I have a new source of antiquing entertainment to fill up the spare time I don’t have. Television is pretty much the wasteland that Newton Minnow tagged it. There are a few notable oasis one of which is American Pickers starring Mike Wolfe and Frank fritz. As a rule, reality TV bears no resemblance to normal life. In each episode of this History Channel show Mike and Frank go on the road in search of real junk which proves their is life and history on the planet Earth.
In case you aren’t acquainted with the term, a “picker” in the antiques trade scours the countryside looking for old stuff to buy cheap and sell quick. They often go from door to door or solicit more effectively by focusing on property that have the distinctive look of a junk yard. A picker can sometimes buy the contents of an attic, basement or garage or even get the contents for free by offering to clean it out and dispose of the “junk.” Among the discards of peoples lives are surprising treasures that have gone under-appreciated for many years.
The game is played most effectively by pickers who develop relationships both with good sources of junk and antiques dealers who are always hungry for good inventory. A good antiques dealer will know pickers who are well acquainted with the types of items the dealer is most interested in selling. It’s symbiosis with a capitalist bent. It works a treat.
Back in Pennsylvania we had a regular stream of pickers stopping in at Meadowview Antiques with a backseat or pickup bed filled with the latest finds wrestled from local households. These guys were usually a bit colorful, some were a bit light on formal education others had the sound of academe flowing from their lips. They all knew their business and were quick to figure out yours. These pickers knew the market and could bargain well. Any item they offered made them a profit and left enough meat on the bone to be a useful offering in your shop.
Some of the dealers I knew were old-timers who came out of the pickers tradition having gone on the knock since they were young fellows. One of them was still in the habit of looking for lace curtains in the windows of old houses. It was a good indication that the occupant was an older woman who was likely to have some junk she needed to have cleaned out of the basement.
We also had a lot of dealers who based their inventory on “housecleaning.” They ran adds in the shopping newspapers offering to clean out garages and even entire houses accepting the junk contents as payment or sometimes purchasing the contents of an estate. They would shop the best stuff around to antique dealers and take the rest to a Sunday flea market and sell it dirt cheap for some quick cash. After all the landfill does not pay you to bring garbage in.
Sometimes they missed good items. I scored an old John F. Kennedy election poster from some house cleaners at the Sinking Spring flea market for $2.00. it wasn’t my regular field of interest but I thought I could take a chance. I researched it on eBay and found a ton of reproduction election posters but none had the same graphics as mine. I put it on for a $10.00 starting bid and watched folks run it up to $2oo.oo by the end of the week. Ahh! the good old days.
American Pickers gives me that nostalgic feeling for the antiquing game like nothing else does lately. Mike and frank are the kind of guys you want to hang out with. They love to travel the American back roads in search of opportunity. Sometimes they are pursuing leads provided by the lovely Danielle who holds down the fort at Antique Archeology, their shop in LeClaire, Iowa. If you watch the show for a while you learn that Frank is addicted to old oil cans and Mike is turned on by old bikes and motorcycles. Each one has special areas of interest they have cultivated fully. Together they possess a range of knowledge that makes them an incredible team. They often need to make purchasing decisions on the spot and they are able to be mutually supportive in a highly effective way. They are also smart enough to search out an expert appraiser when it looks like they are getting out of their depth.
Some of their best and most entertaining picking is done when they are “freestyling.” A house surrounded by junk cars and dilipidated storage sheds is meat and drink to these road warriors and they have no compunctions about introducing themselves to perfect strangers and beginning an instant relationship.
The people they meet are nothing if not interesting. Unlike so much of reality TV the participants have not answered a casting call, talent contest, personality quiz or been focus grouped to make sure they matched the viewing demographics. Most of the people are not beautiful or buff. They don’t have to be because they are just like me and you. They live genuine lives and are more worried about putting food on the table than being voted off the island. Junk with precious memories attached is real, the American people are real and Mike and Frank bring them to your television or computer screen. Watch them on The History Channel Mondays 9/8 Central or catch the entire first season on Netflix. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll want to get in a van and go buy some junk. Sit back and enjoy the thrill of the – hunt picker style.