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You Can Find Rad Vintage Clothes and Jewelry at Those Massive Antique Malls

Here's how to cut through the junk.

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A display of vintage Chanel jewelry Photo: Coveteur/Trunk Archive

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Let’s get one thing straight: An antique mall is a very different beast than an antique store. They may seem the same in your brain (i.e. a store stuffed with old things, and a world full of wonder and magic), but they’re not. Antique malls are usually much larger than your typical vintage store, which can make it very daunting to shop them. And though you might consider antique malls a dusty mass of towering aisles full of creepy Victorian dolls and broken-down Liberace furniture you’ll have to dig through to get a single soft tee, these places can be so much more.

You’ve probably seen them off the highway in your small hometown — sometimes they’re in barn-like buildings or multiple units of strip malls. They’re big because they function on a vendor system; this means that rather than a single shop proprietor, multiple sellers rent out smaller spaces within the malls and upkeep their areas as though they were a single shop.

Most vendors sell a lot homewares, but they often also sell pieces of clothing and accessories that are particularly special. When searching, keep in mind that vendors at antique malls often focus on the quality and history of their clothing, and pay special attention to brands. The vendors rarely take donations, and spend a huge amount of time amassing product, picking through estate sales and their secret sources. Vendors often only put out the cream of their crop, so finding the perfect cocktail dress or set of lucite bangles is a little tougher than finding the perfect antique armoire.

But it can be done, if you know how to look; here are a few tricks of the trade.


Be Specific

Malls are great places to go if you have a specific era of clothing you always look for. Clothes at vintage malls are often really special pieces, as many malls really focus on furniture and ephemera. This means that the majority of items you are going to want to buy are not ugly Christmas sweaters or other items you can easily find at your local Goodwill, but actually worth the time you put in searching through miles of commemorative plates and old Life magazines.

Know what you want before you go in; having a specific style in mind helps to weed through the stuff you really don’t need.


Know the Difference Between a Vendor Number and a Price

Price tags at antique malls usually have two different numbers on them: one is a vendor number, and the other is the price. And for whatever reason, it’s somewhat rare that vendors will put actual dollar signs on their tags to indicate price.

More often than not, the price is the bigger number, but that isn’t a foolproof method. Sometimes, there will be a third number, which is going to be that specific vendor’s inventory number; often those are six digits. To figure it out, compare nearby tags to see which number is on both — that one is the vendor number, and the other is going to be your price. Don’t worry if you don’t like what you see, because everything’s a little bit negotiable.


Know the Lingo

There are certain acronyms you should always know when looking around a vintage mall, because many vendors use these terms to denote certain rules in their spaces. Here are a few:

OBO, Or Best Offer: Similar to eBay, this means the price is somewhat negotiable, particularly on higher-priced items. Usually, it means the vendor has had it for a while and is trying to move it, so keep this in mind when you make your offer. If you do want to haggle, remember that the owner of the space is not necessarily in the store and it may take a little time for the proprietor of the shop to contact the vendor. But don’t fret — it’s often worth the wait.

ND, No Discount: This means that even if the vendor is having a sale throughout their space, items marked with ND do not apply.

NFS, Not For Sale: Exactly what it says. You’ll see NFS on display pieces such as shelves, dress forms, or other items that are holding pieces they want you to buy. Rarely, you can make an offer and a vendor will sell it to you, but don’t count on it.


Find a Primer to Compare Prices

Going to a place with various vendors means they all sell their stuff at an amount they see fit, so expect prices to vary considerably. This is why it’s always good to have a specific item that most vendors carry — a primer — that you can compare from seller to seller to get an idea of what the booth’s price range is.

Even if you’re shopping for clothing, you can use anything as a primer. Mine is Fiestaware — you know, those brightly-colored dishes from the ‘70s. If the Fiestaware is on the expensive side, that fur coat is probably going to be as well. But if it’s cheap, like under $5, I’m going to take my time and dig through that box of fabric, because you never know.


Test for Authenticity

Antique malls are literal gold mines for awesome vintage jewelry. If you’re looking for something special, here are a few tests you can use to figure out if something is real.

Gold and silver: To do this right, you need to bring a few things with you, specifically a magnet and some sort of small magnifying glass. For starters, gold and silver aren’t magnetic, so if they stick to one, you know it’s probably plated. A loop or magnifying glass is handy to check for stamps on the undersides of jewelry. “Silver is usually always marked 9.25, 600, or 800, depending on the percent of silver,” says Omaima Wolf, the owner of Seattle vintage store Beats and Bohos. But when you’re looking for gold, “be wary that you could find something marked improperly, which is way more common with gold than it is with silver.”

Bakelite: In the 1930s, Coco Chanel introduced Bakelite to high-end fashion, but the material — which is commonly found today in billiard balls and specialty game pieces — is often mistaken for plastic. “Check for any molding seams. If it does have seams, it’s not bakelite. Bakelite was carved, not molded,” says Wolf. Also, a simple heat test works well if you still can’t tell. “Rub it firmly with enough friction to warm up the plastic,” Wolf explains. “If it gives off a stinky chemical smell, it's real!”