Discovering the stash

Most people are happy enough to keep their money in the bank but some folks, be it because they have lived through a time of bank failures, or shortages such as the war; or just because they have a general mistrust of institutions, and prefer to keep their money in their sock:  Or hidden in a cupboard, or buried in the back yard, etc.  People can be very imaginative when it comes to squirreling away money.

We live in Norfolk county, where if you ask around, you will hear lots of stories of lost and found money. This is perhaps due to the large contingent of Belgian, Dutch, and other European farmers who immigrated here to develop the tobacco industry. A lot of these people had experienced unstable financial times. Or maybe it’s the same everywhere.

Friends who bought a local farm decided to wash and put back the existing curtains, only to find that when they opened the washing machine to add softener, the drum was full of curtains and floating money.  The old couple had sewn hundreds of dollars into the hem of the curtains.  They had died without telling anyone.  Thus it was just dumb luck which averted their fortune being thrown into the dumpster.  I know a family that spent weeks digging up the back yard when they realized that dear old dad, before the Alzheimer’s had set in, had been burying money in canning jars back there over the years.   It makes you wonder how much money is swept away and forgotten.  The problem with secrets is that they are quite often buried with their creators.

It was on a late fall trip to the pickers barns in Quebec in the early nineties that I had my brush with dumb luck.  I was solo on a quick two day, there and back run to pick up more stock for the then active Harbourfront Antique market in Toronto.  During this period I would often leave our house at 4 a.m. make the ten hour drive to Victoriaville; then see three or four pickers that afternoon and evening before crashing.  In the morning I would make a few more stops before heading home about noon, which meant I would arrive home  about 2 or 3 a.m. if all went well.

On this particular trip I ran into some particularly nice western furniture at the barn of Alan Chauvette.  It turns out that the rumors were true.  One of the local pickers had family in Manitoba, and in spite of not speaking much English, he had returned home with a huge load of western pieces.  Many interesting  Ukrainian and Dukhobor pieces as well as furniture from early French  settler’s homes.  I bought five or six excellent cupboards, and chests,  feeling happy to have arrived at the right moment to have a crack at it.  I also spent a lot of money. More than I had budgeted.  Jeanine has always kept the books, (thank goodness as I am a disaster), and my method was to simply spend all the money I had, and write a couple of cheques if necessary.  I didn’t keep a running balance, but had an intuitive sense of when to stop.  Well, I threw that sense right out the window this time, for the opportunity to buy some good Western pieces. I knew I was pushing it.  We kept a tight operating budget in those days, so if we didn’t want to dip into savings  a big buying trip meant I really had to have a good Sunday at the market.   I wasn’t sure how, but I knew it would work out.

Phil with Marcel Gosselin

I was feeling pretty satiated when I arrived at picker Marcel Gosselin’s barn about 10 a.m. as a last stop before returning home.  I was still picking up a half dozen stoneware wash sets from him every trip, because they were still popular at the market and he was still finding lots of them. He was also my source for Aime Desmeulle’s folk art, which was selling well at the time.  As I finished filling in the last remaining little spaces in the load with smalls, I was about to write the cheque when Marcel piped in “Are you sure that’s all Phil? I’ll sell you that small cottage chest for $175.  You know you’ll get about $400 for it.”  It was a tidy, little 4 drawer pine cottage chest from Nova Scotia which were very popular at the time.  I looked at my full truck and thought about the cheque book.  “Thanks for the offer Marcel, but look, I don’t have room for it.”  The load was already well above my racks. “ Look there Phil, on the right side of your tailgate.  I can put it on its side and tie it on right up there.”  Sure enough, I could see he was right. “O.K. Marcel, throw it on and give me the total.”

I got home very late, and went straight to bed.    Next morning, going into the kitchen for coffee, there sat Jeanine looking at the cheque book, and looking worried.   “I understand this was a great opportunity, but it’s going to have to be one heck of a good market on Sunday, or we’re going to have to dip into the savings to cover ourselves.”

By the time we got all the wonderful pieces upstairs we were feeling good about it, even if it meant cutting it close.   We still have a wonderful four colour Ukrainian  sideboard from that load that I fell in love with while scraping it down.  We had a good dinner,  and I decided to go upstairs to look over the stuff one more time before hitting the sack.  I was excited by the pieces, but also feeling concerned about so completely blowing the budget. I continued to open the cupboards to inspect the interiors, and  when I finally came to the little pine chest I had bought from Marcel, I opened the top drawer to see how well it travelled in and out. What’s this?   I was amazed to see a small plastic wallet lying there in the middle of the drawer.  How did that get there?  It wasn’t there when I looked at it in Quebec.  Then I remembered that we had put the drawer on it’s side to fit it into the load, and sure enough, when I felt up inside under the top, someone had built a little open shelf up there.  The wallet was full of crisp, old issue Canadian cash.  $1,300 in all.   I couldn’t believe the luck.  I could easily imagine that had I continued to carry it upright I would have sold it  full of cash as it were, and maybe even then it would go into a home upright,  and never be discovered.

Jeanine was having one last coffee before going to bed.  Yes, she can do that. She looked puzzled when I handed her the little wallet.  “ I know you are concerned that I spent so much, and I thought this may help”.  It took her awhile to believe my story, and our good fortune.

When I saw Marcel a week later, he was surprised when I shoved a folded hundred in his shirt pocket.  “What’s this for?”

“Never mind.  Just take it and don’t ask any questions.”

Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer – part 2

It’s funny how the mind works. I left off last Friday suggesting that this two part story of trouble on the way to the North Hatley, Quebec antique show happened in the same trip.  As I was hitting the “post” button, I realize that the events described actually took place on separate trips, a couple of years apart.  I tend to think out a story and then write quickly.  I had not thought of these events in years, and over that time my mind had blended them into one event.  By the time I realized my mistake, I convinced myself it would make for a better story in any case.  Also, I’ll admit I was anxious to wrap so I could get out in the garden. You know.  Spring fever.  But now as I sit down to write the second part that decision bothers me, not that it matters a great deal;  but I am trying to be roughly accurate in my story telling.  Arguably any good story telling involves a certain level of B.S. and I’ve got nothing against a good tall tale, but there you have it.  Our story continues on the same route, but a couple of years later.

I would avoid an extra night in a motel by arriving in North Hatley around noon on Friday so I would have time to set up for the show opening that evening. I would leave home about 4 a.m. to make the eight hour trip.  The trip had gone well.  Leaving so early there were no traffic slowdowns in Toronto, Kingston, or Montreal, so about eleven a.m. I found myself feeling quite light and happy as I traveled up and down the big hills on Hwy 10  in the Magog area. 

The sun was shining.  Big, fluffy cumulus clouds rolled along the horizon.  Traffic was light, and I could see myself arriving right on time.  I was already unpacking in my mind.  I was heading down a long decline when I saw the transport a few thousand feet ahead of me apply his brakes.  The brake lights came on, and then I noticed a big piece of metal come shooting out from one of his wheels.  A big chunk of his brake had come loose.  I watched it become airborne,  and everything went into slow motion as it bounced once, twice, heading right towards me. In high school I wasn’t any good at algebra, but I generally understood geometry, and so I quickly calculated the distance, trajectory, bounce height, and the velocity, and determined that I was in trouble.  There was a car coming up beside me so there was no switching lanes.  If I tried to brake it might make it worse.  I stayed the course and was relieved when it landed right in front of me, missing the windshield; but making a sickening loud clunk under the truck as it bounced up into the under-carriage.  Looking in the rear view I saw it come out the back and off to the side, and I noticed a wet line on the road coming from the back.  It had hit and punctured the gas tank and I was bleeding gas at a good rate.

The trucker didn’t see it happen, and kept going. I knew I would never be compensated if I didn’t have his license plate number and information, so I floored it and caught up with him, and motioned him over. We both pulled over and he ran back to meet me where I was looking up under the back of the car to determine the damage.  It was a steady flow out of about a 3” gash.  He immediately apologized and said he realized that something had happened to one of his brakes, but didn’t see that it had hit me.  As we stood there watching the gas flow slowly from the tank  he gave me his card and said the company would pay for it, and would I like him to call a tow truck.  I thanked him and looked at the gas coming out and said “ you know it’s only about another twenty minute drive to North Hatley and I’ve got almost a full tank of gas, so I think I will just go for it and see if I can at least get closer, and to a garage and save the tow charge.  With a wave and a good luck we both jumped in our vehicles and got back on the highway.

It only took about ten minutes to realize that yes, I was losing gas at a good rate but the needle wasn’t going down that fast so I just kept going.  I left the big highway driving past a few repair shops because I now had confidence that I would make it, and if I could get to the show and unload, I could call a tow truck from there.   As I came into town I stopped at the gas station which was also the town auto repair.  The owner there could see immediately that I had a problem.  “So how much gas do you have left?”  “I’d say about an eight of a tank.”  “Well here, take this canister of gas, go and unload and if you run out, then dump it in and it will give you enough to get back here. I can fix your gas tank tomorrow so you will have it to go back in on Sunday. “  Heck of a nice guy. Great solution.  So that’s what I did.

The garage was only a few blocks away from the community rink where the show takes place.  When I got there I jumped out of the truck away from the unloading area to tell the people there of my predicament and to make sure that no one was smoking.  Everyone was enormously supportive and helpful. They all came over and helped me unload everything on the parking lot in record time, and twenty minutes later I was back at the garage where they parked my truck out back and put a container under it to catch the remainder of the leaking gas.   We exchanged phone numbers in case he found something else, but otherwise he suggested he would have it ready for me the following afternoon.

I walked back to the show feeling happy not only to be there,  but  anywhere considering the possibility, and at one point seeming probability of a big chunk of metal smashing into my face at high velocity.  It was no problem getting a ride to the motel with another dealer, and I was set up in time and had a great opening night and following show.  My truck was ready the next day as promised, and the trucking company paid for the repair.  I was once again very grateful for the help of others, and for a happy ending.

Learning to Love Auctions

What is it that would cause a teen age boy to attend an estate auction on a sunny Saturday afternoon , when he could be going to the beach with friends?  Thinking back on my sixteen year old self I remember that I found time for both, and that as soon as I discovered them, I enjoyed attending auctions.   Initially I think it was the “game’ aspect of watching two or more determined buyers going at it, trying to outbid each other to win that desirable object.  . Although not inherently materialistic, I find it interesting to observe the dollar value of things on any given day, and compare it to my estimates of it’s worth.  Also,  an auction presents an opportunity  to be among strangers, and observe their interplay.  Something I also love about public markets, both of the food and antique variety. And finally  of course there is the stuff itself.  There, spread out across the yard lie the components that taken together represent the life and  possessions of an individual, or family.

When I turned sixteen my Mom inexplicably and without warning bought me a brand new Vauxhall Viva station wagon.  She and my Aunt Marie were visiting a car dealer friend, and it must have been a heck of a good lunch, or a sweetheart of a deal because they came home with the news that they had both bought a car. One for me, and one for my cousin Ron.  We suspected that alcohol was involved, but naturally we were delighted all the same.  So I had wheels, and occasionally, a local auction advertisement would catch my eye, and I would take some of my hard earned  cash and set off to see what I could score.  Hard earned being the correct term in that I had a summer job on the night shift at the local canning plant.  I worked in the cooking area.  About 100 degrees, steamy, and loud for eight hours.  Minimum wage.  I learned to get by on about four hours sleep so I could have some fun before going back into the abyss.

I didn’t need anything of course.  I wasn’t setting up house or starting a shop.  I would just find myself interested in certain things.  A naive painting.  A primitive, handmade table, a chrome ashtray stand with an airplane on top.  An old plastic radio. The ephemera of interesting small things dumped from a keepsake drawer into a box lot. I loved to sort through it all and find the unexpected. I realize now that as I was looking over all that stuff I was developing my aesthetic.  I didn’t give a hoot for all the fussy glass and china and Victorian furniture , but I started to love the look of old paint, and hand wrought things.  I decided what of the paintings, if any were of interest.  I grew an appreciation for rusty old farm tools.

I didn’t even bid all that often, and when I did I would fall out early as I didn’t have a lot to spend. But I would usually come home with something.   A little gem unnoticed in a box-lot, or something so off base and goofy to most people that no one else wanted it.  I seemed to score a lot of funky, handmade furniture.  Nobody wanted that stuff.

After a few auctions you begin to notice who the dealers are.  The ones who stuck out from the crowd by how often they bid and won,  seemingly without matter of the cost.  In our area there was Madge Wilson, of Grannie’s Boot who incidentally is still  in the business today, and Don Palmer, legendary picker form the Aylmer area.   On anything of great antique value these two would very quickly leave everyone else in the dust and battle it out between them.  They both had great knowledge and taste so I learned a lot by just observing them.  On something I really liked  I would try to outbid them, but I would rarely win.  I don’t think they liked the idea of encouraging a young upstart, although they would very occasionally throw me a bone.  Still, I would most often leave with something, or a few things in the back.

In Dresden, where I was raised we had a Two car garage.  My mother rightfully insisted in keeping her car indoors, but didn’t mind having things stored temporarily on the other side.  When we sold the newspaper business, I decided to keep a few things.  I noticed one day that the bottom of the trays used to store type were made from very old hand carved wooden plates for making  circus posters.  These approx. 2’x3’ works of art showed wild animals, acrobats etc. with a place blocked out to include the local time and place.  They had remnants of the old ink soaked into the wood.  They were very old, and they were fabulous.  I also had a circa 1840 hand feed rotary printing press.  Quite small, but weighing about half a ton.  Then there was a lot of old hand carved type, etc.  So it did not take long for my space to fill up.  That’s when I met my new, old friend Dan.

Dan was always at the auctions.  He was the friendly looking, disheveled  old dude who would give the auctioneer a $2 bid when he need one, and would go home with twenty or so boxes of old tools, hardware etc. and the occasional piece of unwanted furniture.  I got to talking to Dan over coffee as we were checking out the preview.  He was a nice guy and generous by nature.  Since his wife’s death some years earlier Dan had lived on his own on a small hobby farm at the edge of town.   Just a few blocks from my house along the river road.   One day Dan asked me to come by for coffee and he would show me his barn.   I got myself right over there.

After coffee and a chat in his kitchen we went to the barn, and when he threw open the doors I was truly amazed with what lay before me.  There arranged on rows of tables and in cupboards lay thousands of sorted everyday items.  A box of cork screws here, next to kitchen devices, beside hand tools.  You get the picture.  Then over there are stacks of furniture, old bicycles, and a couple of cars including a big, black 1957 Cadillac limousine.  Wow. “Where did you get the limo, Dan”.  Turns out it was the governor of Alabama’s, and he had bought it cheap because the engine was seized. Knowing that I was running out of space he offered me a 10’x20’ space in exchange for helping him once a week to move and organize things.  I liked Dan and had no trouble agreeing to the terms.

Within a couple of years this space was also quite full, but my high school years were drawing to a close and soon I would be leaving town to pursue higher education.  My mother was wanting the other side of the garage back for storing her picnic table in the winter, etc. and I didn’t want to leave my old friend Dan with a problem.  By this point he was finished with going to auctions and wasn’t leaving the house much.

Realizing the game was almost  up, and not wanting to leave a burden on his kids, Dan phoned a local junk collector he knew and sold it all for one money on the understanding the guy would clean out the barn.  I was just about to leave home for London, Ontario so I told him to go ahead and sell my stuff as well.  There was some cool things in there, but there was also a lot of junk.  I think I got $800 for it all which was probably about what I had spent, and which came in handy to buy books, etc.  The stuff in my mother’s garage lasted about another year until a professor from a Chicago University with a printing studies program  found out about my old press and came racing over to sweet talk my mother into donating it to the library there.  Oh, and he’ll take those old Circus printing plates as well.  They had a deal when he agreed to take everything.  I couldn’t really be upset as I had left the problem unresolved for so long, but I still think about those Circus plates from time to time.

La Malbaie, part two – Bringing it all back home

malbaie2When our offer to purchase a small barn’s worth of antiques near La Malbaie, Quebec was accepted, we recognized we had two main problems to solve; getting it all back to our place, and having somewhere to put it when we got it there.  The church showroom was already quite full, as was our little storage sheds, so we talked to our friend and neighbor Dave who had a farm around the corner with some unused out buildings, and arranged to rent them at a reasonable rate.

There were many items in the lot that were outside our regular inventory; commercial products mostly like old beer bottles, tins, etc., so our plan was to sell most of this as quickly as possible to realize back some of our investment, and allow us to focus on what we normally sell.  We knew a lot of dealers by this point so we invited them all to come when all the stock had arrived, to have a first pick of it.  This generated a bit of excitement that we all shared.  It felt like Christmas was coming when you were ten, and you couldn’t wait to see what will be under the tree for you.  A date was set in three weeks time.

I rented the largest moving truck they would allow me with my license which was really, really  big.  If I’m not mistaken the box was 20’ long, and 10’ high.  A good friend named Sergio who ran a nearby apple farm offered to ride shotgun.  When I talked to the seller in Quebec I asked if he could hire four strong men to load, and he said it was no problem.  He knew such men who would be happy for the work.  He said he had a motel room waiting for us. Things were shaping up.

Sergio and I set out about 5 am the next morning. A time which allowed us to cross Toronto before morning rush hour, and which barring delays would put us in La Malbaie about 3 in the afternoon.  The  trip, although long, passed pleasantly enough as we chatted about anything and everything and occasionally munched away at our packed lunch.  Sergio is Italian so we spent a fair amount of time with him teaching me swear words, and street sign language. Did you know that if you are walking down the street with an Italian friend and he holds his hand straight out about belt level and waves it front to back it means “I’m hungry. Let’s go get something to eat”?  I didn’t either.

malbaie3We pulled into the farm about 3 as expected and drove directly to the barn.  There was our man with a team of 4 very large men behind him looking tough, and ready for action.  We only took about fifteen minutes to stretch and get our bearings, and then the trucks ramp was lowered and we got started. I stayed in the barn and pointed at the items to be loaded, and Sergio stayed in the truck and arranged the placement.  We started with the big, boxy pieces like cupboards, dressers and sideboards, stuffing smaller items like bicycles, signs, wall cupboards, etc. in all the little spaces.  The guys were amazing. Strong and careful and we filled the truck form front to back in less than three hours. As we rolled down the door you could see that we had taken approximately half on the contents.  We then all went down into La Malbaie where we had a delicious dinner and a few celebratory brews at our host’s motel.  His treat.  What a guy. Then we settled in for an early night and slept the sleep of the dead until about 7 the next morning. We grabbed some breakfast and headed west.  Pulled in at home about 7 pm and went straight to bed.

It was all hands on deck the next morning at 9 am.  It took us about five hours to unload in such a way that everything could be accessed.  We spent the rest of the afternoon looking at all the small treasures that were stuffed in the various drawers and boxes.  I had an early dinner and went straight to bed so that I would be ready to head out with Sergio at 5 the following morning for round two.

Essentially it was the same routine but with the added fun of the scrap metal dealer arriving to haul off all the recent and thus rejected cash registers and the like.  Where did this guy get all those cash registers? He must have bought out a local supplier.  When the truck was full again there was still a small pile of things left.  I said I would probably be back for them with my pick-up, but if I couldn’t make it back, I’d phone and he could call the local junk guy to come and get it.  I wasn’t sure if I had another trip in me.  Turns out I did, and Jeanine and I left a couple of days later in our faithful old pick-up.

Well that small pile turned out to completely fill the poor old thing, and I’ve never seen it sit lower on it’s chassis due to the large number of cast iron pots and pans which dominated the load.  The wheels were practically rubbing on the fenders and I thought I was going to run out of gears and have to back up some of the sharp inclines you need to pass to get out of the region.  Somehow she hung in there and we made it home.  I was so impressed I almost wrote Ford a letter.  We got home and had a few days to prepare for the pick.   We pulled out all the things that we wanted for ourselves and got them back to the church.

When the dozen or so dealers arrived we explained that the procedure would be for them to go through everything and make a pile of the things they would like to purchase.  We explained that as we had known them all for years and had done good business we would trust them to tell us what they would pay based on a reasonable, but not outlandish profit.  In other words “We trust you to be fair”.  Unless we felt we were totally being screwed we would go along with the price.  You know, it worked amazingly well.  Almost everyone was completely fair and the few who were not stood out like a sore thumb. “Oh, so this 100 year old, unopened bottle of Molson Ale in mint condition is only worth $15. I would have thought more, but if you say so.”  There were a couple moments of “I saw it first” tension but they got resolved without fist fights.  Everyone felt encouraged to share in our good fortune and grab what they could use.  At the end of the day we had reduced the load by about a quarter, and the venture was paid for.  A hellish amount of effort, but we continued to make money from that load for years, but I have to say that the best part for me really was the joy of opening everything up and discovering all the treasures inside.  World of Wonder.malbaie5

Lunch in St Eulalie

vue-aerienne-ste-eulalie Just as many of the dealers and pickers active in the Victoriaville area in the eighties would meet at the Esso Station across from Kojak’s place on the outskirts of town for breakfast;  the same bunch would  turn up for lunch at a trucker’s diner twenty miles away, on the north side of the big highway 20,  in a tiny place called St. Eulalie.  At lunch time the parking lot of this busy establishment would have from 6 to a dozen pickers trucks lined up, and typically you would find small groups of men checking out what was tied down there, and discussing the possibility of a transaction.  Most of these pickers were loyal to one or the other of the half dozen antique centers in the area, so they would not sell to you directly, but they may tell you where a piece was going and to whom you needed to  inquire about it.   There was always a lot of lively dialogue and laughing going on.  Tips, news and gossip in equal measure.  Sometimes you would witness heated arguments.  Eventually everyone would make their way inside, and take their favorite seat in the crowded dining room, and the talk continued.

I loved the scene.  If we were nearby at lunch time we would turn up there along with everyone else.  After checking  out the action in the parking lot, we would make our way inside  to order a lunch special, or sandwich, followed by a nice piece of sugar pie.  A Quebec delicacy that is as disgustingly sweet as it sounds, but it goes well with a cup of coffee and dialogue.12260907_4_z

It was always crowded with locals, and those who were travelling on the Grand Route 20, and the wait staff was plentiful and efficient. The joint was jumping.

I remember one sunny summer day in particular sitting in a booth looking out onto the parking lot with one of the main dealers of the area, and a good friend, Ben.  Ben was always smiling, and his sunny disposition rarely changed.  On this day however, we were sitting there peacefully having a coffee before ordering when he looked out the window, saw a man get out of his truck, and suddenly jumped up and said” I’ll be right back.”  I watched as he raced out the front door, crossed the parking lot, and went right up to the fellow, parking himself about an inch from his face; and then started yelling.  I could not hear the conversation but you could see that it was heated.  The intense conversation continued back and forth for another moment and then suddenly, bam, Ben hauls off and punches the guy in the face.  The guy falls back a couple of steps rubbing his chin A few more angry words are said, and then to my surprise both of them come together back into the restaurant and sit down at our booth.  “You didn’t have to hit me like that Ben.  I told you I was sorry about the deal.”  “I didn’t have to but I wanted to, and I told you that if you ever crossed me again like that, you’d pay for it.”  Well, o.k. I was wrong but I’ve apologized and now it’s water under the bridge, right?  “ Yes, but don’t you ever try to pull anything like that again.  You know I will find out about it and It’s no way to treat me after all the business we have done.”  “You’re right Ben. I’m sorry.”  After that it was all sweetness and light.  Pleasant conversation, jokes and eating a good meal together, as if nothing unpleasant had happened.  I realized then that the Quebec guys ran a little hotter than we do in Ontario, and they have ways of resolving differences that we wouldn’t consider.  I respected that they could be so open in expressing their feelings, and that  issues got resolved quickly, and then they moved on.  Still, I made a mental note to avoid pissing off Ben.15798173115_46487d98c9

I cannot remember the name of the place.  It was something  generic like Voyager’s Inn or the like;  so I went on to google map to see if I could see the sign out front.  I was shocked to discover that there is nothing there now save for the big paved parking lot and a lot of weeds.  The place must have burnt down.  It made me feel sad that if we were to go there now, we would have to discover where the new place to meet is,  if they are still even doing it, and it would surely not be the same.  That’s the problem with going back after so many years.  Everything changes and some things disappear.  Brings to mind Thomas Wolfe who so succinctly put it in his 1940 novel, “You can’t go home again.”facade-immeuble-commercial-a-vendre-ste-eulalie-quebec-province-large-592792

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

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