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My House of Bargains

How Craigslist changed my life—or at least decorated it better.

Kaufman in one of her Paris Chairs, which cost her $150 each. They originally sold for $799 apiece. Photographs by Scott Suchman

Style > Best Bargains Package

It was love at first sight. Classic good looks, nice silhouette, a Parisian accent. One look at the online profile and I was a goner.

The ad was on Craigslist, the online marketplace where you can find anything from used cars to concert tickets.

What set my heart aflutter was an ad for a set of red and gold “Paris Chairs.” Originally sold by Crate & Barrel for $799 each, they were on Craigslist for $175 apiece. They were owned by a couple in Dupont Circle who were giving their modern-style home a neoclassical spin. I sent an e-mail on the spot, hoping to be the first to claim these chairs as my own.

When Craigslist began in 1995, it was a free e-mail list of events in San Francisco. It has become a venue for free community advertising in 500 cities, attracting more than 10 billion visitors a month.

I was late to the Craigslist party. My husband and I had bought a house that was in need of furnishing. Our old house hadn’t sold yet, and our agent suggested we leave our furniture in the house—“staging,” it’s called in the real-estate biz—to make it appear more homey.

For the first time, I was faced with an empty house, a blank canvas without flimsy particle-board bookshelves or hand-me-down mismatched chairs. Here was the chance to furnish a grown-up house with grown-up furniture.

I flipped through catalogs and decorating magazines and watched a lot of HGTV. Unfortunately, what I learned is that new grown-up furniture takes a lot of grown-up money. With a new mortgage and one house still on the market, grown-up money was in short supply.

Craigslist was my salvation. Here I could get brand-name furnishings, unique accessories, and even antiques for less than I had imagined—like the Paris Chairs, which belonged to men with a discerning eye. Visiting their impeccable home and seeing the chairs flanked by a silver trefoil-shaped Baker mirror and a low-slung couch with silk shantung pillows was better than seeing the chairs in a catalog. The men offered me color advice (Shelburne Buff paint, from the Benjamin Moore historic collection, for my walls) and helped me carry the chairs to my car. They also accepted $300 for both chairs, instead of $350 as advertised.

If I could find two beautiful chairs, what else could be waiting for me?

The answer came in an ad that read: “My wife’s got a buying problem!” A husband in DC’s Penn Quarter was trying to unload a round white pedestal table and four chairs for $250. I called right away and heard his story: Purchased from a store in Pentagon City, the set was solid wood—not veneer, he assured me—and sturdy. He said the table would fit in a midsize SUV—I had a station wagon—but that if need be, it could be disassembled and he was happy to lend the tools. Anything, it seemed, to be rid of this French country table that stuck out like a sore thumb in his chrome-and-metal modern loft space.

In pouring rain, I loaded up the table and chairs. The seller even offered me a delicate white mirror with intricate scrollwork that he felt “matched” the table and that his wife had squirreled away in a closet. The $150 price tag was still on it; he gladly accepted $50.

I went on to buy a set of Chinese prints (eight for $60) from an older couple who were putting their mother in a nursing home. I shared a cup of tea and a few tears with the daughter, Pat, a lovely woman who told me stories of her mother when she was vital and young.

As I began to furnish my home with Craigslist finds, I realized that what I was getting was more than furniture. Every transaction came with a story.

In Vienna, in a house that would fit four of my houses inside it, was a couple selling a mahogany dining-room set from the 1940s made by Bernhardt. The double pedestal table had a rich finish and came with a matching china cabinet and a buffet plus six chairs upholstered in a creamy green damask. The set was listed at $1,000—a good price, but a bit more than I was comfortable paying.

When my husband and I arrived to look at the set, it quickly became apparent that I could not be counted on to make an unemotional decision; one look and all I could see were future Thanksgivings around this gleaming table. It was solid and heavy in a way that suggested groundedness, as if it should belong to a family that was putting down roots.

Barbara, the owner, greeted us with an apology: There had been a lot of interest in the set, especially from a few dealers. Although we were the first to see the table, someone had made a full-price offer, sight unseen. If we were willing go up to $1,100 she would sell us the dining set on the spot. If not, it would go to whoever offered the best price.

Although she had ordered a new dining set, Barbara felt a connection to this one. She and her husband had bought it early in their marriage. Through the years, she had had the top refinished and had a mahogany extender custom-built to seat more people. She and her husband had even gotten handy with a staple gun, reupholstering the chairs themselves, in a project they found, to their surprise, that they both enjoyed.

I have been known to bargain hard. In fact, I had never paid full price for anything on Craigslist. I had negotiated for Chinoiserie dishes, side tables, lyre-back chairs, lamps, a desk, and two revolving chairs from the 1920s. Would this mahogany table, buffet, and china cabinet be my Craigslist waterloo?

In my office, in a small frame, is one of my favorite New Yorker cartoons: A woman in a chic apartment asks a visitor, “Would you like me to show you around my apartment and tell you how much I paid for everything?”

I have become that woman, in opposite, telling everyone how much I didn’t pay for something, how everything was a Craigslist bargain, until we get to my dining room, where a polished mahogany set gleams in the afternoon sun and I admit that yes, I did pay more than the asking price—and I never regretted it.

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