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Picking: sources, tools, and tips

With network television off for vacay, my boyfriend and I faced a vast emptiness of viewing options this summer. With our usual faves in reruns, we went on the prowl for something to tide us over. On a whim we tried a little History Channel program called American Pickers. Jackpot. This “reality” program follows Mike and Frank, two Iowa boys who travel the backgrounds of America, looking for “rusty gold” – I just realized this is a direct quote from their opening theme…that is how obsessed I became with this show. After marathoning through 38 episodes of the series we caught the picking bug.

We were junk drunk.

We’ve started pretty small. Luckily we live in an area rich in antique stores. On our first trip to Hoard Antiques, we picked up this awesome 1952 cabinet television set. We aren’t 100% sure what to do with it (fish tank? bar? gaming center?) but we thought at $50 it was too good to pass up. Also, scored some great antique beer coasters – something we needed anyways! Form, meet function.

When a friend suggested we hit up the Randolph Street market for some lazy Sunday browsing, I was amped. Visions of industrial lighting and vintage advertising signs danced through my brain. On our first lap a pair of black, tall  school lockers struck my fancy, but with a price tag of $125, I had to do some pondering.  I came back later in the day and successfully bartered the vendor down to $100. I popped for it. Score!

While the fellas on American Pickers aim to resell their goods, I am going to give some tips and tricks of picking for yourself.


  • Antique stores seem like a natural go to, but beware of the high-end ones. We have two stores within a block of our apartment. One is clean, well-organized, and full of prize pieces…most likely we will never buy anything here because their prices are outrageous. They know what they have, and they value it. The other is dusty, with stuff piled everywhere, most items are missing price tags, and a HUGE dog is constantly napping on the floor. Perfect! While finding the goods is more challenging the prices are extremely reasonable. Plus, it is more fun.
  • Older relatives’ garages. Most likely they have some cool stuff in there that they aren’t using. Things used to be built to last, so their dining set from the ‘50s is probably still in good shape.
  • Flea markets. Most major cities run seasonal flea markets. Do some googling. Bring friends for support and try to get there early as not to miss all the good stuff.
  • Garage sales. Most neighborhoods organize their sales into one day. Hit up each house before committing to anything, take notes and go back later with an offer. But of course if you see something ab fab, snag it.
  • Craigslist. Look for moving sales or estate sales. Usually these people are desperate to unload somethings and you can get a good price. As for individual items that are posted, look for industrial goods or other unusual sellers. They are going to be more budget friendly.

Tools of the trade:

  • Cash, and lots of it. Always come prepared with cold hard dollars. While you aren’t going to find something you can’t live with out on every trip, you should be always come ready to spend.
  • Tape measure/measurements of your home. That perfect end table isn’t so perfect if it won’t fit.
  • Transportation. Always come in a vehicle big enough to fit your purchases!
  • Knowledge. The more you know about the piece the better you can determine a fair price. Also, don’t be afraid to ask questions about your purchases, its nice to be able to share the history when someone compliments you.


  • When evaluating the price, consider how much you will need to spend to repair the item. If it just needs a good scrub, that’s fine. But if you need to paint it, have the wiring redone, or reupholster that price needs to be reflected in what you are willing to spend overall.
  • Let the buyer set the price. If you overquote, they most likely won’t tell you they were thinking lower. If they way overquote you, you can try to haggle down.
  • Point out flaws in the product when you are haggling down the price, but don’t be offensive. If the paint is chipped, note it, but don’t make things up just to save a few bucks.
  • Look not only at the condition of the piece but the potential it has. If that bookshelf is a bit boring, but solid and well made then paint it! If the dresser has nice sized drawers but is drab, replace the nobs with some cute Anthro ones! Also, think outside the box! If you love that secretary desk, but already have your office squared away, use it as a bar for the living room.
  • The best time to buy something is when it is for sale. I often say not buyers remorse is worse than buyers remorse, because you are left thinking about the one that got away. If you buy something and it doesn’t work out, you can always resell it.
Picking is a great way to set your home apart from all the cookie cutter, Crate and Barrel museums of houses. Plus, no great story every started with “I ordered it online.”
Do you have any tips or tricks to share? Have any great scores to share?
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2 responses »

  1. I am partial to alley diving – the university kids leave a lot of useful stuff when they turnover their apartments each spring. And paint does wonders: we painted a table we found and Alex’s old dresser the same bright teal and now they look like a set. Plus they pop against our white rental walls!

  2. Junk drunk? Popped for it? I need to be watching this show!!

    I love your advice on jazzing up – if you will – pieces that you wouldn’t initially be interested in. Perfect example, Hanna turned street furniture into prized possessions with a little paint! Now that’s getting creative.


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