Barbara Ann Hughes readily admits to having an addiction.
"I like a lot of stuff -- the more stuff the better. My philosophy is that you can never have too much stuff," Hughes said, employing a level of unflinching eye contact that leads you to believe that she means business.
If her ranch-style house in Town and Country, Mo., is a testament, she will not be content until walking the generous floor plan is difficult. Still, Hughes' taste is evident. Her furnishings tend toward items that look like British colonial-era Asian imports. She favors dark carved woods, sophisticated prints and rich fabrics.
But you're likely to find a few eclectic surprises thrown into the mix. The only thing you'll be hard-pressed to find are items that Hughes bought for the full retail price.
She considers retail a last resort, and there are precious few items in her 1,600-square-foot home that would fit into the category.
Hughes said she loves the thrill of bargain hunting. She's so avid that she keeps a running list of annual charity rummage sales at local churches and private schools. She updates the list religiously and keeps contact numbers on file. Her day planner is a who's who of charity rummage sales.
"If I find out that I missed a good sale, I just feel sick," Hughes said.
To augment her passion for shopping, she occasionally mounts a sale of her own at a local flea market. But even on days when she's selling, she can't stop herself from taking off for an hour or so to shop.
Interior designer C.J. Knapp of CJ Knapp Interiors of Pacific, Mo., insists that bargain shopping, bartering and salvaging just makes sense. She gets a designer's discount, so she has no qualms about buying new, but she loves a bargain.
Knapp said that getting a really good price on an item that normally sells for much more feels like an accomplishment, not all her clients can afford a $60,000 kitchen.
"We call it 'junking it' in the industry," Knapp said.
Recently, she put her design credibility where her mouth is by furnishing a show-house room almost exclusively with charity-shop finds. She decked out a fully furnished casual dining room for the Maplewood Show Home with just $983, including table, chairs, chandelier, rug, oil painting, drapes and an array of dishware and decorative accessories.
She could have easily furnished the room for 10 times the price, but Knapp said that she wanted to do something realistic yet clever and stylish.
"If you mix it in, who knows what's the good stuff and what's the cheap stuff," Knapp said. "It's not what you buy, it's the eye you buy with."
In the entrance to the room, Knapp included a sheet listing all the thrift shops where she made her purchases and a handout titled "10 Tips for Shopping Cheap & Chic."
Knapp advises shoppers to "never, ever buy something chipped or broken unless you love it." And, yes, she has fallen in love with more than a few blemished items, but never anything she couldn't repair quickly and easily. Most items just need a coat of paint, such as the $15 chandelier in the show house that she spray-painted white and converted into a "candelier" with handy attachments that screw into the light sockets to hold tapered candles or tea lights.
The table and four chairs cost $125 at Goodwill Industries and also required a thick coat of white paint to transform the scratched pecan finish. She made the drapery from $6-a-yard discontinued fabric and acquired the trim for $1-a-bolt in a discount bin at Michaels. The most expensive items were two stools she included to make the room look more casual and increase seating around the table. The stools were $150 each and attractive enough that Knapp purchased them despite the fact that she didn't receive a designer's discount or sale price.
"I'm still a little mad about that," she said.
The dishes, teapots and other items that decorated the table, niches and a shelf circling the room ranged from bone china to dollar-store finds.
But unlike Hughes, Knapp is a strong proponent of restraint. She advises shoppers not to buy more than they can use.
"You don't want to crowd your house with so much greatness that it looks like you live in a junk store," Knapp said.
Hughes, on the other hand, believes that if she loves it, she'll find room for it, even if she has to put something else in storage to accommodate it.
Ask to see her garage, second guest room or basement, and she grimaces. The rooms are literally stuffed to the ceiling with items that will be included in future decorating schemes. She has two 18- to 20-foot-long canoes that she plans to hang from the ceiling of a basement game room one day. The canoes are waiting in the garage. The basement has yet to be finished. Hughes said that it's never too early to start collecting.
She started amassing the stove, range hood and oven that will be the centerpiece of her yet-to-be renovated kitchen five years ago.
"I'm sure the warranty is up on most of the appliances," she admits with a laugh.
If it's a deal, Hughes said it's worth the wait. The problem is that no matter how much of a bargain she gets on the items, she's not prepared to skimp on the installation and rehabbing. That means waiting until the money is available. She happily held onto a $300 pedestal sink and toilet constructed of British porcelain until a bathroom renovation was mounted years later.
Hughes and her husband are just now finishing putting on their house vintage shutters with a topiary cutout that they purchased from the Habitat for Humanity ReStore about 10 years ago.
Knapp said that it is the frequent browser who gets the best finds. She knows it's hard, but she advises people not to buy something every time they shop. But she preaches that you should be prepared just in case. She has a system for shopping that includes a bag stocked with house measurements and a measuring tape.
But her best tip is to go when the most new items are hitting the shelves. She likes Fantastic Finds in Bellerive Plaza, 12778 Olive Boulevard, in St. Louis, and tries to hit it on Tuesday morning, because it is closed on Monday and uses that day to restock with new donations.
Even at bargain prices, an added markdown will always attract a second look, Knapp said. She had a six-piece place setting of delicate china on her Maplewood show-house table that was originally on sale for a worthwhile but unattractive $100 at the St. Vincent De Paul Society of St. Louis thrift store. She bought it after the set had been slashed to $16.95.
Knapp isn't shy about asking about frequent-buyer cards and using her barely senior status to shop on senior Tuesdays at a collection of thrift stores along Forest Park Avenue.
Hughes, on the other hand, prefers flea markets and the thrill of haggling. She starts by politely asking if the prices marked are "firm" before she offers a counterbid.
Some sellers respond better to cutting deals if you're buying more than one item, she said. Although Hughes has secured many rock-bottom prices on items, she said she's not overly aggressive about finagling the absolute lowest price.
"I'm not here to insult them," Hughes said. If she really wants it, then she's not going to nickel-and-dime. Ultimately, it's worth what you're willing to pay for it. So you may pay $1 for one teapot and $10 for something nearly identical because it has a raised fleur-de-lis image on it.
Hughes said that her friends used to tease her relentlessly for going to garage sales. They wanted her to shop at the malls and boutiques. The perception was that she was buying junk. Then they noticed that she was filling her home with beautiful finds for a fraction of the cost that they were paying.
"Now they all want to ride with me when I go to rummage sales," she said.
Hughes even has the validation of owning a few items appraised highly by the experts at the "Antiques Roadshow" when they made a visit to Columbus, Ohio. She has more than a few items that could sell for prices in the four figures that she paid only a pittance to have. Among her possessions is a pair of beaded moccasins that her mother purchased from the Missouri Historical Society's flea market. The moccasins were appraised at $600 about 10 years ago.
But finding such treasures is not what motivates her. "A lot of people are out to make a killing, but I just want to decorate my house," said Hughes, who uses her furnishings as a never-ending topic of conversation. Visitors can't look at something or touch an item that doesn't have an elaborate story attached to it about where she found it, what she paid, what it's worth and why she loves it.
But she admits that her addiction has its pitfalls: "I've come home with some clunkers before."