Friday, October 17, 2008

Feature Sidebar | Treasure Hunt: A subculture of busy “pickers” fuels the Utah antiques trade -

By Stephen Dark
Posted 10/09/2008

A little before 10 a.m. in late August outside the Deseret Industries thrift store on 700 South in downtown Salt Lake City, eight men wait for the doors to open

Two women with children who’ve come to look for kids’ clothes marvel at the crowd. “Who knew the DI was so popular?” one of them says.

But the men, who range in age from their mid-20s to late-50s, are following a time-honored tradition that each morning is repeated at several other thrift stores across the city. They are pickers – men and women who sell undervalued objects they find at yard sales and thrift stores, on eBay or to antique dealers -- and they are on their daily treasure hunt. You can almost feel the rising sense of expectation, of adrenalin, as DI staff members move toward the front doors.

The store manager unlocks the doors and the men rush along the aisles. At the head of the line, a young man with a backpack and an older man power-walk with jutted-out elbows in a race to get to the book carts first.

Two men go to a locked glass cabinet and toss a coin as to who gets the pick of bags of wrapped jewelry. Both are seeking copper and silver to sell, they say.

DI store employees chat with the pickers as they descend on the book carts in search of LDS books to complete collections. One bookseller has an electronic scanner he uses to check which books are in Amazon’s top 10 million. No. 1 says the online store sells 3,000 a day. The 10 millionth on the list moves once every five years. Many of the books on the carts go into the picker’s trolley and after being purchased for a couple of dollars apiece will go to a used bookstore’s warehouse.

Despite such a civilized approach, the pickers seem leery of publicity. One says to a City Weekly reporter, “They don’t want this advertised. It’s so competitive already. They won’t talk to you.”

Several pickers and books sellers at the downtown store and at other DI locations in the valley, after asking for anonymity, agreed to answer questions.

Each location it seems has been staked out by different pickers. In turn each store, depending on the management, takes a different approach to managing the group, pickers say. While the pickers’ conduct at the downtown store is civilized to the point of nonchalant, the Sugar House DI has a reputation for being brutal. Pickers allegedly yank armfuls of books off of carts and throw them into trolleys to check through in corners of the store. On the day a City Weekly reporter went to check this out, however, the eviscerating of the carts was done calmly enough.

“It’s a big gamble,” says one picker, who’s been doing this for eight years. “You never know if you’ll find anything.” And it’s not just books. Pickers specialize in anything from rare clothing to haute couture sunglasses and everything in between.

Some pickers are well known for, as one bookseller puts it, “trying to get everything for nothing. They make it hard for the rest of us.” Several pickers City Weekly talked to expressed concern that possible state legislation to regulate the Utah antiques industry like the pawnshop business would effectively kill it off. Antique dealers, they say, couldn’t afford the costs of compliance. They point to Reno, Nevada. After antiques’ businesses were regulated there, according to a recent article in an antique trade publication, not only did they all close down, but antique shows – the lifeblood of the industry – stopped going there.

Regulation isn’t the only threat to the antiques trade. Thanks to the electronic scanner and eBay, pickers enjoy greater commercial freedom than they did a few years ago. Now they can sell what they find on the Internet instead of going to antique dealers. Some dealers, though, still rely on pickers to be their eyes and ears in the market. A few minutes after the Sugar House DI store opened one day in early September, a picker was on his cell phone to a dealer asking if he wanted a complete set of Mormon texts in a locked cabinet.

Pickers hold dear the apocryphal tales of some of their kind discovering a $5 painting at a yard sale and selling it for $10,000, putting a new record on the artist’s work. But at times, it seems, the entire pursuit of treasure amidst so much discarded junk can get depressing. One picker remarked to his colleagues, “Sometimes it feels like we’re all in a mentally handicapped Easter egg hunt.”

But a bookseller says it’s the addiction of the hunt that keeps them all going. Which is why his heart races “when five other people are all looking for something and you grab it first.”

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