When it comes to home design and decor, everything old is new. From patterns and colours, to furniture and home layout, a lot of the current trends aren’t current at all. And while it’s easy to find a new Art Deco lamp at Target, or a midcentury-modern couch online, there are some parts of older homes that simply aren’t made anymore — like certain types of light fixtures, windows, mantles, and other architectural details.
But thankfully, they’re not necessarily extinct, thanks to architectural salvage shops. If you’ve never visited one before — or aren’t quite sure what they are — here’s a quick guide to how to shop at one.
What are architectural salvage stores?
Architectural salvage shops sell used items and parts from residential and commercial buildings that were removed either before demolition, or remodeling. For many people — whether architects, professional designers, or homeowners — the main draw is the possibility of finding historical treasures that are no longer manufactured, and/or would be prohibitively expensive to reproduce today.
There is a wide range of architectural salvage stores, from those that are high-end and have carefully curated merchandise (with prices to match), to those that more closely resemble an indoor flea market or junkyard (which are far more reasonable).
Sometimes, architectural salvage stores are affiliated with a nonprofit organisation, like Habitat for Humanity ReStores (they also sell furniture, appliances, and building materials) or Building Value in Cincinnati (which is operated by Easterseals), and tend to have prices on the lower end of the spectrum.
How to shop at architectural salvage stores
Here are a few things to keep in mind if architectural salvage shops are new to you:
Go in with realistic expectations (and an open mind)
If this is your first time shopping for architectural salvage, it helps to go in with some idea of what to expect. First of all, the inventory in these stores changes constantly, so just because you once saw a 1950s refrigerator there doesn’t mean they always have them in stock.
And while some architectural salvage shops do sell furniture and appliances, the main focus tends to be on parts and fixtures from a house or building — think mantlepieces, hardware for cabinetry, doors, entire windows and/or frames, sinks and other bathroom fixtures, handrails, mounted light fixtures, etc.
If you go in looking for a particular item, it’s entirely possible that they won’t have it in stock. But that doesn’t mean you’re entirely out of luck. Take a look around and keep an open mind: You never know what you might come across for your home that you hadn’t even thought of before.
Pay attention to an item’s condition
Although most items sold in architectural salvage shops are used (there can be some new stuff, like leftover building supplies), you still want to make sure that they’re functional; or, if they need some work, that it’s something you can do yourself (or are willing to pay someone else to do).
In an interview with Old House Journal, Bob Falk, co-author of Unbuilding: Salvaging the Architectural Treasures of Unwanted Houses, shared several strategies for assessing an item’s condition:
- For items made of wood: Are the species, patina, and finish a good match for your home? How weathered is the item, and do all the parts move easily?
- For painted wood: Proceed with caution — there’s a good chance it contains at least some lead-based paint, which is a health hazard.
- For doors and flooring: How many nail holes have been pounded into the wood over the years?
- For wooden flooring: Have the floorboards been re-sanded, and if so, how many times? Are there any breaks, splits, or other signs of rotting wood? Will the thicknesses of older floorboards work for your space?
- For everything: Check for missing pieces. According to Falk, “you can always find parts for the interior workings of an antique light fixture, but the ornamental bits are hard to match.”
If you’re not sure what something is or how to use it, ask an employee
For the most part, the people who work in architectural salvage shops are pretty passionate about what they do, and are more than happy to answer any questions you have — including “what is this?” Better yet, in addition to telling you about the original purpose of a piece, they’ll also likely be able provide suggestions of non-traditional ways to use it in your home (especially in DIY projects).
See if negotiating is on the table
Some architectural salvage shops are willing to negotiate prices with you; others aren’t. This is an important piece of information that you should know prior to heading to the checkout.
How do you know if a place is open to bargaining? In some cases, shops will include that information on their website. If not, check Yelp or other reviews to see if people have left comments about whether or not a particular store is willing to negotiate prices with customers.
If all else fails, ask someone who works there, saying something like “Is there any wiggle room on these prices” or “Are these prices firm?” The answer may be “no,” but at least you know.
Follow some shops on Instagram
Whether you’re completely new to architectural salvage or a long-time fan and customer, it can be helpful (and interesting) to see what kinds of items different shops across the country have in stock. That is in part because their inventory tends to reflect the local history, including the era of the city’s heyday, its primary industries, and the types of building materials that were most widely available in the area.
Even if you don’t live that in that area, and/or are able to buy this particular item, it’ll at least be on your radar. Plus, you’ll get ideas for how to use similar items that are locally available for you (or just find out what they are).