There’s a new TV show on the History Channel called American Pickers, where two scruffy, Laurel and Hardy looking guys travel around America looking for treasure among our junk. I love this show, mostly because I’d love to be doing their jobs. You know, if I had the audacity, determination, and sheer will to do what they do every day. Part treasure hunter, part schmoozer, and all lunatic, being a picker looks like a difficult, sometimes dangerous, but always fun way to make a living.
As a reader of the Part Time Vagabond blog, I assume that you, like me, have obligations that keep you from pursuing a life of junking like the gents on American Pickers, but there’s no reason why we can’t dream about it and then live out our fantasies on the weekends. In New England, flea markets, garage sales, and weekend scavenging are a way of life usually reserved for wealthy folks with too much time on their hands. But there are treasures lying in wait in someone’s basement, ready for you to find them.
Tag vs. yard vs. garage
When I moved to New Jersey a few years back, my girlfriend (at the time) and I found a mutual love for picking. We’d head out on a Saturday morning to the numerous homegrown sales happening in our neighborhood to see what we could see. But something was amiss when I’d ask her if she wanted to go check out some “tag sales.” “What’s a tag sale? People just sell tags?” I was flabbergasted. It was then that I realized that not all junk sale names are created equal. Turns out that in New Jersey, “tag sales” are unheard of, while garage and yard sales are common. But head to Southern New England, where I grew up, and the most common term is tag sale, so named for the little tags you put on the items. I figured she was just nuts, but when I queried other New Jerseyans, they all looked at me as if I were the crazy one. Turns out, there are regional names for all these retail extravaganzas.
For our purposes, I’ll call them Tag Sales. Because I’m from New England, and we’re always right. 😉
If tag sales are the roadside souvenir stand of the picker’s world, then flea markets are the exotic bazaar. In Connecticut, there is the Elephant’s Trunk, a gigantic outdoor market held on Sundays during the summer. As a kid, I loved to take the hour or so trip out to Kent, to spend the day wandering the seemingly endless aisles of wares. I was particularly fond of well worn wooden chests, antique cameras, and grungy old pocket knives.
A flea market like the Elephant’s Trunk likely exists in just about every state in the union, and I’m sure every picker, junker, hoarder, and seller can trace his or her roots right back to one like it. It doesn’t really matter why they call it a flea market, only that it exists, and it’s creating more American pickers every day.
The nitty gritty
A picker has to be part salesman, part negotiator, part ass-kisser, and all treasure hunter. I’m pretty adept at none of those qualities, but treasure hunter plays to my fantasies of finding something amazing and unique that I can bring back to life with a little elbow grease and determination. Watch the pros at your local flea market or neighborhood tag sale, or better yet, hold your own sale, and you’ll learn some amazing techniques that I’m sure can be applied to the business world or the dinner table. Just bear in mind that it’s a seller’s world out there. To you it may be treasure, but to them, it’s junk, and they’ll part with it only if they want to. And if the price is right.
We can only hope that the new computer generation who grew up getting free stuff on Craigslist will continue the great Picker lifestyle. Being a picker can instill in someone a new set of skills – negotiation, networking, interpersonal communication, organization, and management – and a brand new sense of accomplishment when one lands on a gold mine of junk. Yet the new generation of Millennials, while technically savvy and highly computer literate, lack the sense of adventure that comes from hitting the road to the next tag sale or flea market, not knowing what they’ll find that day – if anything – but always coming back for more, because when they do find something, that magic spark ignites inside, and nothing – not even the computer classifieds – can stop them.