Adam Henderson has his daily routine down pat. He’s up at 9:30, prepares a pot of coffee and then fires up the computer. He rotates through his usual spots — Craigslist, LiveAuctioneers, AuctionZip. Perhaps he chances upon a rosewood Danish armchair or a bronze-based coffee table at a good price. If he’s feeling ambitious, he goes out around noon to some local thrift stores to shop in person.
Henderson is a “picker,” part of an invisible corps of tastemakers who haunt auctions, yard sales, estate sales, church sales and art shows. Before you spotted the antique furniture, bespoke placeware or vintage tchotchkes for your home, someone like Henderson spotted them and decided they were worthy to display at the store or flea-market stall where you found them.
Picking is a hobby, a business, an art form, a way of life. If you know about picking, it might be from the History Channel reality series “American Pickers,” which features hosts Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz hunting for hidden gems in people’s homes, sheds and warehouses.
Most pickers operate behind the scenes and guard their methods closely. No newsletter points to business secrets and shortcuts (although Wolfe and Fritz did write a book). The competition has grown fiercer with the proliferation of online marketplaces such as Bonanza, Etsy and 1stdibs, and noncelebrity pickers are not eager to give up their edge. This is an arena of intelligent gambling, as picker Charline Keith calls it, where “you put your knowledge against someone else’s.”
How do you acquire that knowledge?
For Henderson, it started with his parents. They were flea marketeers, and on Sundays after church they would hit the local flea market as a family. Pop bottles were a quarter apiece, so he would collect trash and often encounter other little treasures. “The secondhand life gets in your blood,” he said.
For others, it happened later. Yilmaz Erdogdu worked in information technology before picking as a hobby, his shop lined with carpets, old figurines and coins. Barton Diehl always had a passion for art while working as a publisher for several Adrian Lopez magazines.
Getting started is pretty straightforward. There is no certification class or invite-only association. Picking is less something you are than something you do. Pickers scour the internet for old auction catalogs. They buy library and art museum memberships to study dates, designers and other reference details that might help them understand the value of pieces. They become walking databases.
Learning becomes instinct. It gets easier to tell art deco from art nouveau. The artist’s style, the joinery, the patina and the color all carry centuries worth of stories about, say, a pedestal game table.
“You get this intuition,” says Michael Merisola, a Buffalo, N.Y.-based picker known as the Mid-Century Modern Guru. “I’m almost able to pinpoint the year that something was built. It’s that fine-tuned.”
Often pain serves as the best teacher. Any picker, regardless of their success, can think of times they whiffed badly: big money — enough to put a dent in the mortgage, or cover a year’s college tuition — gone in the blink of an eye. Diehl, the publisher-turned-picker, once haggled an unnamed John Falter painting down from $2,400 to $1,800, but then got gun-shy and passed on the piece. Months later, he learned it sold at a Dallas auction for more than a quarter-million dollars.
“You have to learn the hard way,” Diehl says. “But losing out like that will always feel uncomfortable.”
The thrill comes from not knowing what to expect. Some pickers hit 15 to 20 stops in a day, often clashing with competing pickers scrambling to uncover that polychrome painted shade or wrought iron plant stand. A good day might yield six or seven quality items, but returning home empty-handed is just as likely.
Patience is a built-in cost. Trends come and go, and nothing is guaranteed. Value depends on who is selling and who is buying. A table purchased for $3,000 on good research might coax only $250 out of a skeptical buyer.
Social media can help a picker determine a piece’s value. Henderson once found a desk he fancied and put it on Instagram. “I knew it was good because everyone was like, ‘Good desk, how much was it?’ ” he says with a chuckle.
It helps a picker to have picker friends. But in this world, friends can quickly turn into competitors — even nemeses.
When a novice vendor sets up shop, veteran pickers descend like vultures. “A new vendor coming in is like a piece of red meat,” says Phyllis Wheat, a Georgetown Flea Market vendor in Washington, D.C., who sells furniture, crystal and sterling she picks herself. The experts often know more about the pieces being sold than the newbie does and try to gobble up the inventory so they can resell it for a killing.
For pickers who rely on flea markets and secondhand stores, the rise of online shopping has made the process harder. “Prices used to be better and pieces were moving more quickly, changing more hands,” Diehl says. A picker used to be able to unload a whole van at a flea market; now boxes often remain piled up in the back.
Even in these days of relative scarcity, with less money moving and more pickers gunning to outmaneuver one another, there are still moments of solidarity.
Wheat recalls one time when a picker bought a piece of furniture at her asking price. Later, he returned and put a folded piece of paper in her palm: It was a check for a substantial amount of money, enough to take a chunk out of her son’s student-loan debt. The piece had sold for a huge price, he told her, and he wanted to pay some of it back out of gratitude.
Merisola, the Mid-Century Modern Guru, says he will always love picking. He’s never had to work a 9-to-5 job and has never had a boss. But picking is a tough business. It can be hard to get through the barrage of early mistakes, the uncertainty, the money lost.
And so the guru has some words of wisdom for anyone thinking about becoming a picker: “My advice is do something else.”