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St. Petersburg’s thrifting scene is so good, they come by the busload

The Happy Thrifter mystery resale bus tour comes through St. Pete’s secondhand shops.

ST. PETERSBURG — Patti Clark stood at the front of 60-seat coach bus with a microphone in hand.

“Okay, resale queens," she shouted, "that was a great shop. Wasn’t it?”

Rows of smiling faces cheered and clapped in agreement. A few stragglers stood outside the 40-foot bus, loading their hauls into the undercarriage. The rest sat cozy in their seats, clutching totes filled with home decor, clothing and other knickknacks.

For the last four years, Clark has led bus tours around Florida at $60 a ticket. But there are no stops at the beach or visits to the state’s famous theme parks.

Instead, the people on board have a specific mission: to thrift, bargain and find a mix of great deals and vintage treasures. As more and more people find out about the “Mystery Resale Shopping Bus Tours,” the quicker they sell out.

Related: Thrift stores and ’90s fashion are so in, they’re disrupting traditional retailers

Resale and secondhand shopping is having a major moment. The number of resale shops — from vintage boutiques to nonprofit charity shops — has grown 7 percent in each of the past two years, according to the Association of Resale Professionals. Even major retailers are partnering with online thrift and consignment stores to get in on the action.

But Clark’s Mystery Tours may be among the most creative resale oriented businesses. Clark maps out thrift and vintage shop stops along a route that usually focuses around one city or region. She slots out about an hour for each shop, meticulously planning everything long before her shoppers hop on board. Each trip has a catered lunch, door prizes and raffles.

Patti Clark, the head of the Happy Thrifter, takes a seat for a photo while shoppers on her resale bus tour browse a secondhand booths at the Pavilion in St. Petersburg. [The Happy Thrifter]

The trips often launch in Venice, where Clark lives. From there, the bus stops at designated pickup points on its way to that day’s city. Clark just launched the St. Petersburg route, which featured shops such as the Market at Left Bank, Bungaleaux on Central and the local Goodwill. The tickets sold out in 29 minutes.

“I was in the shower and I heard bells,” Clark said. “I couldn’t figure out what it was.”

It was the email alerts as her inbox quickly filled with ticket sales. The new route and St. Pete’s thriving thrift scene appealed to Clark’s loyal clientele. Some of the women on the most recent tour lived as close as Sarasota, but had never explored St. Pete’s thrift shops and vintage boutiques.

Kathleen Johnson slid two boxes of like-new brightly colored fiesta silverware in front of the cashier at the Market at Left Bank. Johnson, a retired Spanish teacher from Sarasota, was spending the day searching for housewarming gifts for a friend who just purchased a new bungalow.

Teyka Steh, an employee at the Market at Left Bank, cashes out Kathleen Johnson, one of the shoppers on the mystery resale bus tour. [SARA DINATALE | Tampa Bay Times]

Just outside the shop, women sipped free coffee and champagne. They mingled, laughed and talked about past and upcoming trips with the bus tour: Fort Myers, Bradenton and Punta Gorda.

“So where are you off to next?” the cashier, Teyka Steh , asked Johnson as she placed the silverware in a large paper bag.

“We don’t know,” Johnson said, laughing. “They don’t tell us.”

It’s all part of the fun, Clark said. Keeping the route stops a surprise makes the journey feel even more like a treasure hunt. The bus stops at other cities to pick up thrifters along the way to the destination. On the road, they watch movies on bus TV screens, munch on popcorn and sip wine coolers.

Clark estimates her trips pump about $10,000 total into the local shops they visit on any given trip. She calls her company and its newspaper about the state’s best thrift shops and vintage stores the Happy Thrifter.

Related: Is my Chanel wallet real or a superfake? What about my thrifted Dooney & Bourke bags?

The recent St. Pete tour was mostly made up of retired women, though Clark said some trips have had younger people. One of her favorite shoppers was a 91-year-old man named Arthur. Her most loyal shopper has been on 16 trips. Some are seeking gifts, others their own goodies or items they may be able sell for a profit online or in their own stores.

Clark runs trips regularly between November and May. Her next one is March 12 through Bonita Springs and Naples. She always does them on Thursday, when shops aren’t as busy, so the focus can be on her crew of resale queens.

While at the Bungaleaux, a woman who goes by “High Hair Mare” shouted down the shop’s stairs to Maria Dicicco , a Nokomis jewelry maker. Mare had found a red purse with intricate beading.

“She knew I’d love it,” Dicicco said. “For $15? I asked where the other zero was.”

Maria Dicicco browses items at the Bungaleaux on Central. Dicicco, a jewlery maker, has gone on several of the mystery resale bus tours. [SARA DINATALE | Tampa Bay Times]

Diccio also held on to a leather belt that was branded with “Oldsmobile," another inexpensive find. Meanwhile, Sandra Martin from Siesta Key found a couple of designer skirts and jewelry she was happy to splurge on.

Maggie Ory opened the Bungaleaux about four years ago. She noticed the appetite for vintage growing.

“People want quality,” she said. “If you go to Ikea, you’re getting particle board. People like one-of-a-kind vintage.”

Ory has held her own customer appreciation events, but she has never hosted a busload of new shoppers. She put out wine, cheese and crackers and opened the shop a little earlier than normal.

Before she started the bus tours, Clark would point out thrifting honey pots to close friends. They were always impressed with her accumulated knowledge of the best spots.

“I’d joke, ‘One of these days, I’m going to load you all up on a bus and take you to them all,’" she said.

Eventually, she realized that was actually a good idea.

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