American Pickers Guide to Picking


By Libby Callaway

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A true adventure story and the go-to guide for “picking” American treasures from anyone’s backyard, straight from the stars of History’s American Pickers

In these pages, professional treasure hunters Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz chronicle their road trips across the American countryside in search of “rusty gold” to buy and sell among the picking world’s one-of-a-kind characters. Whether you are a fan of the show or just like finding hidden riches, you will love seeing what Wolfe and Fritz dig up and enjoy meeting the devoted collectors, extreme stockpilers, and elite dealers who they encounter along the way.

Wolfe and Fritz do not deal in fine antiques. Their secondhand treasures are of the down-and-dirty and sometimes even bizarre variety, from old bicycles and vintage tools, to sun-bleached cars and handmade furniture, retired carnival games and unusual taxidermy. Assisted by Danielle Colby, who helps out at Antique Archaeology, Wolfe and Fritz buy on the cheap and then sell to dealers, art directors, interior designers, or anyone looking for a little bit of authentic Americana. The three now share their secrets to finding hidden gems, offering helpful hints that will show what average Americans can do to find the treasures that await them.

From American Pickers Guide to Picking:

Junk is Beautiful

When we knock on a door, 90 percent of the time the things we find are junk. But we don’t care about the odds; a picker never turns down an opportunity, no matter where it is. We’ve picked pickup trucks. We’ve picked flat beds. We’ve picked dumpsters. We even picked a Mercury Sable. We’re looking for the unusual, the impossible, the funky, the different, the bizarre-things we have never seen before. And we’ll go anywhere we have to go to find it.

No location is off-limits to a hard-core picker. And there’s plenty of things to be found at antique stores, thrift and consignment shops, flea markets, estate sales, and swap meets, and a lot of the tips in this book apply to finding treasures at these joints. But that’s not really the kind of picking we do anymore. We look outside the box to find our junk-a word we use almost like a term of endearment: to us: junk is beautiful.



Dedicated to the memory of Robert Easterly—my Papaw, who scored the best pick ever: my Granny, Mildred.


Just What the Heck Is a Picker, Anyway?

I’ve never been able to pass a roadside flea market without stopping.

That probably has a lot to do with the conditioning I received as a kid. Much of my childhood was spent traveling to fleas across the South with my mother, an antique dealer who specialized in wicker furniture and sold out of her own store, situated in a repurposed 1920s stone gas station in our hometown of Cleveland, Tennessee.

Mom loved to shop for the Callaway Collection, the name she gave her antique store. It was only open during the week, so, bright and early every Saturday morning, we’d climb into Mom’s purple-and-white cargo van (a custom paint job that represented the colors of the CC logo) and head out to one of the regular markets where her favorite vendors—pickers, she called them—set up temporary shop.

On the first weekend, we’d drive north on I-75 to shop the vendors set up on the fairgrounds in Knoxville; the next, we’d take the same interstate south to get to Atlanta’s flea; on the third Saturday, we’d head west on I-24 to find out what the pickers in Nashville had picked up over the four weeks since we last saw them.

There was no rest for the wicker-obsessed in our house, so, on the fourth weekend, the Callaway Collection van would take road trips into the nearby Appalachian Mountains to seek out obscure antique stores or drop in on some of my mom’s favorite contacts. I recognized the men and women we’d visit from the flea markets, where they’d set up booths, but my mom liked to also visit them at their homes or workshops, where she could see their whole collections and not just what they were able to fit into their booths at the market.

Sometimes, if a picker had just come off a big buying trip where they scored lots of wicker—my mother explained to me that she didn’t have time to find all the stock she needed to fill her store, so the pickers were helping her do it—they would come directly to our house. It was a favor to my mom, as one of their loyal customers: they’d let her see their best picks first.

I have vivid memories of those visits. I can recall being up very early on some summer mornings when I was three or four, driving my Big Wheel in big circles around the end of our driveway, which was, at the time, blocked by a flatbed truck loaded up with a massive jumble of furniture, each piece connected to the next by a tenuous-looking web of twine and cording. You know the intro to The Beverly Hillbillies TV show, where the Clampett family pulls into Los Angeles with all their belongings tied to the top of their creaky old jalopy—including Granny Clampett, sitting atop the pile in her rocking chair? Our truck looked like that, minus Granny.

I specifically remember visits from a flatbed manned by two stout, serious-looking dudes with unruly facial hair and suntanned, wind-chapped faces and hands. They were men of few words, and would stand by their truck, at the ready, waiting patiently for my mom to point at pieces of wicker trapped in their latticework of secondhand furniture, which she wanted to examine up close. Once she made her selection, the two men would climb up on the pile, untie the piece, and bring it down to the ground for Mom to inspect. After checking out the construction, looking for obvious flaws, and weighing whether it would appeal to her clientele and their proto–Shabby Chic style, Mom would make her decision.

If she wanted to buy, the negotiation process would begin. She’d ask the pickers for a price; they’d give her a number and she’d think for a minute and she’d come back at them with a lower counteroffer . . . that they’d quickly raise with their own counteroffer. This kind of back-and-forth went on until both Mom and the pickers came to a price that made both parties happy.

If Mom decided to pass on the piece, our sweaty visitors would hoist the wicker love seat or end table or birdcage or whatever it was they were hawking that day (their stock was always different) back up to a place atop the pile and tie it in tight for the trip to the home of their next client.

More than thirty years later, as I think back on those visits, I realize that my child’s perspective was surely a bit skewed.

The reality is that, more than likely, the guys I recall as being rough around the edges probably weren’t all that grungy. And I’m guessing they weren’t very old, either—they must have been in their forties, about the age I am now. (Their truck, however, definitely looked like a prop from The Beverly Hillbillies—that I’m pretty clear on.)

I think it was because of my early experiences with pickers that I was so surprised when I met Mike Wolfe for the first time. I couldn’t believe this guy was a picker: young, handsome, and charming, his whole persona seemed antithetical to that of the quiet, subdued pickers who worked with my mom back in the 70s.

Mike and I met on a photo shoot held on a freezing Sunday in early December of 2008, at a prop house located in a little town called Watertown, just a few miles outside Nashville, where I live. I was the wardrobe stylist for the project; Mike had stopped by to visit the photographer, our mutual friend, whom he and his picking partner, Frank Fritz, had met several years before, when the two of them used to drive down from their home base in eastern Iowa to set up together at the Nashville flea market.

That day, when Mike told me what he did, I was intrigued, and I instantly felt the kind of easy rapport with him that people who share a passion tend to develop. My initial fascination with my new picker friend quickly changed to admiration a few hours later, when I saw him in action for the first time.

It was a long, cold shoot, and even the fact that we were photographing two gorgeous girls dressed up in 1930s bondage wear and lingerie couldn’t hold Mike’s interest for more than a few minutes. He was getting bored—like that of 99 percent of the picker population, his attention span can be measured in seconds as opposed to minutes—so he asked to borrow a scooter from Ruby, the prop house’s owner (you’ll meet her later in the book), to take a ride around the tiny town and check it out. “I’ll be back!” Mike said, as he pulled away.

And, in less than thirty minutes, he was back—with a pristine, green, two-sided, enamel Oliver Tractor sign from the 40s under his arm and a huge grin on his face.

Ruby was blown away. “I thought I’d seen every cool antique in this town. Where the heck did you find that?” she asked. Mike explained that while he was out tooling around, he spotted a house that, in his words, “looked promising”—which, I quickly came to realize, means slightly rundown and surrounded by crabgrass as opposed to well-kept and manicured.

Why don’t I just let him explain what happened:

Whenever I go to a new place, I try to get my bearings and figure out what the town is all about. I’m always curious. The reason I stopped at that place that day was because the guy had this really old building behind his house that looked like a service station. It was really large and had big doors, and seemed to have lots inside: from the street, I could tell that there were things piled up in front of the windows, which is a good sign to a picker.

So, I pulled the bike over and knocked on the door. An older gentleman answered, and I introduced myself. I told him I was from Iowa, that I was a picker—and I had to explain what a picker is. I have to do that a lot, actually: not many people know what a picker does, or they think I play banjo or something—and that I was looking for old bikes, cars, signs, and other collectible items that he might want to let go of.

I asked him about the building behind the house. I was right; it was a garage, and had been in his family for a long time. He started going into a lot of detail, saying that it was his dad’s and then he ran it. I love to hear that kind of thing: I love the backstory and let people tell me what they’re passionate about. To this guy, it was his property, and I let him tell me about it—I wanted to hear it. After we talked for a while, he loosened up and started to trust me. Then he was happy to show me the stone garage.

One of the first things I saw was the Oliver sign. It was two-sided, which makes it more valuable than signs that are only printed on one side, and it was in great shape. We both agreed it was a nice piece.

I told him I’d give him $35 for it.

“No, I can’t do that.”

Then would you take $60?

He hesitated for a minute; I could tell that he knew it was a good deal, but that something was keeping him from selling. So, I asked him what he was planning on doing with the sign. “Well, I’m probably not going to do anything with it.” I told him that in that case, I’d give him $65 to get it off his hands and take it out of the straw in his barn and back into the public, where someone else could enjoy it. He liked that idea; it got through to him.


The story only gets better. Not two minutes after Mike rolled back into the warehouse, he sold it to Ruby for $150.


In less than an hour, Mike had more than doubled his money, had a mini-adventure in a new town, and made a new friend while doing it—in other words, it was a typical day in Pickerville.

I’m pretty sure my jaw was on the floor the whole time I was watching this scene unfold back at the prop house. Hearing about Mike’s door-knocking approach was totally new to me. As I said, I’d been around pickers many times before, but until Mike came into my life, I’m not sure I ever really appreciated the skill associated with what they did.

One thing that I am sure of: I’ve never met two men who take as much pride in their work as Mike and Frank do.

Thanks to my mom’s influence, I grew up loving antiques and embracing the thrill of the hunt. And even though I’ve had all sorts of collections over the years—crazy quilts, Deco powder compacts, lacquered Chinese boxes, portraits of women (my “lady painting” collection is eighty pieces strong)—I have become somewhat of a vintage clothing hound, in large part due to the knowledge I’ve gained and shopping opportunities I’ve been afforded through my job as a fashion journalist.

I spent most of my twenties in New York City, where I became a regular on the thrift store and consignment store circuit and faithfully made weekend-morning pilgrimages to the now closed 26th Street Flea Market in Chelsea. There, among long tables covered in dusty antique jewelry and bins filled with vintage styles from every decade imaginable, I was in heaven. Church held little appeal for me back then; the flea was my Sunday-morning ritual.

I don’t discriminate: I’ll shop wherever I can find quality junk, from consignment stores and antique malls to estate sales and swap meets. Above all, I prefer thrift shops. I think their appeal lies in the strong concentration of clothes available at thrifts, something you don’t always get if you’re at an antique mall. Also, thrift shops are plentiful: not every city has a flea market, but practically every town I’ve ever visited has at least one Goodwill or St. Vincent de Paul or a branch of one of the other big thrift chains, some of which span the globe (I should know: I’ve thrifted on four continents and counting).

Needless to say, I consider myself a pretty hard-core secondhand shopper. I’m ruthless when it comes to getting the best deal I can, and can negotiate with the best of them. I don’t mind getting dirty or shopping in grungy neighborhoods if the outcome will lead to killer finds.

But door-knocking? No, thank you. As truly exciting as Mike’s and Frank’s signature method sounds—and as many times as I’ve been tempted to stop at an awesomely junked-up house I come across on a drive, and ask for a grand tour—I’m too reserved to march right up to a stranger’s door as they do.

And that’s why Mike and Frank are the ones doling out the advice and giving up the anecdotes in this book based on their hit TV series, American Pickers. I’m just their conduit—the “picker whisperer,” if you will. Using my unique perspective as both a professional journalist and a semi-pro picker, I’ve selected the best advice and most fascinating stories from the series and combined them with some of Mike’s and Frank’s personal tips and tales, with some conventional wisdom thrown in for good measure.

In the book, Mike and Frank discuss the logistics of their job, including finding good places to pick (the details that make a property a “good pick” will surprise you!), the importance of making a connection and keeping in touch with potential sellers; the negotiation process; how to market and sell your picks; and, finally, how pickers can expect their jobs to change in the future. The book also includes guidance from Danielle Colby, the pickers’ dedicated Girl Friday, as well as thoughts on collecting and selling from some of the guys’ favorite go-to experts in the antiques and design industries and other creative fields.

This book is written in what’s called a collective voice. Unless it’s indicated in the text—when Mike, Frank, Danielle, or one of the experts we spoke to has something especially smashing to say, their idea is introduced and then printed in italics, like Mike’s story about Watertown was earlier in this chapter—none of the words here can be directly attributed to one specific person. The voice isn’t Mike’s or Frank’s, nor is it mine; it’s ours, together.

One thing to remember as you’re reading this book: you don’t have to knock on strangers’ doors to qualify as a picker. Mike’s and Frank’s upfront method might not be your bag; that’s okay. As I explained, I pretty much limit my picking to thrift stores and flea markets, yet I identify myself as a picker through and through. You can say the same thing whether you’re most comfortable shopping at estate sales, antique malls, consignment stores, auctions, or even on the Internet. Your means may be different than Mike’s and Frank’s, but goal is the same: scoring amazing secondhand treasures.

That’s enough from me. Without further ado, let’s bring in Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz, the American Pickers themselves:


What does a picker do? We get that question all the time.

Pickers are kind of a cross between Indiana Jones and Sanford & Son. Basically, we’re professional treasure hunters, but instead of precious artifacts, we’re on the lookout for good old all-American junk—aka rusty gold.

Most pickers don’t deal in fine antiques; we leave that up to the antique dealers, some of whom are our clients. Pickers are on the lookout for those of the down-and-dirty—and sometimes even bizarre—variety: old bicycles and vintage tools, sun-bleached cars and handmade furniture, retired carnival games and weird taxidermy are always on their shopping list.

We’re both based out of Le Claire, Iowa, but you’ll rarely find us there. Pickers travel—a lot. You don’t uncover the one-of-a-kind things we’re in the market for by staying in one place for very long. We’re always burning up the back roads, taking the routes less traveled, keeping our eyes open for properties that look like they might be holding hidden jewels.

Once we find a good-looking spot—and “good-looking” to us means things like overgrown bushes and unmowed yards; sagging roofs or ones covered by tarps; lots of random outbuildings, preferably aged and unpainted; rusty farm equipment scattered across the front yard; and cars parked in the front yard—we walk right up to the front door, give it a knock, and then ask whomever answers if we can look around. If they agree to let us go through their barn or garage or attic or shed or pig pen or wherever else they’ve stashed their junk, we’re ready to rock.

Yard Talk

What to look for and what to avoid when you’re looking for pickable properties:


Older neighborhoods

Un-renovated houses

Single-family homes

Outbuildings: sheds, barns, garages

“Vintage” paint colors: pink, avocado, harvest gold

Cars parked in the front yard

Un-mowed lawns and tall weeds

Rust—on anything, anywhere

Old tractors



Satellite dishes

Aboveground pools

Kid toys in the driveway

Manicured yards and landscaping

Fresh paint-jobs and new roofing

Modern architecture

Shiny new cars and lawn mowers

Swing sets

Haggling is the name of the game in picking. If we find something we like, we try to get the best deal we can. Most of the things we buy we plan to resell, either to one of the hundreds of private clients we have all around the world (in the mix are dealers, collectors, design pros, and artsy people like photographers and art directors, who tend to dig our funkier stuff) or at Antique Archaeology, the business Mike owns back in Le Claire.

Except for rare occasions when we want to go in together to buy a big item that we can’t afford on our own, each of us buys and sells our finds separately. Even though Frank is considered a member of the Antique Archaeology team, he doesn’t work for Mike. The two of us aren’t business partners; we’re picking partners. And yes, there’s a difference.

We’re able to pick together because, in most cases, we buy different things. Frank likes antique metal toys, petroleum collectibles, vending machines, and other interesting mechanical contraptions. Mike is a bit more eclectic in his tastes, and has a real appreciation for far-out items like weird taxidermy and folk art, as well as an enduring love for bicycles of all kinds.

We do have one big crossover area: we both collect items that have to do with transportation—specifically, motorcycles. But even when we’re talking motorcycles, our interests are different enough that we rarely compete: Mike likes pre-1920s American bikes and parts, while Frank is into comparatively newer dirt bikes and choppers and Japanese brands like Kawasaki, Honda, and Yamaha.

When we come across something we both like—say, a mint-condition porcelain sign advertising a 1940s gas station that has big, colorful graphics and a cool catch phrase (like Exxon’s “Put a Tiger in Your Tank”)—we try to be diplomatic about it. The guy who discovered it gets first dibs; if he decides to pass, the other man can move in and make a bid. This actually happens much less frequently than you’d think it would. Most of the places we pick are very large and packed with so much stuff that it’s pretty self-defeating to get too preoccupied with one item out of thousands. Picking is like any other fast-paced business: time is money.

Our secret to making a profit is that we skip the middleman, meaning we don’t buy from thrift stores, antique malls, or flea markets. Instead, we go straight to the source. This involves a ton of time on the road (we put sixty thousand miles on our van every year) and even more time spent preparing. Good pickers do a lot of homework—you have to, if you want to stay on top of the game.

Since we’re on the road so much, we depend on Antique Archaeology’s business manager, Danielle, to do most of this for us. She stays back at Antique Archaeology, and spends her days (as well as a lot of her nights: picking is a 24/7 affair) scanning Craigslist and antique industry blogs for ideas; comparing prices of things we want to sell with the final bids of auctions on eBay; putting “wanted to buy” ads in the classified sections of collectors’ magazines and newspapers in cities we plan to visit; and cold-calling small-town Chamber of Commerce offices and little regional museums, asking for leads. Any lead is a good one if it takes us to awesome stuff.


Neither of us has any formal training in the history of antiques. Everything we’ve learned about collectibles during all the years we’ve been picking for a living has come from on-the-job experience and quizzing the huge team of expert appraisers and dealers that we’ve met on the job for help.

But the good thing about picking as a duo is that we can play expert to each other. We’ve known each other since we were in junior high school back in Iowa, so there’s a lot of trust there.

We both started picking when we were little kids. When Frank was growing up in Davenport, he started looking for coins, stamps, interesting rocks—typical kids’ collections. He liked beer cans, too:

I started picking by accident. There were some railroad tracks in the woods between my house and my elementary school, which I wasn’t supposed to walk through; my mom wanted me to stay on the sidewalks. I didn’t listen. Railroad tracks ran through the woods, and hobos used to set up camps there, places for them to rest when they weren’t riding a rail, and they’d leave things behind. Sometimes they’d still be there, drinking, and get up and chase us off. But they never caught up; they were kind of slow and we were young kids. We could run fast.

We’d go back when they finally left their camp and find lots of beer cans—the old-fashioned cone-topped ones. I used to pick them up and bring them home. Collecting those was fun, because you could challenge yourself to collect different brands and look for different graphics.

Mike did the beer-can thing, too; poking around the woods behind his house, abandoned alleys, and junkyards he’d play in after school. But his big interest has always been bicycles. In his twenties, before he went pro as a picker, Mike raced bikes competitively and owned a bike shop in Davenport. But he was already selling them well before that: Mike was only six when he flipped his first bike, the best of a bunch that he pulled out of his neighbor’s Tuesday-morning garbage pile on his way to school.

I couldn’t believe that they’d throw these things away—they were so beautiful to me, even all piled up in the trash. Most were current models—meaning, from the 60s—and had those long banana seats. They were in pretty good shape, too.

I took them all home and kept them in the garage, which my mom had given me to hold my collections. Until then, I didn’t have a bike of my own. So I chose the one from the pile that I liked the most, cleaned it up, and put air in the tires. Then I rode it down the street to where all the older kids were hanging out. One of them saw it and said, “Hey! I’ll give you five dollars for that bike.” I was like, okay! Back in ’69, that was a lot of money, man! Five dollars was a huge deal to a little kid.

So, from then on, I kept my eyes open. I found so much awesome stuff in the garbage: busted-up toy car and monster model kits, books, stickers—things that other kids had thrown away. It blew my mind that they were getting rid of this stuff when I knew it was worth some money. Basically, what other people saw as junk, I saw as opportunity.

Neither of us had any idea of the real value of the stuff we were trading. When you’re a kid, you don’t think about things being collectible or being antique. You just want to find something that looks cool or that the other kids wanted more than the thing they had.

In junior high and high school, the two of us made the step up from picking and flipping to trading. The idea was to get your hands on something good enough to convince the guy who had the thing you wanted to trade his for yours. The goal was to keep trading up for something better and better each time, until you got to the point where what you had was big enough to cash in for something really good.

For example, let’s say Frank found a cassette tape by the band Boston in the garbage (don’t judge: this was the 70s). He’d ask around, find out what other people who were into swapping had and what they were looking to buy until he found a Boston fan who needed that album and was willing to trade a pair of his Nike sneakers to get it.

From there, maybe Frank’s sneakers would get traded up for a bike seat, which he then would swap for a pair of stereo speakers. The key is supply and demand: find someone who needs what you have and who has something you want, and make a deal. Sometimes you’d end up actually selling the thing you were trying to swap; no problem: money is always a good trade.

We both got really good at trading and ended up with some pretty nice gear: Mike was riding a Miata road bike before he graduated from high school; Frank made enough money swapping and selling to buy a Harley.

Even though we were swapping in the same crowds, the two of us really didn’t start hanging out until after high school, when we started running into each other. Mike was running his bike shop, and Frank was working around town as a fire inspector but we were both picking on the side. About fifteen years ago, we started turning up at the same sales and swap meets. We liked a lot of the same things—motorcycle stuff, especially—so the two of us started picking together in our area.

Picking isn’t very much fun by yourself. Yes, there is less competition if you go it alone, but it’s not as much fun as having a buddy with you on long trips to keep you company. Plus, it’s nice to have another set of eyes. We always ask each other, “Hey, how much do you think I should do on this?” “Aw, man, that’s junk. But look at this!” Two heads are better than one, so to speak.


On Sale
Sep 13, 2011
Page Count
240 pages
Hachette Books

Libby Callaway

About the Author

Libby Callaway has contributed to some of the country’s most widely regarded magazines and newspapers, including the New York Post, where she was employed as a writer and editor from 1997 through 2004. She also has written for Conde Nast Traveler,, Travel + Leisure, the New York Times’ T Magazine, Budget Travel, Self, BlackBook, Nylon and Glamour, where she was a fashion advice columnist in 2006 and 2007. She’s appeared as a fashion expert on national TV networks including CNN, NBC, Fox, E! and The Style Network and has worked as a media consultant for Nashville’s Frist Center for the Visual Arts and Whole Foods’ Whole Body division. She lives in Nashville.

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