Frugalista Guilty Pleasure: History Channel’s “American Pickers” Search for Rusty Americana Junk to Buy & Sell for Fun & Profit (video)
Posted By Vicki McClure Davidson on January 15, 2012
One of my newest guilty pleasures: History Channel’s “American Pickers.”
The “picking travels” of the show’s amiable co-stars, Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz, is a fascinating whirlwind of rare, oft-times valuable Americana collectibles found in dilapidated barns, dirty basements, attics, sheds, closets, and countless other hiding places across the nation. Their feisty, tattooed assistant, Danielle Colby-Cushman, runs their store Antique Archaeology in Iowa when they’re on the road sifting through forgotten, rusty junk while looking for “antique gold.”
Fun, informative show, chock-full of historical information about old bicycles, pinball machines, advertising memorabilia, antique cars and furniture, vintage collectibles, you name it — the popular reality show is now in its third season.
American Pickers Interview on David Letterman Show
While some critics have lambasted the picking duo for making a profit off senior citizens, as someone who is the daughter of a zealous pack rat, I don’t fault them at all for some of their more assertive tactics. The vast amount of stuff — much of it crammed and forgotten in storage, or filling their homes and yards — collected over many decades by the people featured on “American Pickers” is utterly mind-boggling. Many get a strange sense of comfort from their overwhelming collections, even when it interferes with their quality of life. They can’t bear to part with their cluttered, hoarded junk, despite not using any of it. Should a seller finally agree to Mike’s or Frank’s asking price on an item that is decaying in an old barn or attic, and is happy with the deal, I see nothing wrong with them turning around and marketing it for more.
And in this dismal economy, Mike and Frank are most definitely taking significant financial risks, in addition to their investment in time and gas.
Just because something is worth more than they paid for it is no guarantee that they’ll be able to resell it before their bills are due.
From an August 2011 New York Times post — The Jack Kerouac of Junk:
On “American Pickers” (and in “American Pickers Guide to Picking,” a book out next month from Hyperion), Mr. Wolfe and his childhood friend, Frank Fritz, 47, show a similar enthusiasm for wheeling and dealing with eccentric collectors or, more often, “freestyling,” their word for driving around in search of homes with lawns that look like junkyards and may contain treasures. As pickers, they are middlemen in the antiques food chain, buying items they can sell quickly, at a markup, to dealers and collectors.
The History cable-network reality series draws about 5.5 million viewers a week, and its success lies in its rugged approach to the traditionally genteel antiques world. As Mr. Wolfe put it, “We don’t wear blue blazers and have 10 cats and talk about Ming Dynasty vases.” Seeing him pull a dirt-caked crock from a farmer’s field with giddy excitement, one might assume Mr. Wolfe lives in the kind of pack-rat nest he visits on the show.
Mr. Wolfe grew up in Bettendorf, Iowa, just downriver from LeClaire, and began picking at age 6. “I found a bicycle in the garbage, and I sold it in two days for $5,” he recalled. “I was hooked.”
The family didn’t have much money (his single mother raised three children) so Mr. Wolfe learned to barter his picks for things he wanted, like his first motorcycle. “I traded a guy a pair of stereo speakers for it,” he said.
By the late 1990s, he owned two bicycle shops, but he began to focus on picking professionally. He started with antique bicycles (“I was pulling bikes out of barns for 10 bucks and selling them for 500 bucks,” he said). Then, after meeting two antiques dealers who quizzed him about what else was in those barns, he expanded into furniture, lighting and items that evoked the machine age.
Eventually, he said, “I’m sitting in the bicycle shop going: ‘What am I doing in here, man? I need to be on the road.’ So I closed the shop, bought a cargo van and hit the back roads. I was a full-on hobo — a Jack Kerouac of junk.”
At the suggestion of a friend, Mr. Wolfe bought a video camera and began filming his picking trips. Sometimes Mr. Fritz came along. Mr. Wolfe thought their adventures would make great TV because “antiques are all about the story, the treasure hunt,” he said, and pickers are “in the trenches finding this stuff.”
But he spent four and a half years trying to convince a network of that, and failing. Finally, History bought “American Pickers,” and the show began early last year.
Summary of next video:
A short video we threw together for Mike Wolfe’s site Antique Archaeology. Some of his greatest hits over the last 5 years before the show American Pickers was picked up by the History Channel.
From Daily Finance, Mike Wolfe of ‘American Pickers’: ‘It’s Rough Out There Finding Good Stuff’:
When Mike Wolfe hits the road with the cast and crew from the hit TV show American Pickers in search of “rusty gold” to turn into cash, he stays in nice hotels. Less than two years ago, though, Wolfe says he slept in his van during these trips.
Such is the power of The History Channel’s American Pickers, which features Wolfe and his co-star and childhood buddy Frank Fritz (pictured left and right, respectively) rooting through piles — and sometimes mountains — of refuse in barns and outbuildings that dot the back roads of America looking for discarded bargains that they can resell at a higher price.
The show — which Wolfe pitched for years to TV executives who were skeptical that the public would care about “junk” collecting– now has an audience of more than 5 million viewers.
In an interview with DailyFinance, Wolfe, points out that his road to TV stardom hasn’t been easy. The second of three children of a single mother, his family didn’t have much money when he was growing up in Joliet, Ill. Wolfe began rooting through the trash as a kid, scoring prizes such as a box of stickers and a bicycle that had been abandoned. While riding the bike, an older kid offered him $5 for it. He took the money, and thus began his career.
After running a bicycle store for 11 years, Wolfe opened his store Antique Archaeology in 2000 in LeClaire, Iowa. Another location will open in Nashville later this year. He has never stopped picking. Danielle Colby-Cushman, the store’s manager who is a regular on the show, is what Wolfe calls the “911 dispatcher of junk.”
It’s been an arduous, uphill path to fame and fortune…
The road is a tough place to make a living. The picks take several hours, and the items they purchase can be heavy. Safety is a constant worry. Wolfe once talked his way off the property of a man wielding a gun. He denies that he takes advantage of hoarders, arguing that collectors have pride in their stuff but hoarders don’t.
The hard work is paying off. Business at his store is booming, thanks to the surging interest in Antique Archeology merchandise. Wolfe’s mission is to make antiques cool to young people, or anyone who isn’t on Social Security. When Wolfe and Fritz go to antique shows, they’re often among the youngest people there. Both are in their late 40s.
American Pickers 1937 Harley Davidson Knucklehead
American Pickers – Season 1 Retrospective
American Pickers: A Day of Good Pickin’
William Shatner in American Pickers
Mike’s Top 5 Tips for Pickers
Frank’s Top 5 Tips for Pickers