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LIFESTYLE : Worn but Worthy : When budget dictates decor, thrift stores can offer an eclectic array of furnishings.


Angela Berumen has suffered the home-furnishings equivalent of sticker shock. The 20-year-old UCLA student from Granada Hills is moving into a Westwood apartment this fall, and looking for furniture to fill it. She and her roommate checked department stores. Then, wholesale manufacturers. Still, everything was out of their price range.

"Furniture is so expensive," Berumen said. "Couches? We were looking in catalogues--they were $2,000. It's not like I want to hold on to this furniture and pass it down to my children. I just want to have something that looks nice."

Some people can afford to pay more for their sofa than they do for their rent, but not Berumen. " Please ," she scoffed. "We don't have any money. We're students." That's why--after three weeks of shopping--she wound up at Wertz Brothers, a used-furniture store in Van Nuys.

For young people like Berumen, making their first move away from their parents' houses or residence halls, the bottom line is budget. But with a continually fluctuating economy--to put it delicately--almost everyone is on the lookout for a good buy. As Paul Coulam, co-owner of the used furniture store House of Paul, put it: "'We see them on the way up, and we see them on the way down."

Shopping resale is not like shopping at Ikea with its easy mix-and-match styles. Wertz Brothers and House of Paul, also in Van Nuys, get much of their inventory by buying estates, so there are decades' worth of styles to choose from. Bamboo rattan sofas and colonial-style maple dressers are mixed in with glass-top tables and 1960s china cabinets.

While Wertz Brothers mixes in some antiques and fancy reproductions, House of Paul carries "regular secondhand furniture," said Coulam. "There are 8 million people in Los Angeles County. They all have furniture. And sooner or later they're going to sell it," he said, which makes Los Angeles a great place to look for used items.

A quirk to the business is that some ordinary pieces can quickly become "collectible," said Coulam. Lately there's been a demand for 1950s modern-style furnishings, he said. "They see it in the home magazine and they want it right now and they want it for $10."

For the record, a small '50s chrome and Formica kitchen table with four chairs were spotted at Wertz Brothers. Going rate: $195.

All bargains are relative. Although $395 may seem like a lot to spend on a used chair, similar overstuffed chairs can cost twice that in furniture stores. Or, $650 isn't that much for a whole bedroom set--headboard, dresser, mirror, bedside table--when you consider that a bed alone costs about $500 at a department store.

A less well-known option is purchasing furniture that has been rented. Cort Furniture Rental operates a clearance center on San Fernando Road West, near Glendale, where they sell off everything from sofas to filing cabinets. "We've already made our money renting the furniture," said Pat Bockenstette, who manages Cort stores in Glendale, Beverly Hills and Sherman Oaks. "We've already made a profit on it. We have to move it out now so we can bring in new merchandise for rental."

Furniture becomes available for sale when the style has been discontinued from Cort's rental line, or when it starts to show signs of wear. The average age of the furniture for sale is about 2 1/2 years old, but pieces are priced by their condition. A carved pine coffee table with a glass top that Cort says costs $379 new is $179 in the clearance center.


Early in its 20-year history, Cort started selling off its previously rented inventory. But it was only last October that the clearance center arranged part of its warehouse into a showroom. According to regional marketing manager Nina Robinson, sales are up 10% over last year with almost no advertising. Bockenstette attributes the growth to simple word-of-mouth, "especially in this day and age of value."

James Madison, 31, is one of the people spreading the word. He worked with Cort Rental as part of his job at the Los Angeles Athletic Club, and called one day to see if they had leather and chrome chairs for sale. They did; he bought them for $80 apiece. He came back for a recent "private sale" looking for a leather chair for a new apartment in Hollywood. "You're never going to find a better deal than this," he said.

Perhaps not; but many of the Valley's almost 30 thrift shops carry home furnishings in addition to clothing and housewares. The Discovery Shop run by the American Cancer Society in Sherman Oaks specializes in "upscale" merchandise. The furniture has been donated and is priced at 25% of what the item would cost new.

Things move fast, said manager Jeri Benson. If something hasn't sold in two months, the price drops. Televisions regularly sell in two days, and there is almost a complete turnover every three weeks. "Because people are so money conscious," Benson said, "my store usually has 500 people--minimum--a day."

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