Posts Tagged American Picker

Wabi Sabi American Style

19 August 2015

Some people collect for the sake of collecting, most have a purpose beyond mere acquisitiveness. We collect because we connect with material things through memory, knowledge, inspiration and as many motivations as there are emotions in the human psyche. While some people maintain a degree of privacy, stuffing their collected items away where nobody sees them, others like to share. They fit their acquisitions into a decorating scheme or display a collection in a way that is artistically appealing, perhaps making a personal statement.  Antiques are sometimes valued for their utility as in a type of tool that is no longer made. Hand drills work well if you live off the grid. We also hold on to these things to appreciate them and show them off in a visually appealing manner. Aesthetics is simply this, how good does a thing look and how does it make you feel? It brings to mind Billy Crystal doing his Fernando Lamas imitation, “You look mahvalous. The most important thing is to look good.”

Looking good is an art.  It starts at the point of original design and continues as an object acquires the unique signature created by the usage of time. In short: dirt is beautiful. So are dings and scrapes and oil and wax. A nicer way to express it would be “environmental effects.” Well, that’s a little cold and analytical. Lets be more earthy. Let’s get comfortable in our own skins. It is a basic rule in antique restoration that you don’t want to strip an original finish or slather wood putty into the dents and dings. Old dirt and damage are the prime ingredients for a lovely patina. Antiques wear their history on the surface. Western sensibilities tend to like new items that look just like the day they were made. We do this with vintage automobiles and aircraft.  I think it works just fine in those areas. There is even a safety factor in preserving functionality in moving vehicles. You don’t want your 1920’s Curtiss biplane sputtering to a halt at odd moments. If you are going to drive your model T on occasion the brakes should work at least as well as they did in the old days.

I went through a period of fascination with Zen Buddhism back in the seventies. It wore off, but a little something stuck in the form of the Japanese attitude towards the simple beauty of utilitarian forms, ordinary objects made with care and superior craftsmanship.  Wabi Sabi is the reason the Japanese automobile industry kicked our butts back in the seventies. Some antiques come from an opposite visual perspective. The European renaissance gave us  a richness of decoration that was sometimes blindingly ornate. The level of workmanship was extraordinary but opulence is hard for most of us to relate to.

The Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th and early twentieth century gave us mission furniture and similar styles. Gustav Stickley pioneered an approach to furniture design that became an enduring American style. The same lines and honest display of joinery echoes the construction of Japanese shoji screens and temple architecture. The influence continued in the architectural work of Greene and Greene and Frank Lloyd Wright. The blending of furniture and architecture was an inevitable outgrowth of the design elements that grew in the American heartland.

What was once a new thing aged in a dignified manner. American decorative arts survived to form the core of what I experienced in the antique trade. As a dealer on the lower rungs of that particular business ladder I had little contact with Chippendale and Sheraton, et al.  It was entertaining to hang out at auction and watch the New York or L.A. connected dealers throw money at each other.  The antiques I had a shot at moving through the mire of commerce were the common furnishings of my grandparents and great grandparents world: kitchen tables that showed the wear of rolling pins, knives, and elbows. Their patina was enhanced by spilled milk, smeared lard and the blood of both farm and game animals. It was all stoutly built of oak and ash, pine and maple. Mahogany, bird’s eye maple and crotch grain black walnut was reserved for the parlor or perhaps the bedroom. Those finer furnishings were better cared for but still took their own punishment. Look at the legs of old chairs and tables to see the traces of myriad collisions with toy trucks and the careless feet of children. Shellac finishes oxidized into a noticeably reptilian patterns. water glasses quickly left rings and spilled alcohol was like a dissolving tide.  The introduction of nitrocellulose lacquer made the household environment more durable and family friendly.

Metals and plastics not only brought forth new often “streamlined” styles they changed the nature of the way we regarded wear and tear. We were initially repulsed by rust, flaky chrome plating and sun faded plastics and chipped enamel. The postwar era ushered in the throwaway economy. Disposable material was a virtue to be worshiped by the culture of modern convenience. A decade later environmentalism criticized the attitude and threw roadblocks in the way that were ultimately hurdled by the acolytes of recycling. America stopped blithely disposing and engorging landfills with cultural detritus. It created a whole new gray market operating out of a vast network of garages manned by individual entrepreneurs. The antique marketers took notice.

Somewhere along the way while some of us were still trying to hawk the furnishings of our great grandparents a shift in time took place. The definition of antique went from 100 years old to 50, sometimes 25. Items of cultural significance that become overnight sensations become objects of nostalgia almost as fast.

The new ethos on the block was shabby chic which evolved into the art and craft of “re-purposing.” The market is driven as never before by domestic decorating. You can  see it on reality television as the public is regaled by tales of home makeovers and wandering duos of dealers pestering random hoarders for not only genuine historical artifacts but rusty gates, aging light fixtures and worn out leather jackets from pilots and motorcycle bums to bell bottom jeans that belonged to hippie girls who might have been at Woodstock.

The descendants of the industrial revolution will never stop making new and ever shinier things. It is their mission to attract the eye with things that are smooth or shiny or have a rough masculine feel or a soft feminine silkiness. We are intoxicated by the smell of a new car. What you remember most of all is the ragged old blanket that your first born hauled everywhere. your favorite coffee cup and the movie that makes you cry when you watch it every year at Christmas. The essence of utility built into every truly useful object is manifested in nostalgia and value lies at the intersection of purpose and beauty. The greatest creations of man are no more than this and that is all that they need to be.

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Pickers Know How To Buy So They Can Sell

9 February 2011

Pickers are resourceful people with a strong native intelligence and a wealth of experience.  You can learn a lot from them and from trying some picking yourself.  The business of antiquing is all about buying and selling.  Being a collector is mostly about buying with maybe some beneficial horsetrading and occasional selling thrown in.  The following information may be valuable as many a collector who starts out selling duplicate items gets bit by the dealer bug.  Scratch a collector and you will find a merchant underneath.

Shy People Lose Out

One of the main lessons I have learned in this business is, don’t be shy.  That was tough for me.  I grew up kind of shy and introverted.  I didn’t come out of my shell fully until I went back to college at age forty.   I noticed that all the kids in class didn’t want to speak up.  I’d been kicked around enough by life that I didn’t care so much if I opened my mouth and what I said wasn’t immediately applauded.  You have to be ready to walk up to total strangers and talk about what you are interested in.  Look at what people have.  If you want it, make an offer.  Buy something you don’t want as much, at a price you can afford, and it may break the ice.

It works at a flea market too.  When you buy multiple items you can ask for a bigger discount for the whole group and thereby get the item you are most interested in for a good price.  The extra items in the group can be good low priced quick sale merchandise for your shop.  As a dealer you need cash flow and deals that attract repeat customers.  This is a clear win-win. It’s like buying box lots at auction.  Every box of junk has one item that you are sure of.  When you get it home and start rooting around some treasure may come to light that pays for all the boxes and the hot dog and soda that got you through yet another long night of earsplitting auctioneering.

On The Road Again And Again

Travel broadens the mind and deepens the pockets.  Be ready to get out and about in search of new buying venues.  When you are driving anywhere be looking for out of the way shops and flea markets.  When I was a kid my parents called them junk shops.  I loved them.  Don’t judge a book by it’s cover.  The trashier the place looks the better may be your chances of low prices.  Sometimes a shop is intentionally junky.  I knew some people who stocked there antique mall spaces on this basis.  It appeals to a certain type of buyer and those dealers did quite well.   Take the back roads and state routes when you travel.  The highways are called limited access for a reason.

Develop a regular circuit of flea markets, swap meets and antique malls with a good turn around in merchandise.  I used to get up at five on a Sunday morning. I hit the local flea market in my home town and pestered people as they were unloading their vehicles.  I would then head east and hit three more by noon going out about twenty-five miles.  Once a month I would change up and head west.  There were fewer flea markets in that direction.  Always head for the target rich environments.

That was in the populous Northeast.  Where I live now it costs too much to get anywhere with a sizable population.  The price of fuel is a big chunk of overhead these days. Strategize according to past performance and what you have observed of current trends so that you aren’t going where buying opportunities are lacking.

Move On!

Time is money.  Don’t waste it by haggling with people who aren’t willing to part with their precious memories.  If you can’t break the ice with a smaller sale then move on to plow some looser soil.  Everybody behind a table at a flea market should be ready to come down to a price where you can afford to buy an item for resale.  If they don’t, remember those dealers and don’t hand over your valuable time to them again.  Develop a good visual scan so that you can move through a flea market and spot interesting items quickly.  There can be an awful lot of small items on a table and you will certainly miss some good things.  You can help the process if you have a partner who knows your want list.  My girl friend used to see stuff that totally escaped me because everybody has a different point of view.  Fresh eyes can be a valuable asset.  It is tempting to look in detail at every box in a crowded stand, but the clock is ticking.

Good flea market dealers will have boxes in orderly rows with not too much in each box.  All the books in one area, household in another, and so on.  There may be a separate table for the “special” items which will probably have the higher prices.  I knew a couple who cleaned out houses and worked this formula like a clockwork machine every Sunday at the local flea market.  I loved these guys.  They were all about the quick turnover.  They had a barn full of stuff all the time and what didn’t get sold got trashed.  It was easy to cruise through their stuff just walking the rows of boxes scanning for good stuff.  Then I’d visit the special table and usually pick up some nice smalls at a price that left room for me.  They got to know what I was looking for and soon I was being treated to items on reserve in the back of the car.  If they had aviation items or old slide rules, they were set aside for me to have first choice.  Every Sunday ten minutes of my time netted me salable material.

Tell Them What You Want

Let people know what you are looking to buy.  Some dealers put ads in the newspaper saying what they are buying.  People respond to the idea of getting immediate cash for their old junk.  If you are knocking on doors have a flyer that lists clearly the kind of items you are willing to pay cold hard cash for.  Hang a copy on every free bulletin board you see.  I used to have a list of wants printed on the back of my business cards for Timestream Antiques.  When you are buying from a dealer at a flea market let the person know that you are interested in buying more of the same and also other items.  Cultivate relationships with the people on your circuit.

Speaking up is easier than you think.  Come out of your shell.  Spend a little gas money (yeah! I know that’s getting harder).  Move on when the pickings are slim. Let everybody know what you want, what you really, really want!  When you get it be ready to go back for more.

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On The Road With American Pickers

19 January 2011

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.

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