A Solid Foundation
The altar surface itself is one of the most overlooked parts of the pagan or magician’s altar, and yet one of the most important. Sure, you can cover almost anything with an altar cloth, but if your altar is too small, too awkward, or badly made, it’ll bother you every time you try to work or pray. Better to invest in a good piece of furniture if you have the money and the space, and start with a solid foundation that you enjoy looking at.
If you have a vehicle, or a friend with a vehicle, your options are much wider here than they might be otherwise. If you’ve got good public transport and a solid luggage cart, however, nightstands, end-tables and other medium-range furniture may be an option for you. Pay attention to the sidewalks on the route between your favorite thrift store and your home, and plan accordingly.
If you live in a city, options like Freecycle, Craigslist and the ol’ reliable side of the road can turn up beautiful, solid furniture for zero dollars. It can take longer, but if you have no money to spare, it’s an option that will still turn up good furniture in your budget. Don’t be afraid to ask the deities you’re planning to honor for help, either.
Assuming you have fifteen or twenty dollars to spend and a vehicle to get it home in, a much wider variety of options open up to you. Before you go to the thrift store, however, take stock of where that altar is going to go. Do you have room for a full piece of furniture, or are you looking for a tabletop piece? If you have no space at all, maybe you’re in search of something you can hang on the wall. Either way, you’ll be much happier if you go in knowing what you need. Go ahead and get out the tape measure if you’ve got a very specific space to fill. Nobody wants to come home with something they’re in love with and find out it’s off by an inch.
In addition to standing furniture, I have altars built on wall-mounted shelves and set up inside of large jewelry-boxes repurposed to hold tools. I've even used framed art or wall-hung wreaths as the base of shrines before. If you can't get a large piece home, you still have options.
When you’re looking at a piece in the store, make sure you check it thoroughly. Does it wobble? Are the drawers or hinges solid? If it has stains, can they be cleaned easily? Don’t be afraid to look beyond your initial idea of furniture as well – shelf units are generally found among the tchotchkes, for example, and are great when you don’t have much space. Outdoor furniture may be kept separately in the store, but can make for excellent small altar tables. Coffee tables, end tables, small kitchen tables, desks, nightstands, bookshelves, dressers, sewing machine tables… virtually any piece of furniture that’s flat can be repurposed for an altar. Keep an open eye and you’ll soon have more altars than you know what to do with.
Once you’ve got your table, desk, cabinet, or shelf, the next step is to put things on it.
Candles are probably the things I’ve spent the most time looking for secondhand. Unlike almost everything else someone might want to keep on an altar, you’re never really done buying candles. I *could* go down to Ikea and pick up tealights (and at $3 for a hundred or whatever, it’d probably be cheaper overall) but I often find much nicer candles than I would otherwise buy this way. I’ve been a big fan of candles since way back when I was still living with my parents. I still like to swap out candle holders pretty often; I find it’s a good way to brighten up the altar without spending a lot of money or having to find space for new things.
I find estate sales are often overpriced when it comes to candles. I’m not sure why – probably because there’s a surplus at the Goodwill but not necessarily in someone’s house, so they price closer to the market value new. Yard sales, on the other hand, tend to have the very best prices on candles and candle holders because the people getting rid of them see them are things that take up space and not as tools. I’ve found bags or boxes of tealights – the nicer, colored ones with decent scents – for as little as a quarter at yard sales.
You will find some already-burned candles secondhand, and those are definitely going to be harder to use magically. I wouldn’t recommend them unless you have a very good reason to pick that candle otherwise (say if it was a really unusual design that is otherwise perfect for something you had in mind) and you have the time and spoons to purify it before using it. In general, though, you’ll find plenty of unburned candles and there’s no need to bother using something that’s already been burned.
I've also seen plenty of battery-powered faux candles lately, in a variety of styles, from the vintage Christmas window look to realistic ones with wax coatings and flickering light. If you don't feel safe with live flame or you have allergy issues with some candle materials, these can be a good substitute.
If you find yourself thrifting often, you’ll soon discover that your favorite kind of color magic is the kind where one color tag is on sale for half off. Keeping an eye out for the sales in your thrift store of choice will often net you some good deals. In my area of the country, most stores change their sale color on Sunday, so that’s the day you’ll find the widest selection of merchandise on sale. Most stores won’t tell you which color is next, but it only takes a few weeks of keeping track to know for sure. If you know the candle holder you’re looking at will be half price next week, you can make a more informed decision about buying it.
Estate Sales and Disir
Estate sales feel different from other kinds of secondhand shopping to me. Yard sales, you're buying the stuff from the owner, and they're happy to see it go. At the thrift store, things are no longer attached to their former owner most of the time.
At an estate sale, though, you get a sense of the person who lived there. They may be in a retirement facility or a hospice or just moved, or they may have passed away, but there's usually a lingering personality in the home. This is someone who is passing their things onto you, and so I take that moment to honor them as a kind of ancestor, and as a dedicated secondhand shopper I honor a sort of archetypal ancestor I call the Lady of the Mushrooms.
Once several years ago, my spouse took me to an estate sale they had scouted out the day before. "It’s amazing," they told me. "You have to see it."
It really was amazing. The woman who lived there was clearly a crafter; she had a well-maintained sewing machine, lots of organized supplies and I spotted a set of crocheted coasters. She had a truly amazing beer stein collection (perhaps belonging to a late husband?) and some very nice, if creepy, porcelain dolls. It was one of those rare sales where the description made it clear the owner had passed away, and shared a little bit about her.
I felt like the house said more. The most impressive room in the house was the kitchen. It was tiny, just big enough to stand in, and it was done entirely in Sears' "Merry Mushroom" pattern from the 70s. The dishware, silverware and glassware all held the same mushroom motif. The pots matched and were similarly adorned. There was a spice rack, each designated spice holder in the shape of a mushroom. The bread box was painted with mushrooms. There was both a teapot and a kettle in the same design, a clock, a cookie jar, serving spoons.
Her dedication to mushrooms, and ability to keep them in pristine condition for forty years, was truly impressive. We bought only a few pieces, but I found myself wishing I could buy the whole collection and keep it together, somehow.
I wrote an offering on that day:
Here’s to you, Lady of the Mushrooms! May you rest well, having enjoyed yourself while you were here. I only hope that I can be as earnestly in love with something as you clearly were with your merry mushrooms.
A few weeks later I went to an estate sale and came home with three glasses designed as go-alongs to Corningware’s Country Festival pattern. As I unwrapped them from their paper and peeled off the estate sale price tags, I whispered thank you and promises to take good care of them.
I got the sense it was appreciated.
Of course I have female relatives who’ve passed who would more traditionally fit the description of disir. They’re not the only ones I feel a certain attachment and obligation to, and over time the Lady of the Mushrooms came to represent less that specific woman and her amazing kitchen, and more the people whose things were making their way into my life.
In a way, each time I go to a sale like this and bring home glasses or napkins or Pyrex or Corningware, I’m bringing home something that was important to these people. Maybe more or less important – at another estate sale we picked up some well-loved kitchen knives and a lovingly-seasoned wok, as well as some towels. I’d imagine there’s a lot more of their owner in the wok than in the towels. I often get that feeling from estate sales in a way I don’t from garage or yard sales.
These things were loved. Now I get to love them, in my admittedly hipster way.