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

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The Toronto Harbourfront Market in its Heyday

Our Harbourfront offerings circa 1983

Our Harbourfront offerings circa 1983

Every Sunday morning from the early 80’s to the late 90’s, the alarm would go off at our house at 4 a.m. The truck would be packed and the load tied down the day before, the lunch would be made and ready in the fridge, and our cloths would be set out. We would hop out of bed, get dressed, grab a coffee and get underway. An hour and a half later we would be pulling in to the Toronto Harbourfront Market, ready for another day of buying and selling. Rain or shine, we would make the journey, full of hope that the furniture and small items that we were offering would meet the approval of someone there.

When we started in the early 80’s the market would be held on about an acre of parkland near the terminal building, with the 100 or so vendors being set up in parking lots and green spaces right alongside the water. In the winter we would go across the road and inside an old one story warehouse. These were the glory days. It’s hard to imagine now just how “hot” the market was. The boomers in general had done well enough that their Toronto houses were paid for and they were madly buying up all the charming little farms and cottages within about a three-hour drive of Toronto. These rural places demanded antiques of course, being sympathetic to the rural environment, and a refreshing contrast to the city digs.

A loaded truck ready to go.

A loaded truck ready to go.

So in these days there was a large number of motivated collectors and dealers arriving about 6 a.m. vying to pick the best of what was being offered as it arrived. It was a thrill to arrive in our open pick-up truck, and have people run along beside us, racing up to the window to ask the price of the pieces they could see tied to the load. Often they would just say “yes, I’ll take it” even before it was unloaded, because they knew the competition was right behind them. It would happen occasionally that by the time we arrived at our spot, most of the furniture which could be seen was sold. Sometimes we had completely sold out by noon, but would still have to stay until five as to not create a disruption. We had our regular dealers whom we got to know would buy certain items without hesitation if the price was reasonable. You had to pay close attention. Sometimes two or three dealers would be right there as a piece was coming off and you had to be very conscious of who asked about the piece first, and who was next in line. It was easy with two people selling, under this kind of pressure to even sell the same piece to two different people. Tempers would flare. It was not always easy to sort out, and have everyone be happy with the results. It didn’t happen often, but it was difficult to avoid altogether.

Then by the mid-nineties, the Harbourfront development had other plans for the summertime parkland, and the wintertime warehouse, and so they built a brand new market at 390 Queen’s Quay W. As so often is the case, these new quarters under new management meant higher rents and lower sales. It continued to deteriorate until it was not profitable for us by the late nineties, and it eventually closed in early 2003.

Our friend, and avid collector Rod Brook used to say that he wanted to produce a book which presented exclusively all the incredible pieces that had been bought by collectors at the Harbourfront market during those glory years. Sadly, he died before he could accomplish this, but I’ll bet if someone took up the cause it would be an amazing document. For a while there it felt like it would never end, but then like everything else in life, it did.

harbour3-1

loading the truck for another Harbourfront Sunday.