More about door knocking

truck2Early on in the game I  realized that the truest adventure of the antique business lay in door knocking.  It’s one thing to source from auction, other dealers and collectors you know, it’s quite another to pull up to a lonely,  run down farm in the middle of nowhere, and knock on the door. You don’t know what type of person you are about to meet.  It’s a bit like hitch hiking in that respect.  Most people are o.k. but if you keep at it long enough you are going to meet up with your fair share of weirdos, some who can even be dangerous.

I  was never a full time picker, but I wanted to experience the excitement of it so I would go out for a couple of days to a week every so often, usually with a buddy, and treat it like a  fishing or hunting trip with BBQ and beers, and lots of bullshit stories.

It is always a good idea to be picking with someone else. Not only for security, but for the more mundane legal reason that you have a witness to verify the transaction, should the kids come back at you, or the like.  You have to trust and respect your picking partner though, and have some fair way of distributing the booty.  The ordinary stuff isn’t hard to figure out.  The problem arises when you come upon something wonderful that you both lust after.  You can take turns buying and leave it up to chance, or do what I liked to do  and agree that if you come up with a real treasure that you both want you own it together.  On my picking trips with buddies we came across some nice gear, but nothing that fell into this category.

I would occasionally go out on my own. I liked to go down to Kent and Essex county where my dad had owned and run farm papers.  A lot of people knew my dad and it would quite often be the ticket indoors.  For the most part people are pretty nice around there, and I could leave early in the morning, pick all day, and come home with a fairly full truck the same evening. It also just felt good being around the old parts.  It’s desperately flat country, but it has its charm. I wasn’t like the guys you see on t.v. buying anything that had value.  I didn’t want to haul and distribute a lot of o.k. but ordinary stuff.  I cherry picked. China stayed in the cabinets but I would do my best to leave with that nice wall box found buried under junk in the shed. It’s funny because nobody wanted much for good primitive furnishings but everyone was looking for top dollar for the silver plate.   At the base of it, it’s a treasure hunt. Much like we played at as children. That treasure just might turn up at the next stop.

One thing I noticed early on is that it is not often the house that looks like it would have a 1830 flat to wall in the back kitchen that actually produces much. It’s likely been picked several times. It’s just as likely to be in the basement of the 60’s ranch style house that the farmer built himself next door.  People have been picking for a long time.  Almost every rural property has been visited at least once over the years. Inevitably you would confront the story that it’s too bad you didn’t get here ten years earlier.  But it also worked out sometimes that people would come to regret refusing an earlier offer, or their situation had changed, and you could buy something for what they had been offered. Or at least what they said they were offered.

Looking  mostly for primitives  it is fairly frustrating how many of these turn of the century farms are filled with turn of the century manufactured mail order furniture.  An awful lot of maple stenciled to look like oak. Your best chance was in the basement, outbuilding, or barn.  Not always rural either. Some of the best things I have found came from homes in small towns.

You like to feel that you get a gut feeling, but this is a romance, and often just something you tell yourself to keep pressing after several disappointments.

What’s worse is after hours or days of finding nothing you come across the crown jewels, and they refuse to sell it.  This is when you need to use your head and stay cool.  I never played games with people by feigning disinterest. Without revealing my hand I would show genuine interest in the things I was genuinely interested in. Too emphatic and they might close down and send you packing.  I would never try to belittle the item, recognizing most people can spot a phony.  No, best to tell them that you respect and value an item and offer them a fair price.  You don’t necessarily give up at no. You do your best to keep the conversation open and positive, eventually coming back to a second offer.  Mind you this is just the way I did it because I like to sleep at night. Even if I couldn’t get them to budge after several attempts I always left my calling card in case they changed their mind, and then check back in with them for a friendly hello from time to time.  Just a general chat with a casual reference to how much you still like the piece.  It’s sometimes worth it.   You can go back five or six times unsuccessfully and then be delighted one day to hear that they have decided to sell.  Picking with respect.

Not everybody works like this.  There are some hair raising stories of some legendary pickers especially from earlier days who were essentially bullies.   They would get in a house and aggressively brow beat the poor old couple until they would give in.  Picking using fear.

Like any human endeavor, with picking there is a light and a dark side.

It came with this topper

It came with this topper

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Door knocking – picking from the source

cupboard found in back kitchen

cupboard found in back kitchen

People, including myself will refer to a day of going to shops, and other dealer and collector’s homes for the purpose of finding stock as “picking”, but the origins of the word “picker”, and the true meaning of the word “picking” more correctly refers to the activities of the foot soldiers of the antique trade.  The guy or gal who goes out, and “cold call” knocks on doors of people they do not know, in an attempt to buy from the source.  There is a technique to the process of door knocking which can be learned in theory, but the success of a “door knocker” is determined by personality, communication skills and an ability to be rejected over and over again without becoming morose.

The trick is to get inside. If you knock and after a pleasant good day simply ask if they have something for sale, most people will send you packing.  The trick is to engage in some casual conversation and let them get to know you a little before you ask about buying anything.  You need to develop trust.  One technique pickers use is to say that they are a hobby collector of old bottles just out for a drive and they thought you’d just drop by and ask if there might be any old bottles in the basement.   Who doesn’t have old bottles in the basement, so if you seem trustworthy enough you are in. Once down there you can look around and casually notice the old flat to the wall cupboard holding old preserves.  It’s best to start small.  Get them to sell you anything easy to part with. Offer them $10 for something you know is not worth more than $2, to start the process and a little enthusiasm, and you may come away with a full truck.  It sounds easy, but it’s not.  You knock on a heck of a lot of doors before there is even a slight hope of success.  A lot of people these days are not that happy to be disturbed, and if you go to the wrong place, it can even be dangerous.  You need nerve and a thick skin to be a picker.

she's rough but she's a survivor

she’s rough but she’s a survivor

When I started in the business over thirty years ago, there were many of these “door-knocking pickers”.  In Quebec, all the Antique distribution barns had several associated pickers who would head out each day, returning late with their finds. Some pickers developed long standing relationships and sold everything to the same person. Others, acted independently and would make the rounds. Meanwhile, the pickers from Ontario, seemed for the most part to work independently, making the rounds to dealer’s shops, but also turning up with their fresh picked stock at outdoor shows, and markets.  Times and attitudes have changed and now this type of picker is almost extinct.  Another endangered species which is moving quickly towards extinction.

But even thirty years ago, most of the great door to door picking was behind us.  You need to go back to the fifties and sixties to hear stories of the almost endless bounty those first door knockers could come up with.  Rural people, especially on the smaller, less prosperous farms saved everything.  New kitchen table in, save the old one in case you need it to butcher chicken’s on it one day, and so forth.  So, when those pioneer pickers would turn up with a pick-up truck, a smile, and a pocket full of cash, there was enthusiasm to sell them whatever they wanted.  No Antiques Roadshow to fill people’s heads with big ideas.  Here comes a guy who is willing to give me twenty bucks for that old table in the back of my barn. No problem. Here, let me help you load it.  There are even stories of pickers bringing along one of those shiny new, easy to clean Arbourite and chrome tables, and very kindly swapping for that nasty old eight foot pine harvest table that had come with the family from the old house.  It took a while, but eventually word got out after somebody went to town and looked in the windows of the antique shop. Then pickers had to work harder, and pay more.

used to hold old paint until it was found in a garage

used to hold old paint until it was found in a garage

Today, as I said, there is only a small fraction of these ground level pickers in our midst.  People are savvy, or they think they are, and somebody told them that old book was worth $1,000.   You may know that it’s worth $400 so you try to buy it for $300 from them. Good luck. That’s how it is today. Also, people don’t inherently trust one another anymore so if someone they don’t know comes up the driveway and knocks, they are just as likely to phone the security company as they are to answer.  Not to mention the price of gas.

There are some legendary picker’s stories out there, some which I will recall here in the future, but there are many, many more which have disappeared with the breed.  There’s still a few people around who could entertain you for hours with their picking recollections, but they are getting up there.  Best to ask them to tell you some stories soon before they forget.

picker's truck pulled up to an old northern farm

picker’s truck pulled up to an old northern farm

First, we take Manhattan – part two

newy6We had outrun the snow storm, and arrived at the Puck building in Soho before the morning rush.  Although it was two hours before the designated set up time of 8 am, Jeanine and I had already had a morning coffee and a lovely smoked salmon sandwich on rye.  One thing you had to say about this promoter is that he really fed you well, knowing that dealers think with their stomachs.  None of the crew that would help dealers unload would be there for two hours, but we hadn’t slept and were running on nervous energy. Anxious to get at it and set up, so that we could get to the hotel and sleep.  We had rejected the idea of a nap.  So, nothing to do but drive the truck up to the nearest door to our booth and start lugging.  There was no traffic so this was a snap.newy2

We pulled up the door of the cube van and became intimidated for a moment by the size of the load.  We had a good-sized booth and wanted to do well, so we were loaded for bear.  Just then as we were stretching out our muscles in anticipation of the task ahead we spotted a young, black guy, in a black hoody sliding up the sidewalk.  He stopped as he reached us, smiled, and said “Can you use a hand”.   “Well, if your offering, we could actually. I’ll be glad to compensate you”. Without a beat. “Let’s get started. I’m Leroy.  Where are we going with this stuff”?  “Right in here, Leroy.  I’m Phil and this is Jeanine.” A little bow and a handshake. “Nice to meet you both. So what I’d suggest Phil is that Jeanine stays at the booth, you bring the small stuff to me off the truck, and I’ll look after the middle. The big stuff we’ll have to do together. ”Sounds great Leroy. Let’s get at her.” He was a wonderful helper, remaining positive and up-beat the whole time. Full of suggestions; “Well I think you should put that cupboard over there Jeanine”.  It was actually fun.  Within an hour and a bit everything was in front of our booth and we were already half set up.  We thanked Leroy, and asked if he might come back on Sunday night at 6 when the show was over to help us reload. “Well that depends. I’ll try, but I can’t promise.  No problem Leroy, so let’s see” We’ll call it an hour and a half, so how about 30 bucks? Does that sound fair?”  “Oh no Phil.  You’re in the big city now you know.  Everything costs more.  I think you’ll have to do better.”  He was right, of course. My Scottish nature had made me offer him a country wage.  “Alright Leroy, let’s make it $50.”  That’s right, Phil. Now you’ve got it. Now you’re in a New York state of mind.”  Leroy shook our hands, wished us a great show, and headed off in the same direction he was going before. Sometimes help arrives when you need it.newy1

By the time I had taken the truck to the parking lot ($125 dollars there for the weekend.  Now I know what you mean Leroy.) , and we had finished setting up, we were totally pooched.  It had started to snow heavily about 10 a.m. so in the cab on the way over to the hotel later that afternoon we were becoming concerned as to whether anyone would be able to make it to the show the following morning.  We were too tired to care much at that point.  All we could think of was a shower and a bed.

We arose to snow covered streets, but nothing that would stop a dedicated antique show lover.   At 9 am when we arrived at the show there was already a small line of people waiting.  By the ten o’clock opening, there was maybe 60 to 80 who rushed in.  Not a Bowmanville opening night crowd, but serious shoppers none the less.  The first person to approach us was an interior designer from Brooklyn who could barely contain herself with excitement over the sphinx’s.  She asked for the dealer discount which we provided and she immediately said yes and gave us $100 down, pleading with us not to sell them to anyone else while she went to a cash machine to come up with the rest.  We reassured her that with the deposit they were hers, no matter how much extra someone might offer.  I can’t imagine reneging on a deal once money has changed hands, but I suppose there may be some who can justify it to themselves. Somehow.  It wasn’t a problem in any case because although others did admire them, everyone respected the sold tags, and she was back within the hour with the cash and a van to take them.  Several more sales followed over the next two days despite the relatively low attendance.  At least those who came were keen, and decisive.  What surprised us most was the high number of people who knew about Canadian folk art.  Many people would recognize a Charlie Tanner, or Edmund Chatigny, and everyone seemed to know who Maud Lewis was.  We were told by several people that they had gone to Nova Scotia on a field trip arranged by the Museum of Folk Art.  We were in high spirits at dinner on Saturday evening when we met our friends who live in Manhattan.  We had delicious Japanese food that was still quite a novelty to us, in a place our friends frequented.  A couple of glasses of sake and we really started to feel the buzz of the city.

Sunday was cold and blustery, but we did a bit more business and knew that we would go home with considerably less stock and more money, which is of course the point of the exercise.

Leroy was a no show at pack-up, and the gang of young Russian thugs the promoter hired to help load just about gave me a heart attack with their careless and at times downright brutal loading techniques.  At one point I was having to catch boxes full of delicate items thrown at me from the back door of the truck.  Hair raising stuff, and they looked like they might kill you if you complained. Still, we were packed in about an hour and heading down the West Side highway, heading to the George Washington bridge   as the sun set, and the street lights came on. The icing on the cake is when I heard the immediately recognizable first chords of waw waw guitar and the golden voice of Isaac Hayes utter the first lines of “Shaft”.  A song I had always heard as quintessential New York.  It was a magic moment we had there heading down the West Side Highway listening to Shaft.  A perfect moment.newy3

First, we take Manhattan – part one, getting there

newy1In the early nineties one of Canada’s top promoters of high end antique shows bravely decided to take a swing at the big apple.  He decided to piggy back on the excitement around the annual January Antique Week in Manhattan where at the time there was about a dozen shows taking place in the area over two weeks. He managed to rent the well-known Puck Building in Soho, and he advertised widely. He even organized a free shuttle bus to run between the Puck building and the Winter Antique Show held at the Park Avenue Armory, and a couple of other of the big venue shows.  His full-page ad proclaimed “the Canadians are invading New York….”  I forget the exact wording, but the gist of it was we were there to kick American ass.  It didn’t appeal to my humble Canadian nature, and I don’t think it appealed all that much to the American dealers either who stayed away in droves, but I must admit it was a gutsy move.

Things started to unwind a bit before they even got started, when a couple of the established big guns of the Canadian Antique scene decided it was too risky, or the costs were too high, or whatever, and refused to participate.  The promoter had promised folk art, and had asked me to come along, but I too thought it was too large an investment on a first time show and passed.  It was a week before the show when I received the call stating that I was desperately needed in New York, and I could name what it would take for me to come.  Well, I thought about the success of the two Outsider Art Fairs that I had recently participated in, and how I liked and respected this promoter and what he was attempting, so with a nod from Jeanine I let him make me an offer I could not refuse.  It was still a risk, but we love New York, and the thought of selling there was very exciting.  We also had a lot of interesting “gear “(stuff for sale) at the time, including a pair of fiberglass Sphinx that had once graced the entrance of the Bill Lynch Circus which was big out of Nova Scotia in the forties.  We thought they were magnificent but had not been able to get any interest at two or three fall shows in Canada.  We thought they might be appreciated in New York so we put a bold price on them, figuring if we didn’t sell too well otherwise, the sale of “the girls” would help out the bottom line.newy4

I remember that set up was from 8 a.m on Friday January 24, 1992, but you could arrive anytime provided you were set up for the 10 a.m. opening on Saturday.  Our truck was old and open backed, and they were forecasting a lot of snow coming so we decided to rent a cube van.  In for a penny. In for a pound. Logistically we decided to pick up the truck on Thursday at 5 p.m. which I talked the rental company into counting as being picked up the next morning, saving us a day’s rental.  They knew they were going to make good money in the kilometer charges and I was a regular. The concept was to load the truck which we knew would only take a couple of hours as everything was packed and ready. Then we would leisurely have our dinner, take showers, and catch an early night, so we could leave about six the next morning.  On a good day this would put us in Manhattan about 6 in the evening, and we would be able to unload and set up in the evening and hopefully get to the hotel about 9 or 10.  We did not know how long it may take to clear customs, but we did know that we could take all night to set up if we wanted to, and we did not want the expense of another night in New York and another day’s truck rental.

But here’s how the best laid plans can fail in January.  You guessed it.  The weather.  All day Thursday as I waited for the 5 p.m. pick up of the rental the weather reports became more and more alarming about the huge snow storm which was making its way across the mid-west U.S. on line to arrive at our place about sunrise.  Just as we would be leaving.  This was a biggy.  A no kidding, you are going to get nailed snow event.  About two in the afternoon when we stopped for lunch I looked to Jeanine and said.  “I think we have to try to outrun this baby.  We should pack and go right away and at least get through customs and a bit down the road and then pull into a hotel for the night.  At least if we can get out of the Buffalo area it shouldn’t be so bad.  We cannot afford to not make it there in time. We have too much riding on it.”  Jeanine found this a hard pill to swallow but soon saw the logic.  So right after lunch I called the rental place, put on my sweetest voice and talked them into letting us have the truck then. We hurriedly packed the truck with the help of our worker Albert and our son Brodie who was called into duty, and so by 5 in the afternoon we were on our way.

I remember that it was beginning to snow lightly as we entered the customs warehouse in Buffalo.  We sat in a cold little room over-illuminated with a weird green fluorescent light alongside a dozen or so actual truckers. We were all trying to stay warm sipping lousy vending machine coffee, and making small talk as we waited for our number to be called. All the while conscious of the increasing snow floating gently down outside the tiny window.  This was the scene for about 45 minutes which felt like 45 hours when you can see and feel the coming storm.  When we pulled onto the interstate I said to Jeanine, “let’s just go down the road a way to get a little distance in tonight.  I’m feeling awake and every mile we cover, makes one less mile tomorrow under much worse conditions.  I gassed up the beast, and we headed down the line. newy5

The snow was getting thick on the road and the road reports were not encouraging but we kept on.  Then after about an hour the snow started to lessen, and we realized we were becoming slightly ahead of the storm.  We got some coffee at a service center and I looked over to Jeanine who before the stop had begun starting to snooze, and suggested “Look.  I’m feeling o.k. there’s some good tunes on the radio, and the road is clear.  I say, let’s just keep going until the snow comes, or I am too tired, or something stops us.  Surprisingly, she agreed.  What a trouper.  She even stayed awake for the most part engaging in any, and all conversation we could muster as to keep me from sleep.  The hours and miles passed.  The snow started up again, very lightly at first.  Reports on the radio suggested that Buffalo was already virtually closed due to heavy snowfall.  The giant storm was arriving a little ahead of schedule, and it was breathing down our back.  We kept going, not stopping again until about two hours before New York when we stopped at a service center for a half hour nap, and another round of coffee.  I hated to stop but I was at my limit.  Surprisingly that half hour of shut eye was all I needed to wake up and complete the journey.

The snow began to come down heavily then, and I remember that it became very blustery and slippery just as we crossed over the George Washington bridge into Manhattan, and the truck did a little slide to the left just to let us know what we were dealing with.  It was about 6 a.m. and there was no traffic so we pulled right up to the Puck building, realizing at that hour we could unload from the street rather than having to bring everything in from the loading dock.  We looked inside the locked doors and were delighted to see that some people were already there starting to put down carpet and set up drapes.  There was some good strong coffee and some nice snacks set out, and within an hour we had refreshed ourselves, and then they allowed us to begin unloading.  And that’s when we met Leroy. But I will save Leroy for next week and the continuation of the story.  What mattered then, and it was all that mattered then is that we had arrived safely before the storm.newy2