Until recently my shopping experiences in Wisconsin had been limited to stops for gas and the occasional bag of cheese curds while driving up to my native Minneapolis. But I’m a thrift-store hound, and figuring there might be better pickings if I got out of Chicago and into a vast hipster-free zone, I scoured the Internet and assembled a Wisconsin quest.

I checked out the following sites for ideas:

Bethesda Lutheran Homes and Services (blhs.org), which operates a dozen shops in Wisconsin.

Rummage Wisconsin (rummagewisconsin.com), which lists yard sales, antique fairs, flea markets, and farmers’ markets by region.

Lutheran Counseling & Family Services of Wisconsin (lcfswi.org), which runs six thrift outlets.

The National Association of Resale & Thrift Shops (narts.org), whose Web site lets you search by state.

Magicyellow.com, an online yellow pages that lets you search for thrift shops by city.

Independence First (independence first.org), an organization for people with disabilities, keeps the most complete and reliable listings of Milwaukee-area stores, both thrift and resale/consignment.

Milwaukee Green Map (wisconline.com/ greenmap/milwaukee/sites/renewable.htm) offered listings that included breakdowns by type of item offered (furniture, household, baby clothes, etc), but I found that half the info was out-of-date.

After some calls, I mapquested an elaborate route and hit the road. The southern leg of the trip, with five stops at stores around Lake Geneva, Beloit, and Janesville, was so abysmal it’s not even worth mentioning where I went. Unless you’re in the market for dirty sweatpants, unpaired earrings, or the vases that FTD flowers get delivered in, forget it.

I was disappointed about driving 200 miles and failing to find the grandma-junk grail, but then I came across a shop that wasn’t on my itinerary: Emerald City Collectibles (8317 E. Highway 14, Janesville, 608-758-3777). Perhaps the reason there’s no cool junk at any of the other stores is because it’s all been harvested by this one. It’s full of antiques and wonderfully rustic knickknacks: wagon wheels, turn-of-the-century bed frames, a wall of cookbooks (I couldn’t find one published after 1980), toys, an old Coke vending machine, assorted decorations, old family photos, a report card from 1947. It was endless.

The prices were reasonable, though the LPs–mostly classic rock and bargain-bin standards–were priced a little steep at two to five bucks a pop. I did find a copy of the sound track to the 60s Batman TV show (featuring an uncredited Sun Ra on organ) for $10; it typically sells for around $200, though this copy was scratched to the point of being unplayable. The owner mentioned that he had more than 10,000 albums in a second building next door, which he opens up in the spring. This place is worth the trip even if it’s your only stop.

After some fruitless visits to church sales and strip-mall Goodwill stores, I headed to Milwaukee. My first stop was Thrifty’s Thrift Store (1730 S. 13th St., 414-649-4780), which had half a dozen full sets of vintage dishes, as well as two china tea services, all in near-perfect shape and selling for reasonable prices. The clothes were much like those elsewhere in Wisconsin, though everything was sorted by color and all the pants were hung upside down; there was also a substantial rack of raincoats and women’s trench coats, in old and new styles. A glass case was filled with about 200 Beanie Babies, and the basement was a mishmash of art, furniture, broken household appliances, and 70s knickknacks.

The Salvation Army store across the street (1725 S. 13th St., 414-384-9992) was kind of a dump, but it did have complete sets of Time-Life series on animals and evolution, along with photo encyclopedias and children’s books from the 70s. The furniture mainly dated from the late 60s to the early 80s, but there was a mid-60s couch with canvas upholstery and a pattern of big blue flowers selling for $40. Everything about it was beautiful–except the big revolting gravy-brown stain on one of the cushions. The store keeps a giant cardboard box full of knives by the door.

My most fruitful stop was at Saint Vincent de Paul (2320 W. Lincoln Ave., 414-672-2040), which had a lot of 70s and 80s dishware, including a large selection of mugs. (I got one with a unicorn and a rainbow that read “Kentucky” for 60 cents.) There are some slightly overpriced religious artwork and some vintage clothes, but the furniture selection is really the reason to go: vintage armchairs, living-room sets, end tables, and desks galore. A section in the back called Antique Alley has dressers, headboards, and end tables dating back to the early 1900s; some pieces were battered, but most were in decent shape and fairly cheap. There were plenty of lamps, pillows, and more art, from kitschy (framed photographs of vacation homes) to downright bizarre (a large string-and-nail project, supposedly in honor of somebody’s ordination). When I stopped there a second time, an elderly man was singing and playing gospel hymns on an old organ by the door to the obvious delight of the shoppers who gathered around and clapped along. According to the staff he comes in a few times a month.

On my second thrifting excursion, this time with a pregnant friend, I decided to stay between Chicago and Milwaukee, which proved to be a smart bet. Our first stop was the Salvation Army store in Kenosha (6114 22nd Ave., 262-652-8022), whose furniture selection mixed 70s bedroom sets, some antique dressers, and a couple of cool 60s armchairs. There were quite a few housewares and large sections of kids’ and babies’ clothing, almost all in newish styles.

Located on the outskirts of Milwaukee, the Economy Center (7814 W. Burleigh St., 414-442-2272) is a trove of craft supplies: boxes of buttons, fabric, sewing bits, crochet needles, and more. Twenty-five-year-old greeting cards, in good supply, are available for under a dollar each. Again, no clothes worth mentioning except for a couple sets of Garanimals outfits for kids and some vintage baby outfits. My friend picked up some old decorating books and I got two linen pillowcases that someone had given up on embroidering. The store also gives you a free calendar with every purchase.

The WELS Bargain Center North in Milwaukee (8401 W. Lisbon Ave., 414-463-2595) is an explosion of bric-a-brac: handmade doilies, buttons, crocheted blankies, quilt squares, cut-glass candy dishes, Andy Williams albums, old cookbooks and games, orthopedic loafers, and Holly Hobby bas-relief fabric embroidered with sayings about the value of friendship. The savvy old ladies in line told us about other, ultraexclusive thrift shops that are open for one day a week for 90 minutes, but they professed that Bargain Center was their favorite. I ended up buying a hand mixer (90 cents) and a set of Holly Hobby glasses (70 cents each). I wanted to clean out the whole store, but I just don’t have that much space for angel figurines.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustrations/Paul Dolan.