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Larimore, N.D., woman shares her love of vintage finds

Michel Starnes, Larimore, N.D. with a collection of her vintage "finds" she sells on Grand Forks Herald photo by John Stennes.

The modern, beige area rug on the living room floor might be the only new thing in Michel Starnes' home, but every piece of furniture and decor has a story.

The old, crocheted bedspread displayed on an ornate quilt rack at the foot of her bed was inherited from her mother, who got the intricate piece of work from an auction when Michel was a young girl.

"I remember seeing it on a bed for all of a week and then it came right down, got boxed up and put away because it was so delicate," Michel said. "It was so feminine and beautiful and my mom thought, 'Oh, I don't want you kids to ruin it.'"

When Michel was visiting several years ago, her mother pulled the blanket out and gave it to her.

"I thought 'how can this even be here still,'" she said. "It felt like a hay-type of material. It was gorgeous. I have that in my home now.

The needlepoint picture hanging on the wall has its own story. Michel found it at a garage sale many years ago. The wood and canvas were yellowed and stained, but the saying, "Let me live in a house by the side of the road and be a friend to man," caught Michel's eye.

"The saying on it just stirred me," she said.

She bought the piece for $3, took it home and spent several days working on it. She hand-washed the needlepoint and set it in cleaning solution, wringing it out and replacing it several times.

"Then, I brought the frame in the house," she said. "It came out beautiful, and I'm like, 'I'm so glad I bought you.' For $3, it makes me so happy."

Natural born picker

Since Michel was a young girl, she remembers going to garage sales and auctions. First, it was to please her parents. Then, in her 20s it was to furnish her new home. Now, it's to find new pieces for her vintage Etsy shop, LarimoreLife.

Michel and her husband Daniel, who live between their two homes in Larimore, N.D., and Sarasota, Fla., attend auctions, garage sales, estate sales and flea markets as often as they can, looking for old, aeronautical pieces, house wares and rare items. She describes herself as a natural born picker and said when she sees something that she's interested in she gets tunnel vision.

"You start watching the crowd to make sure nobody is looking at what you're looking at because if it's an auction, you're bidding on it," she said. "Then, you have to look not too interested."

She said she will nudge Daniel and inconspicuously tell him to check out the item.

"I'll go, 'don't look now but at 11 o'clock, you see that helmet?' and he'll go, 'Oh, that's a WWII helmet,'" she said. "Everybody has specifics that they look for."

Research opens up new world

Daniel is a pilot for Customs and Border Patrol in Grand Forks, so he is interested in old aeronautical pieces, toy planes and helicopters. If they come across a piece at an auction or sale, he typically knows about how much it is worth and how much he is willing to spend for it.

Michel, on the other hand, is interested in dishes, home decor and house wares -- useful and purposeful things, she said.

When she finds something she is really interested in, she will purchase it and sometimes do the research later.

She said she once found a beautiful China Set at an estate sale. An elderly man in his late 80s was selling his late wife's dishes. He told Michel, "That's my wife's good China, and we only used it on special occasions," she said.

She bought the set for $50 and planned to use them later. When she got home, she started researching the dishes and discovered the set had come from France in the late '50s or '60s.

"When you really like something, you start really researching it, and, all of a sudden, this whole other world opens up to you," she said.

She realized the China set was worth a lot more than she had paid, so she decided to sell it and made more than $1,000 profit.

"I thought, hmm, I can use the money now," she said, with a laugh. "There will be another China set."

'Find your niche and stick with it'

A lack of knowledge about an item doesn't always come out in her favor though. Michel recalled an auction she attended this summer, where she bid against a painter for a brand new tub of spackle. She wound up winning with a $12 bid. She later approached the painter and asked why he didn't bid higher.

"He looks at me and goes, 'I could have got it cheaper at Menards for what you paid for it,'" she said with a laugh. "That's why you have to bid on things you know well. Find your niche and just stick with that."

Since Michel started selling her vintage finds on eBay and Etsy about 15 years ago, she said her knowledge of vintage has increased exponentially. There are still times when she unknowingly overpays, but she and Daniel have one rule: no regrets.

"You buy what you like, and if you can't sell it, no regrets," she said. "You have it in your house, and you can use it still. If it doesn't sell, it's OK. If you lost money on it, it's OK."

The items that don't sell on Michel's Etsy shop also can be added to her collection for the store front she and her husband hope to have some day. She said she wants to open up a small store of antiques and retro stuff with coffee and pastries in a small town near Grand Forks.

But, for now, Michel said it's all just a hobby.

"Some people love playing tennis, going to movies or fixing their car; for me, I go hunting," she said. "It's a great adventure; you just never know what you'll find."

Maki covers Arts & Entertainment and Life & Style for the Herald and can be reached at (701) 780-1122, (800) 477-6572, ext. 1122; or

Jasmine Maki
Jasmine Maki is a features reporter for Accent. Her main beats are arts and entertainment and life and style. She also occasionally covers health, family and TV.
(701) 780-1122