The Thrill of the Hunt...and the Find
Feb 25, 2015 11:07AM
● By Jason Huddle
The Depot in Concord is a picker's paradise!
Due in large part to popular television shows like American Pickers, Storage Wars and Pawn Stars, picking has become a phenomenon. The common denominator is love of the collectible.
By: Kimberly Cassell
Whether it’s done on a part-time basis for purely personal reasons or full-time as a business, picking means the rejuvenation of Americana. Items that have sat unrecognized in family attics or back yard sheds for possibly decades are being unearthed. These finds shed light on a lifestyle – one that’s rich with history.
For those picking for profit, what dictates something of value? It’s agreed that mass-produced items like collector plates, Beanie Babies and Franklin Mint coins will not likely gain much in value over the long term. The real finds are the rare and unusual. This prompts pickers to go the extra mile, literally.
Concord’s Chet and Michele Shirah have owned Bargain Basement Antiques since 2008. “Not long compared to a lot of people,” Chet says. “It is a full-time job that we do as a second job. We plan to do this as our full-time job in 2016 (for Michele) and 2017 for me. I guess I always had it in the back of my head to do something like this.”
The Shirahs’ story is one of life imitating art. They’ve seen their business move out of their basement (the namesake), selling items they already owned but chose not to keep for themselves; that temporarily evolved to yard sales and flea markets.
Like others with a passion, they’ve chosen to take their own road…one that now leads to estate sales and travels to better treasures (hopefully). Those travels include regular treks to Springfield, OH, and Brimfield, MA. Estate sales are often found through estatesales.net as well as a valuable network of wholesalers and fellow pickers.
Referring to estate sales, some are free-for-alls. “One woman we know sells to dealers. She holds tag sales; every item has a tag,” Chet explains. “About 45 to 60 people line up at the door. We have stickers with our name on them and when she opens the door, we go through and put our stickers on big items and put others in bags we bring in ourselves.”
Today, the Shirahs sell their finds in a number of locations, including The Depot, at the Metrolina Tradeshow Expo, on eBay and directly to other wholesalers. They’ve been able to establish a national network where other pickers they’ve come to know and do business with are always on the lookout for items they know the Shirahs will buy; Chet and Michele will even provide a list. Price point and reputation precede them, making for smooth transactions and long-term business relationships.
An obvious key to a picker’s success is knowing what will sell. “Generally, an antique is 75 years or older; vintage is about 50 years. A collectible can be even newer,” Chet says. “But old does not always mean more value/money. Some handmade are done by craftsmen and are very valuable (furniture or duck decoys are examples). Some handmade are made with old materials/wood.
“It’s a constant challenge to keep up with what’s popular: magazines, other vendors, Pinterest. With some themes, you’ll have a run and a bunch will sell. You’ll buy a bunch more and then it sits.”
The Shirahs have some positive constants in their inventory: tools, advertising, military. “This might be due to men being huge collectors,” Chet says. “For women, vintage kitchen is always popular. Industrial and architectural have been, and will remain, very popular in 2015. One item that is trendy right now is records. We sell a lot of them. Magazines, linens, trunks, vintage Christmas. These are all things that are found in attics and are tried and true sellers.”
The Shirahs admit that the thrill is in the find…like a golden needle in a hay stack. “We found an armadillo basket in an estate a few years ago. It was an actual armadillo shell. Apparently they were popular in the early 1900s,” Chet shares. “The most valuable was a 45 RPM record that was one of the top 100 rarest northern soul records in the world. We didn’t know that when we found it – also in an estate sale. The record, we sold on eBay, and the basket we sold to a customer.”
And to show the importance of knowledgeable colleagues…”We had a big, tall vase marked $80,” Chet says. “A guy we know saw it and knew what it was; it sold for $400. You learn to get in touch with folks who know the value of certain items.”
Tiffany Ruffin is owner of Ruffin’s Roost in Mount Pleasant. A product of 1980s California, she scoured thrift shops and flea markets as a teenager, looking for Madonna-inspired clothing. “I loved vintage slips, old tuxedo jackets, rosaries, cowboy boots, etc.,” Ruffin says. “My desire for vintage grew from there and it has been a full-time job for me since I opened my first shop in California at 24 years old.”
In fact, one of her favorite finds has traveled cross-country with her. “The coolest piece I’ve found, and I mean that literally, was in the dumpster by my shop in Los Angeles. I drove by and took a double take, drove around again and there it was on the top of the pile! A petite French Florentine cabinet with the perfect chippy cream and gilt gold patina! I boldly climbed the dumpster and rescued this beauty. It remains with me in front of a window in our historic farmhouse in Cabarrus County!”
Ruffin’s shop is filled with similar finds. “I like to use the word ‘vintage’ to describe a lot of what the style of our shop carries. Primitive antiques definitely have long-term popularity and retain their value, from what I’ve seen in our shop. Many people love collecting old crocks, graters, wood tureens, pottery, linens, and furnish their homes in this style. It seems very popular in this area and we have encountered many individuals looking for original Cabarrus County-made furniture and collectibles.
“Everything vintage has some value. There are collectors of so many different things out there – from old cameras and records, to soda bottles and cutting boards, to flatware and dishes. You just never know, so, before throwing it away, do some research!
In her experience, Ruffin sees more value in older items rather than newer, handmade ones – she considers a true antique to be at least 100 years old. However, she says, “I was taught many years ago by an old picker that the value of an item is only what someone is willing to pay for it when it gets into the shop.”
Whatever a buyer’s taste might be, Ruffin sees it stemming from some sweet memory or experience from their past. “I hear so many times at the shop, ‘We had one of these growing up,’ or, ‘I remember that from my grandma’s house.’
“I’m not sure if it’s where our shop is located, but our customers seem to really love farmhouse-type items. Wood breadboards and dough bowls are items that are desired. I definitely see people restoring their old homes and looking for architectural items such as old doors, windows and moldings. If they have newer homes, they are adding pieces of the past to create a vintage style and warmth in their home. The more timeworn – like rusty metal and chippy painted things are – the better!
Pickin’ & Grinnin’
Pam Cooper has been collecting her entire adult life. Two years ago, she and her family took the next step and opened Pickin’ & Grinnin’ in Concord. Unlike some other pickers, Cooper and her son, Ben Davis, buy storage units.
“I’ve always loved to pick, but that was more for myself. My husband refinished furniture, Cooper says. “Then we started buying storage lockers about four years ago. We would then sell the items on Craigslist. We really like the vintage and the old and the antique, but we just recently came into a set-up with newer stuff and that’s bringing more people in to buy the vintage and the antique.”
Cooper sees their male customers buying more for nostalgia, while the women buy for the value, or to re-purpose an item. “Re-purposing is around to stay for a while, and I am glad. I hate to throw away anything. We have become a wasteful nation and I am always happy to see something used in a new way,” she says.
Cooper has seen success in re-selling old comic books, sports cards, antique furniture, artwork, Fiestaware and pottery (depending on who it’s made by). “We have found that vintage signs, antique tools, old auto and gasoline advertising, and antique railroad items sell well,” she says. “Old metal toys and guitars do well also. Shabby chic is still popular.”
Cooper considers anything 100 years or older an antique, but says, “As always, price is determined by many things. It is hard to compare antiques to homemade; it’s kind of like comparing apples to oranges.”
Placing a winning bid on a storage unit and hoping to discover a real find inside is truly a stab in the dark, but it does happen…a $5,000 pool table, solid brass General Electric signs, even an ATM machine.
At the end of the day, Cooper enjoys the “shop local” aspect of her business. “These shops are local, we’re buying local and, nine times of out 10, we’re selling local. You have to start from the home, workplace, then community.”
The future of picking and what it will look like is somewhat uncertain. Many pickers agree that travel outside of the region is now often necessary because so much has been “picked over.” It also takes an experienced eye to spot something that may be covered in dirt and buried under years of clutter. Regardless, don’t discard what you might find in Grandma’s attic as junk. Get ahold of a reputable local dealer that can tell you exactly what you have. You might be pleasantly surprised!