As a props master you have to have guts. You have to be willing to look rediculous, to hear "no" time after time and keep asking. You learn the stores and get to know the managers, you start to learn the tricks for buying on ebay and you develop a system for finding things on Craigslist.
Without a really logical way to organize this, here's a random list of advice and tricks for shopping and aquiring things:
- Always smile and say thank you. It's simple advice, but it is easy to forget when you've been shopping all day and dealing with traffic and long lines and not finding what you've been looking for.
- Ask for help. Especially if you've got a strange project or looking for something unusual it's wonderful to have the extra opinions and ideas of someone who knows the store and it's stock. I especially find that the guys at big box hardware stores enjoy the change of pace when you come up to them and say "I have no idea what I'm looking for, but this is what I need to do, do you have any ideas?"
- Remember program advertisement and comp tickets are tools at your disposal. See if you can arrange a trade. While with a small summer stock the local lumber yard gave us $300 worth of lumber in exchange for a program advertisement. I had a local furniture store loan a bed frame and nightstand for the run of the show while I provided lobby signs letting people know where the furniture could be purchased and encouraging patrons to support local businesses that support the arts.
- Ask for a discount. At thrift stores especially I find I can bargain by being totally honest. "I am interested in this large dining room table, but I only need it for two months and after that I have no place to store it and will donate it back to you, is there any way you could give me a discount?"
- Make friends with the thrift store and antique store workers. Even when you don't find what you need make sure you say hi. At a large antique mall in a small town I was working in, the workers would have a scavenger hunt with me whenever I came in, because they got to know me one of the workers ended up inviting me to browse his personal warehouse storage unit for things I needed that weren't currently in his antique mall booth.
- Write down contact info. If I am out and I pass an interesting store (the tiny magic shop on the side street or the canvas and drop-cloth dealers on the route out to the theatre on the other side of town) I write down the information (store hours, phone number, who to ask for) on a post it note and stick it in a file for when I need it (because the really good corner stores are also the least likely to have a website or be searchable on Google).
- Never burn a bridge. You never know when you are going to need to contact that person you worked with three years ago because you remember their brother owned an antique accordion that is exactly what you need for this show or you want to know how they built that douser out of an old cd-rom drive. Theatre people get it and I find they are often happy to help no matter how long it has been since you've spoken.