminum license plate from the Red Lake Indian Reservation in northwestern Minnesota. A little research uncovered the fact that Red Lake rejects state jurisdiction, so they issue their own license plates to tribal members without (like the several other Minnesota tribes that have special plates) having to go through the state licensing. Who knew?

She also learned that the numbering (0000) on her plate reflects the fact it was a sample license plate. The two, large blue “blobs” in the design represent the reservation’s two, large, linked lakes. 

If we ever get to Minnesota, we will be sure to check out Red Lake!

TRIP TO LAPLAND?

A few weeks back I get an email with a photo saying “Look what I found, with the sticker still on it!” It was a nice enough looking glass pitcher but I didn’t give it much thought. When I got home, Brenda was quick to “fill me in.”

Turns out is was a“Iittala Ultima Thule Ice Lip Pitcher.”  Inspired by the melting ice in Lapland and with its uncompromising and timeless design, this distinctive, mid-century modern piece is claimed to be responsible for company Iittala’s international breakthrough. Again, who knew! 

Designed in Finland in the late 1960s, to this day it continues to be made in Finland and be the company’s signature piece. Note: “Ultima Thule” makes reference to the furthest possible place in the world – and a product line name of Iittala’s. She bought it for $4, it retails for $200 and she listed it for $125. 

The profit won’t get us to Lapland, but it will buy us a nice dinner on our next trip.  

Note: This piece sold quickly for $100 to a young woman who bought it because it reminded her of her grandmother who had one and when she passed away her aunt got the grandmother's pitcher. She had been looking on kijiji for one for awhile.  More often than not, the treasures go to a good home.

BACK TO FLORENCE

I have gotten into the habit of wandering into her room on almost daily to see what she has found or taken out of “inventory”.  Last week I noticed a decorative gold tray and had to ask, “Where did you get that?” 

Turns out it is a vintage Italian Florentine Gilt Gold Wood Tray she picked up in Winnipeg two weeks back.  It was ironic as we were in Florence exactly two years ago, it brought back fond memories.

Back story: During the Renaissance, Florence was renowned throughout Europe as a centre of fine art, particularly in painting, gold gilding, bronze work, and furnishings inlaid with intricate designs in marble or rare wood. The fine craft traditions associated with some of these arts never entirely died out. A museum of decorative arts, opened in 1865, was pivotal in helping boost Florence's economy by promoting its crafts to tourists.  That tradition continues today with many such items as trays being a collector’s item today.  Too bad today’s souvenir tourist economy involves tacky throwaway items and not meaningful local craftwork.

This gem was posted on Kijiji as a 1940 slightly raised scalloped-edged tray (12”by 18”) that “would look beautiful for a touch of shabby chic to any space - on a coffee table, on a sideboard, on a vanity.”

She bought it for $3 and hopes to get $20.  It will be interesting to see who buys it and why?

VINTAGE SUITCASE

Speaking of Winnipeg, I knew she had lucked out in the Salvation Army on Sherbrook Street when she came up to me with a big smile and carrying a vintage cardboard suitcase.  Again, she had picked it up just as it was being taken out of the back room (timing is everything).  

She couldn’t wait to get some history on it - turns out it is probably from the 1930s or 1940s.  Now listed on kijiji, it is described as a two-tone brown cardboard suitcase with its silver-coloured metal accents (i.e. rivets, clasps and corners - with "Cheney" (of England) engraved on clasps), brown vinyl reinforced outer corners and brown plastic/metal handle, and lined with paper – in a fun, brown checked plaid pattern. A nice piece of shabby vintage chic for display purposes – and/or storage. Dimensions are: 22” x 11” x 7”. Clean (no smells), closes/opens well – in very good vintage condition (just some minor wear and scratches on the outer corners and interior paper lining). No key.”

She hopes to turn her $3 find into a $40 sale, which should pay for lunch on our next trip.

BACK TO MINNESOTA

Something tells me we are meant to go to Minnesota as another of her October finds is a signed handmade pottery vase 7” high x 4¼” diameter. Its maker is experienced and long time, American potter Chad Briggs of Minnesota. 

I don’t understand why anyone would settle for mass produced when you can have one-of-a-kind piece?  Bought for $2 in Okotoks and sold for $15 – that’s coffee and dessert somewhere in the future. 

PINK PYREX IS HOT, HOT, HOT....

Brenda didn’t realize what a great find she had when she brought home (again from Winnipeg) a Pink Daisy Casserole Dish w/Cover Lid a few weeks back. In the late 50s, this oblong“Space Saver” baking dish was promoted as being great for “storing leftovers in space-challenged kitchens and fridges” – not unlike how a marketer might promote it today to those living in small condos or apartments!

Her Kijiji ad read, “It comes complete with matching clear glass cover/lid. The white stylized daisies on the pretty pink background are oh-so-charming.” And bonus... not only is this a rather rare piece, but it is clean and in excellent condition (no chips, cracks, faded colour/pattern)... ready to display in your kitchen or be put to good use!”

This sold in 20 minutes (by a repeat customer) with a profit of $35, which should buy a nice bottle of wine on our next trip (probably to Minnesota).  She had dozens of inquires a few hours of listing. Lesson learned: pink P Pyrex is hot.   

LAST WORD

We are hardly going to get rich buying and selling these artifacts, but it is a revenue neutral hobby that fits nicely into our love of travel, research and people.  And the stories, laughs, tears (of joy) and even gifts (yes, was even given a gift from a particularly grateful customer) are well, simple priceless.  

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Half Price Books: Disneyland For Bibliophiles!

I love browsing used bookstores - you never know when you will find a hidden gem you didn’t know you needed.  Brenda loves to browse thrift stores and can do so for hours, but a typical thrift store book section for me is at best a 5-minute exercise. 

I knew I was in some place special when I saw this note on a bottom shelf almost as soon as I walked into HPB.

When researching Austin, we knew it had lots of thrift stores, what we didn’t know is it has the mother lode of bookstores. We only found that out when we parked our car2go at the Goodwill on North Lamar and I noticed next door was a big box store called “Half Price Books.”  It didn’t look anything special, just your typical suburban big box store with what I expected would be full of the typical publisher’s remainder books.

Backstory: Remainders are books that no longer sell in sufficient volume for a publisher to continue promoting economically. Therefore, the publisher sells whatever inventory they have on-hand to book remainders distributors and book wholesalers at deep discounts who then sell them to the public for as much as 90% off the publisher's suggested retail price. These books may still have a lot of life left and can be very profitable for Internet booksellers and brick and mortar retail stores. If chosen wisely, you can have a nearly inexhaustible supply of near perfect books acquired at bargain basement prices.

This was the smiling face that greeted me as I walked into the North Lamar HPB.

Boy was I wrong….

So I headed into Goodwill with Brenda and thought I’d check Half Price Books out once I had done my thrift store browsing.  Sure enough after about 15 minutes I said to B, “I’m heading over to the bookstore, see you in about 10 minutes.”

I first checked out the book bins outside and the prices were good and the selection was surprisingly interesting. Once inside, I had to give my head a shake, as the store was Disneyland for any book lover.  For those of you who live in Calgary, it is like Fair's Fair Books in Inglewood times 10 - maybe more.  And it works a bit like Fair's Fair with people selling them books for cash - there is no store credit option.

As you can see HPB is very serious about buying books and music.

Feeling the Love

I wandered in a daze for bit, trying to take it all in. Finally I asked, “Can I take pictures” as this was definitely blog worthy.  It took awhile, but I got permission and everyone was very helpful when I asked about books on urban planning, biographies, music and golf. 

When I went into the Rare Book section (the size of most used bookstores) I was greeted with “how may I help you” and she really meant it as she tried to find something that might interest me. I couldn’t believe the enthusiasm of the staff, everyone really loved their job.

However, I walked away empty handed, but full of lasting impressions. So much so, when I figured out Austin’s south side the Goodwill and HPB are across the street from each other I said, “We gotta go there before we leave.”

Two days later we were there for door opening.  And it was the same thing the staff were welcoming, knowledgeable and attentive.  This time I hit the mother lode for my book collection.  In the clearance section I found a first edition Ansel Adams biography by Mary Street Alinder. Guess how much? rallod eno (read backwards). But that is not all, it is signed by the author. 

This is the Clearance section in the South Lamar HPB where I found my steal of a deal. Thanks HPB. 

HPB 101

I decided to get in touch with HPB marketing, communications and public relations team to find out more about the history.  I provided them with a list of questions and within 24 hours Zachary Nash, Community Outreach Specialist Half Price Books North Lamar emailed me back with answers to all of my questions.  How impressive is that?

Everyday Tourist: Where is your biggest store?

Zachary: Our largest store by far is the flagship location on Northwest Highway in Dallas. It is 54,000 square feet and is also the location of HPB’s corporate offices.

As you can see, HPB is more like a library than a bookstore.  The shelves are all perfectly organized and books are clean and prices clearly marked. 

Everyday Tourist: How big is Austin’s North Lamar store?

Zachary: The North Lamar location is the second largest in the entire company, with about 20,000 square feet of bookstore goodness. It also sport the company’s only Rare Books Room, a special annex that houses rare, collectable, signed, first edition, and out of print books, records, and ephemera.

Also, North Lamar features a sizeable community space where we host various events, including author signings, independent publishing seminars, pet adoptions, figure drawing workshops, and virtually anything else for which our community might find reasonable use.

Just one of the many collector book displays. 

A rare book indeed.

Everyday Tourist: Where is your smallest store?

Zachary: Our store with the least square footage is a petite shop of 5,600 square feet located in the lovely town of Apple Valley, Minnesota.

The Children's section is bright and cheerful.

Everyday Tourist: What is the most valuable book the North Lamar store has ever sold?

To my memory, the highest priced, most exciting item we sold was a 1659 first edition of A True and Faithful Relation of What Passed for Many Years Between Dr. John Dee and Some Spirits. Dee was a mathematician, alchemist, occult philosopher/sorcerer, and advisor to Queen Elizabeth I.

The tome is a manuscript unearthed from his home and published by Meric Casaubon, whose apparent motives were to criticize and slander Dee. However, the book was a huge success and cemented Dee’s reputation as a legendary mystic.

We wound up selling it about a year ago to the owners of a private museum in England who intend to restore it to its original splendor using the book’s original plates.   

Yes there are good deals to be had.

Everyday Tourist: What is the strangest request you have received or questions asked? A funny story?

Zachary: We get some colorful characters at our location. Something about bookstores draws in personalities you might not encounter elsewhere in the world. I’ve seen people come here on dates, for meetings, or even just to kill an afternoon.

And we have regulars whose tastes we’ve gotten to know through their years of patronage, so like a good bartender who has your drink ready as soon as you walk in, we can often show off cool new merchandise tailored to their interests we know they’ll appreciate.

A strange request came about when I was recently stationed at our information counter. A woman approached me to ask if we had any books that would help her trap a ghost in a crystal. I wanted to help, because there’s obviously a fascinating story there and my curiosity was definitely piqued. I asked her if she knew what that technique was called, because that information might help me locate something for her.

She smiled and said, “I don’t know what it’s called, I just need to know how to do it.” At this point our employee who runs the Metaphysics section stepped in to help her sort out the request and I didn’t hear any more about it, but I like to think she was able to find a crystal big enough to suit her needs.

It really doesn’t take much effort on our part to keep Austin weird ‘round these parts.

Imagine selling books by the yard. That Pat is a genius.  

Everyday Tourist: Approximately how many books do you have in inventory at any given time for all of your stores? Records? Comics?

Zachary: Our inventory fluctuates in amount pretty frequently, but it’s usually over 200,000 items. Since we buy the majority of our stock directly from the public, our merchandise changes daily.

I do know that last year HPB donated over a million books to schools, charities, and non-profits, and our inventory did not suffer, so we’ve got plenty of goods to go around.

And I know serious record and comic collectors who shop our stores on the regular because it’s almost guaranteed they’ll find an elusive gem in our stacks. I think one of the best things about our merchandise is that we carry materials that simply do not exist anymore. In addition to the more traditional printed and recorded materials available, we also stock VHS tapes, 8-track and standard cassettes, and laserdiscs.

Some things go out of print almost immediately, and you have virtually no chance of finding them again at other stores. But you can find them at Half Price Books. And we can search our entire chain-wide inventory and ship books from any location, so for instance, if you’re a diehard Golden Girls fan, we can track down Rue McClanahan’s My First Five Husbands…And the Ones Who Got Away for you. I just checked, and as I write this there are at least eleven copies available. Incredible.

Another example of one of the shelves to give you an appreciation of the quality and diversity of the books available. 

Everyday Tourist: What book do you currently have the most copies of?

Zachary: I really don’t know! We have lots of books and the amounts of individual titles fluctuates as they sell. I do know that some current hot sellers are The Girl on the Train, the Martian and To Kill a Mockingbird.

Everyday Tourist: Any other fun fact, figures etc. would be great.

Zachary: Ken Gjemre and Pat Anderson cofounded our company in 1972 in a renovated Laundromat stocked with books from their personal libraries in Dallas, TX.

I’ve heard that Pat was a brilliant woman who used pencils all the way down to nubs, with fully intact erasers because there was never need to correct her work. They have some of her pencils at the corporate offices.

The company is still family-owned, with Pat’s daughter Sharon steering the ship.  She goes by her nickname, Boots.

I’ve heard that Michael Jackson once arranged a shopping spree at Austin’s Northwest Highway store sometime in the 1990s, arrived after hours in sunglasses and spent thousands of dollars on art books (rumour, but from a good source).    

Oh, and some of our employees are gifted authors. Kate DiCamillo, who wrote Because of Winn-Dixie is a former HPB employee. My coworker Dale Bridges published an excellent collection of short stories called Justice, Inc., which has been a best seller out of our Local Authors consignment section.

Everyday Tourist: How big is HPB’s inventory?

Zachary: Chain wide we have more than 20 million items. We’d estimate at any given time we have about 14,000,000 books, 775,000 comics and 470,000 records, the remainder being cards, dolls and other collector items. 

HPB should also be called Half Price Music.

While there are lots of chairs around some people just make themselves at home and sit on the floor. 

Last Word

When researching other cities to visit in the USA, I will be sure to check the HPB site to see if they have a store in that city, or if on road trip I will see what HPB are on the way. I am not sure I can call a 20,000 square foot store a hidden gem, but HPB seems like a hidden gem to me. 

I am not usually a big fan of chain store, but in the case of HPB I will make an exception. In both of the stores I visited, they seemed more like independent local stores than impersonal, cookie-cutter, big box stores. 

I should also give thanks to car2go as without a car I doubt we would have ventured as far out of the City Centre as need to get to Half Price Books.  Full Disclosure: car2go gave us free minutes to use while in Austin in return for tweeting about our adventures. 

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