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.
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.
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.