Monday, May 31, 2010

RISK - No, not the board game...


Picking antiques the way I do does pose some amount of risk and danger. Same goes for guys like Mike & Frank from American Pickers, and many of us in the field. I have had some close calls, errors in judgement, and a variety of situations that could have turned out very different than they did.

For some reason, I have gotten into a number of basements of old drug stores. No one I know has been in the basements of so many.  You wouldn't initially think that there would be much dangerous in a drug store. You'd maybe expect to find old drugs, of course, such as cannabis (found a bottle of seeds in one basement, but the druggist wouldn't let those leave!)

But, I have pulled out stuff that makes you wonder what would have happened IF....

Like the time I was constantly pushing aside these two big bottles with what looked like water in them, banging them against others, looking through a shelf of a variety of old drug bottles...I finally turned them around....

One said "CONCENTRATED HYDROCHLORIC ACID"

The other said: "CONCENTRATED SULPHURIC ACID"

Oops.

Another one of those common things you tend to find in basements of all types, including homes, are those glass tear-drop shaped fire extinguishers.

They used to be a tough sell, then along came eBay. So, then they started selling for good money, opened up access to a hungry market. The thing people didn't realize is that they are actually illegal to ship in the mail.

Why?

They contain Carbon Tetrachloride.

The same goes with many of brass fire extinguishers you see.

The stuff was banned from consumer products in 1970, but the stuff is still around, lurking in basements, attics, sheds. etc.

The "fun" fact about the glass teardrop ones, is some of them have a spring loaded hammer mechanism that releases in heat...or if you happen to smack it.

So "be careful out there" when you see those things.

I was in another drug store basement, and spotted what appeared to be 2 glass gallon jugs, of the type used for syrup for soda fountains. Some of the 1960s and earlier ones are collectible, so I had to get a look at their labels. One problem...there was 3 sheets of thick, plate glass, measuring about 5' long by 3 feet high leaning on the shelf, right in front of them. They were dirty, so looking through them was not an option. The only way I could get a good look at the labels of the jugs was to move the glass.

Moving each sheet was risky, as they would be sure to break, as I;d have to leave one end on the ground...putting a sheet of glass on its corner and dragging it across concrete is a sure way to crack it....and slice yourself to a bloody mess. So, I stood in front of the panels of glass, and slowly flipped them against my gut. Now, I don't know if you have ever tried to lift 1/4" thick, 5' x 3' sheets of glass, but, I can assure you they are HEAVY....and, this was THREE sheets.

I then, bent over the panels, and went to lift the first jug out. Hmmm...the panels are definitely feeling quite HEAVY...I had to flip one leg out to keep my balance or I was going to end up under the glass....Another Problem: the jug only had a molded finger hole size handle at the neck, and there was NO WAY I was going to be able to grab it with 2 hands...I could barely reach it with one....Oh, and did I mention it was full with a clear liquid?

With a single finger in the finger hole handle of one of the jugs, between the top and next knuckle, I lifted it up, with what amounted to be more effort than I expected. Probably had something to do with the position I was standing in, one leg in the air, with the glass threatening to either flip me over and smash on top of me or slice me in two.

Peering at the label, in the dim basement light, I read the label:

CARBON TETRACHLORIDE.

Oh shit.

I gingerly put it back on the lower shelf where it came from.

But, there was another, a brown glass jug...so, resisting the odds, I repeated the process....

CARBON TETRACHLORIDE.

I guess that is also an "Ooops."

Yes, the stuff we come across is not always inert substances, for sure. Country picking can also hold similar dangers. Old sheds, with rusty cans that spill their contents as you lift them up. Sometimes it is spewed out in a cloud of dust as the bottom stays stuck fast on the shelf as you lift the rest of the can. Sometimes you have the pleasure of your fingers entering the can and the goop inside it as you grip it to lift it off the shelf. Sometimes it ruptures and splashes/sprays/gloops/drips its contents all over you.

You always wonder, with a mental or verbal "Oh Shit" (or similar comment, sometimes utilizing that tried and true F word) "What is it?

Was that flour? Or insecticide? Or gunpowder?

Paint?

Paint thinner?

Gasoline?

Oil?

Battery acid?

Spray insecticide loaded with DDT?

Brake Fluid?

Aunt Maud's tumor she saved in vinegar?

Or just some putrid water with a few rotting mouse corpses? Usually your nose will recognize that one.

Best case scenario is stagnant water...and usually there is SOMETHING rotting in it.

So often the label on the can, bottle or jar is gone, faded, or simply does not represent what is actually in the container.

I have hauled out boxes of bottle, cans, and other containers from a wide variety of picking spots; banged them around, and hauled them over bumpy back roads, the containers clattering together the whole trip. Then I get home and go through the stuff closer, realizing I essentially should have had some hazardous materials placards on my truck, and thinking I likely just broke some law governing the transportation of hazardous materials....

I have inadvertently (and, yes, sometimes knowingly, 'cause the container was so cool!) bought & hauled full and partially full containers of: DDT, Hydrochloric Acid, Sulphuric Acid, Strychnine, Suspension of Strychnine, Belladonna, Carbon Tetrachloride, Nitro pills, Formaldehyde, among a host of assorted poisons, acids, chemicals and other substances that I ended up having to carefully haul to the hazardous waste depot...and where I am met with a "what are you doing with THIS?" kind of look.

These are above and beyond the tons of household cleaners, brake fluids, oils, and assorted unknown substances that tend to be in old farmhouses, basements, sheds, barns, etc.

I am a little more careful now. I think it is the fact I am getting older, and more aware of my mortality. Just takes hauling the wrong two chemicals that when combined create a nice little explosion....Not too keen to be the next sensation on "The Darwin Awards".

Well, I am now thinking I may have potentially cheated death a few times...or at least gross disfigurement

"Pick safe" folks!!!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Rumors, TV, and the Antiques Biz.


You know, my previous  post really is a is a darn good idea for a TV program...Following up the facts behind the stories we hear! I'd love to hear the back story on the guy who bought the picture with the Declaration of Independence hidden behind it, and an interview with the guy who scored the movie posters, and find out what is true and what is not. You have heard of the huge antique auto hoard in Portugal? Check out the photos. Well, it is not so.

Oh well, it is a good story, eh?

Talking about stories, here is one about my "missed opportunity" to get rich in the antiques biz....

I had gotten a call from a cousin of mine, who had bought an old gas station. He had an old Coke machine that he was willing to give me if I wanted it. The little town he lived in was a bit over 3 hours away from the city. I figured I'd just pick the area while I was there to look at the machine...who knows, it could be a Vendo 44, Vendo 39 or some other highly sought after machine. Then again, I could be a boat anchor, but, I had to check it out. He said it had round corners, which made it a 1950s or earlier machine, and, besides, free was a darn good price!

So, I hopped in my old brown, 1988 Dodge half-ton about noon, and set off....with the first stop being the nearest 7-11 for a HUGE Slurpee. It was June, and abnormally hot, about 35 Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit). Add high humidity to that, and all I can say is it was a wickedly sticky heat. No air conditioning (save for the windows) and a black interior made for a quickly melted Slurpee, and an irritated & soaked self.

And, I still 3 hours drive ahead of me.


It wasn't that bad, for the first hour anyway. After 3 hours on the road, I reached the town just before his. Forever with a darting eagle eye, I spotted an old store that was obviously just starting to be renovated. Prime time to check in.....this is when the basement, backrooms, sheds, etc get cleaned out in many cases. New owner, different mindset about "old junk", a fresh start, etc, etc. But, man, was I hot, wet with 3 hours of humidity induced sweat, and irritable...I just wanted to get where I was going, and see if the trip was worthwhile for the Coke machine. In my drenched & annoyed state, I really did not feel like going through the banter to try to talk my way in to the basement or backrooms. With my state of mind being stuck in "don't piss me off or I'll rip your head off", I kept driving towards my destination.

In about 20 minutes, I arrived at my cousin's garage. Checked out the Coke machine, and it was a monster...round cornered, but the biggest Coke machine I have ever seen. Big is NOT better when it comes to Coke machines. Oh well, free is still free, after all....don't look a gift horse in the mouth, as they say. I looked around his garage, and found nothing else or interest. So, after making arrangements to come back and pick it up another day, I went on my way, and, the humidity seemed to drop, making the day go oh-so-much smoother. Did buy a few neat things, but was far from having a full truck by evening. I can remember getting a couple gas pump glass inserts, pump faces, some other pump parts, and not too much else of note. Not a great day, really. Covered my gas and food, and that was about it.

So, I retraced my steps, and went back through the town where the old grocery store under renovation was, hoping it would be open. I was in a pretty relaxed state of mind, warm wind blowing in the windows, the comfortable evening breeze and somewhat lower temps were creating a calming feeling.

As I drove up the main drag of the town, all 2 blocks of it, I saw the store was closed. On the opposite corner and next block was another old grocery store, and it was open. To get into the closed store would have to take some door knocking to get the owners name & number, talking, convincing, and some concerted effort, which might be all for naught in the end anyway. So, taking the path of least resistance, I pulled over to the open store, went in, and after a brief conversation, ended up heading to the basement, flashlight in hand.

No lights in the basement, which makes things a little tougher. Always carried a couple flashlights, so I flicked the one I had on.

As it turned out, the place had foundation issues, and the fellow had just spent a few thousand dollars getting one of the basement walls repaired. The 3 inches of mud on the floor squeezing up around my running shoes confirmed this. The first thing I saw was an old oak showcase. No glass left in it at all, and it nearly fell apart when I touched it. Years of moisture induced rot will do that. So, after confirming with the owner that it was OK, I ripped off the ornate, but heavily rusted, cast iron feet, salvaging the only salvageable pieces of the unit. They came off with out the use of a hammer or crowbar, with a quick snap of the wrist.

Beside it was an expand metal frame, which Coca-Cola used for their posters in the 1950s/70s. The would give you the frame, establishing their piece of real estate on your store's wall. Then the Coke salesman would change the sign periodically. This frame was, as you can imagine, not exactly pristine in condition, with the moisture it was exposed to.

So, venturing in further, I looked around with the beam of my flashlight.

Mud. 

Lots of mud....

And lots of something else....

Empty space.

Oh well, time to check up in the floor joists and along the walls where there tends to be nooks and crannies at the top of the walls, etc. Never know what you will find hidden away.

So, doing this, I made my way along the walls. Then, I heard a waterfall.

Yes, a waterfall!

Somewhat dumbfounded, and concerned for my safety, I flipped the beam of my flashlight around the walls. I quickly found the source of the rushing water noise.

In one of the 3 original walls was an opening about the size of your fist, and out of it was pouring a stream of water, pouring out with enough force to send it about a foot from teh wall before it fell to the mud floor.

I squished through the mud, dashed upstairs to report the waterfall to the owner.

Standing in the doorway, he was watching a Canadian prairies summer store, which in this case was a major, sudden, torrential downpour.

He rushed outside to the back of the building, where he found the eaves troughs pulled away from the edge of the roof, and hurriedly grabbed a ladder, and pushed the gutters back in place.

So, I saved him the major expense of having the wall collapse, and I still had to pay for the rusty feet & frame.

Oh well.

So, after the rain ceased, I loaded up my "rusty no-so-much gold" and headed home, getting back at around 2 AM.

* * *
Along comes late August, and my cousin calls me to tell me he is now cleaning out another part of the station I hadn't looked through, and is offering my another look.

So, off I head, on a beautiful August day, not too hot, and not too cold...just right.

I left in the morning, with the intent of doing some picking along the way, rather than rushing straight there. Stopped here and there, visiting a bit with a dealer I know, buying a few bits and pieces; just making a leisurely trip of it.

I arrive at the town before my cousin's community, and looked to where the old store that was being renovated in June was. What stood there was a brand new facade, bright white vinyl, new signs, all gleaming. I thought "Well, might as well check it out."

I went in, and was greeted with the a shiny, bright, modern store.

I approached the counter, and asked to speak with the owner. Turned out it was him, a middle aged fellow. I pulled out my flyer, which featured pictures of various signs, and items I was interested in buying, and went into my usual spiel about who I was, what I was interested in, etc.

He responded with a somewhat surprised look, and with the matter of fact comment:

"You should have been here in early summer."

He went on to tell me that the place was actually two old stores, with a shared basement....AND, when he bought the place, he could not even get into the basement, because it was SO FULL, and that is full right up the stairs with "old junk."

He proceeded to say things like how there were metal signs with paper still on them, not ever used, various displays, and described a cardboard Coke sign with a jazz musician on it that was like new, and on, and on, and on...

I wonder if my mouth was agape.

He had no idea what he was describing, judging by his descriptions...but the key things popped up..."like new", "never used", "wax paper on the signs", and the Coca-Cola, jazz musician sign....ohmigawd....the motherlode was under my feet!!! I did a quick mental calculation of how much cash I had on me....Cripes, definitely not enough....would he take a check, I wondered? Oh geeze.....this is going to be FANTASTIC...now just have to get IN to the basement!

My heart started beating faster and faster with each description of what amounted to PURE GOLD....!

Then, suddenly he pulled out a knife and thrust it deep into my heart!

Well, not quite, but he might as well have.

He proceeded to explain that he ended up paying two teenage kids who had a half ton truck $100 bucks a piece to haul it all to the dump. (Yes, I got their names and numbers, of course.)

I explained, and noted the values of some of the items he described, which could well have reached well into the thousands and he dismissed it all with:

"It was just old junk to me. It might be valuable to you, but it is still old junk to me."

Oh gawd.

Then, he TWISTED the knife....

He said "You know, if you had shown up in early summer, you could have just had the stuff, just hauled it away for me."

AAAARRGGGGG.....

I was so devastated and bewildered I didn't even suggest taking a look into the basement in case they missed something. I said my thank-yous and wandered out in a bit of a stupor.

I did track down the teenagers, who kept next to nothing of what they hauled out. I went out to the town's dump and found it bulldozed flat.

*sigh*.

GET RICH IN THE ANTIQUES BUSINESS!


Ok, so I said you can't get rich in the antiques business....well, that is not quite so.

There are the (very) lucky (very) few who do.

It is probably the reason why I keep going...HOPING for that big SCORE.

What would I do if I got rich? Buy more old junk. Build my dreams...

But, you need not hear about my dreams, really. How about some reality, some real "found treasure" stories?

I love 'em, too!

Right here in Manitoba, a woman did buy, at a garage sale, in a small rural town, a painting.

Cost her 15 cents, from what I was told.

It was actually two paintings....an acrylic done over top of an oil.

She had a clue as to what she had, but she took it in to the Brandon Art Gallery, where a former flame of mine worked (before she met me).

They confirmed the lady's thoughts as to what it was, then sent it on to the Winnipeg Art Gallery, who then sent it to a BC art gallery where it was cleaned.

Have you heard of Marc Chagall?

It was one of his "Blue Horse" works....

Sold for $2.5 million.

Yep, found at a garage sale in a tiny rural Manitoba town...

Oh, and she apparently did not give the Brandon Art Gallery a dime. Nice, eh?

My ex also was present when a fellow brought in some papers with a musical composition written on it.

He had inherited a trunk, and in a book in the trunk were these papers.

Eventually they were determined to be:

UNPUBLISHED WORKS BY BEETHOVEN!

Sold for $2.5 million to the Smithsonian.

Not a dime was given to the Art Gallery...again.

And did you hear of the item found at a Flea Market in Pennsylvania?

A fellow bought a painting in a frame (I heard it was a religious print...neither is important). The sum was $4.

He opened it up, as all he wanted was the frame.

And, in the back, was:

A COPY OF THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE!

Sold for $8.14 Million.

Yes, it DOES happen. That is what keeps some of us going, after buying and selling for years & only just barely eking out a living. As a kid I LOVED shows on lost treasure, pirate treasure, and all the rest.

It does happen...hold on to that, tightly!

Sometimes it is pure fluke...more often than not, I think!

I heard a story about a fellow who bought a little old movie theatre in a little Alberta town. He bought it with the intent on opening it up again as a movie theatre.
In his renovations, he decided to tear down the old screen, as it was stained, torn, etc.

Behind that screen was shelving....

FULL of all the movie posters, lobby cards, etc that the theatre had ever shown!

The lot included an original KING KONG which is worth about a quarter of a million dollars.

He is said to have started a business with the find, selling vintage posters, reproductions, etc.

Haven't confirmed this one, but I would not be surprised in the least. I have gotten into old theatres before, and this scenario is not all that unlikely. Odds are against it, just due to time and progress, but, if a variety of things fall into place, it can happen.

You would need a situation that includes: An owner who hoarded and saved things, a building caught up in a legal issue or in limbo for other reasons, locked up tight, kept in good enough condition that rodents don't take over, the roof doesn't leak (etc), no natural disasters (fire, flood, etc), and someone who finds the hoard who knows not just to haul all the stuff to the dump! Yes, that does happen...all too often! I have many a horror story to relate in this blog about such things...including what I consider my "missed" BIG SCORE.

The factors involved did line up for another such find of movie posters in the US.

It is said that many knew that this particular theatre owner kept all his posters. However, when he passed away, no one found anything in the theatre. One savvy searcher decided to go look at the fellow's house, which was up for sale.

He went in with the realtor to look around, on the pretense of thinking of buying the house.

The place was not in the best of shape, and the price reflected that.

While the realtor was in another room, the searcher noticed a loose board on a wall.

He pried it back, and realized that the wall was FULL OF POSTERS. The theatre owner had used them to INSULATE HIS HOUSE.

He bought the house (I think the figure was $25,000?). He became a millionaire with the purchase.

Makes you want to go out and find old theatres, doesn't it?

I have been in a few, and one, which was being gutted in Winnipeg, Manitoba, I did obtain a few neat things. One was a stack of posters that were glued on on top of the other. On the top was HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES. Mint, this poster is worth around $8000 or so these days. I found it about 15 years ago.

Sadly, it was glued over top of many other 1930s posters. Also had water damage...was very wrinkled. I think I sold it for $100 to a dealer I knew, who was going to see/invest in getting them separated. Don't think it ever happened....likely still sitting in storage. I'll have to ask the next time I see her.

I also got 4 stained glass exit signs, one of which I still own to this day, as well as a couple boxes of "B" & "C" list movies from the 1970s/80s....many foreign language ones, not valuable. Beyond that, there might have been a few other knick knacks, but not much. The thing is, when these places change hands, things get tossed, sold, stolen, etc, etc. This one has gone through a number of transitions. One of the things there were lots of where a selection of 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and 1950s theatre seats. Unfortunately, my request to help him sell them fell on deaf ears, and seeing as he was in a big hurry, he had them ripped out. No care was taken, and they were tossed in a pile outside....it rained the next day, to boot!

The thing is, some people see zero value in old things. Due to this, despite he did just let me take the stuff, no payment. This is good sometimes...but, those who see no value in such things treat them as if they are valueless....and do I have a story for you about that!!! But, I will save it for another blog....

Some more ramblings...


Looks like next week is going to be a busy week...have posted some items for sale/trade on a local website, and have gotten some leads from that. More wandering around the countryside! I love what I do. It is not an easy life, really, as I do work pretty hard, but, your time is my own, usually. I can take the day off if my boss will let me! Sometimes the hardest person to work for is yourself. You are always thinking about what you need to do, how to do it, etc, etc...you can;t leave work at work, 'cause there are things floating around in your head that present themselves when you least expect it.

DAM, I forgot to do "X".

So, you lecture yourself and go on...you can never escape the "boss".

But, he can be more lenient, too...

"I think we need to pull over at this ice cream stand...."

"And stop for a beer after that."

But, as I said, it is tough financially. You can be "rich" one day and nearly "broke" the next.

Macaroni & Cheese anyone? No dear, we can't afford that expensive Kraft Dinner....got to go with generic...

But, I would not be happy working for anyone else. The politics, the strict hours, the fact you are making someone else profits, but not yourself, and on and on.

I do miss "weekends," though. Garage sales, country auctions, having to get eBay auctions ready, etc, etc...it all tends to consume a weekend. Tough to free up a weekend.

Haven't really taken a holiday for a long time, either. Got married last year, and we have not had a honeymoon. We're setting up a B&B (http://www.buzzingbeebandb.com/), so that has consumed our time as well.

It all takes money, too. The business is not what it used to be, but I am hoping it picks up again. Shows like "American Pickers" may well help a fair bit, and surge interest. It certainly is needed. However, what you may notice about many of the antiques shows out there now is that they tend to really concentrate of values of things, rather than the history and reasons behind the "Why you should collect X." I like American Pickers and several other antiques related shows, but maybe we need more shows like "History Detectives" to really get interest going more. Shows like the Antiques Roadshow, as popular as it is, focuses heavy on the values. The history is there, but you know darn well you are waiting for that dollar figure to pop up....and that almost detracts from the history aspect of it. American Pickers is less so, which I am happy with. History Detectives is a little dry, but perhaps that is the PBS production aspect?

The thing about all this is, if everyone is buying based on strictly value and what the item is worth for resale, then who is the consumer? If there is no end collector to buy the item, the item is actually worthless. The line of buyers buying to resell is not endless...To have any value, the item is destined to end up somewhere, in some collection. I think there is a false market being created in some ways. All this propaganda about "values" of items is total bunk if there is no one collecting the stuff! And, if there is one collector, and 20 available identical items then the collector sets the value....which will be the lowest of the seller's prices..or even less, 'cause we all know how negotiation on prices go when there is a glut of material on the market...everyone wants to dump the tough to sell stuff if they can.

Simple supply and demand. Rings true in this business as it does in any other retail based business. The market can be manipulated, but only so much.

Remember the mid 1990s? Fantastic...could sell LOTS of things that you simply can not give away now. My gawd, if it was "old" is was SOLD. No longer. Martha Stewart, Country Living and all the rest do not have the same grip on the public as they once had. The public is more conservative, their tastes have changed, they are more wary. Events like 9/11, and more recently the "financial crisis", have all made people think more about what they really want and what is most important to them. "Stuff" tends to take a back seat to family, friends, health, travel, etc.

Now, I am not saying that everyone has gone that route. There wouldn't be ANY market in the antiques business if that was the case. No, it is still here, but you are not going to get rich by any stretch of the imagination. You need to love old junk to be in this business, especially long term.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Diggin' into the past.


In my last post I stated that I was not an entomologist....

Well, that is STILL the case.

But, I am sure that out there in the world, SOMEWHERE there is an entomologist/picker.

What I have discovered throughout my antiquing career is that folks in this business come from all walks of life.

As an example, a friend of mine was a former long haul trucker (R.I.P. Dale). Our mutual friend is a former genetics professor. Can't get friends too much more odd than that, I suppose...though, I am sure that in this business, there are many odd matches in friendships.

We all are aware of the "snob factor" in this business, with some collectors/dealers feeling their collecting/buying habits are superior to others. Just a fact of life, because we are all human. Perceived "superiority" tends to be part of human nature. I strive to avoid following the idea of my being "superior" to some folks I deal with, or with them being "superior" to me, in my day to day experiences. First impressions and people's facades can be very deceiving.

One thing I do enjoy seeing is a level playing field arising, or even a role reversal between collectors.

That advanced Hot Wheels collector, who is a life long Gas Jockey, can be seen explaining the finer points of Hot Wheels to some Corporate President who has just started collecting. You see it every day at shows, flea markets, etc. People from all walks of life collect. If they follow their hearts in collecting, and not collect what someone of their "stature" should collect, they will be happier. Just because you are rich does not mean you should be collecting Renoir, Tiffany, etc.....If you dislike the stuff, or have no appreciation for it, in the end it will just make you miserable. You will look at it, shaking your head at remembering how much you spent on some painting, when your soul craves owning that rare Red Lines Hot Wheels you had when you were a kid, or that Coca-Cola sign you used to see on the door of your grandparents store when you went to visit.

Objects are a connection to our past, a trigger to opening a memory. From there, we start to collect similar items, developing an appreciation for them. We get interested in the history, maybe of how something was made, and want examples of that. I still love enamel signs, the varying depth of the porcelain rising and falling as you run your fingers over the enamel. Though, I have to admit, I don't know for sure where the love of old advertising came from. The town in which I grew up did not have many old signs plastered on buildings, as it was "progressive", so in the 1970s & 1980s there really was not as much dated advertising hanging around there. I do remember an old Coca-Cola push bar on a door of the "Hi-Way Grocery" in town, but I don't think that was the "trigger". It could be the remembrances of working in my grandfathers farm supply show, where I did find a few old advertising pieces.

He purchased the business from his son, my uncle, who was not doing well with it. So, my grandfather the entrepreneur, came out of retirement for about the 3rd time, and turned the business around to a profit making enterprise. The fellow my uncle bought it from was either the first or second owner of the business, which started as a gas station/garage back in the tens of the 1900s. Cool little old building, with an addition on the back, made of true "cinder bricks". That is, concrete bricks literally made of cinders dumped out of the old railway locomotives form the rail line near-by.

Judging from the crammed aspect of the place when my uncle bought it, the previous owner (or 2) rarely threw anything out. The floor in the back warehouse/workshop/former garage part of the building  appeared to be just dirt...until they started scraping at it, and realized it was just a 70 odd year, several inch build-up of  dirt on top of the original concrete floor! Yep, an accumulation from years of muddy tractor tires and farmers boots dropping topsoil through the place that had packed into a prairie sod, indoors!

So, they set to work. You may have read in my past blogging that my Grandfather was not much for "old stuff". Thus, several grain truck size loads of stuff went out to the local dump. Sadly, I was not of the age to be grabbing things, nor was made aware of the events. 

My mother may well have kept me away on purpose, for all I know!

In my early teens, which was a few years after the big clean-up, and as well as after the second clean-up/purge my grandfather did, after bailing my non-entrepreneurial uncle out of the business.

 I had a fair bit of down time, as I mainly was there to pump gas, and in a village of 500 people, the Bowsers (as my grandfather called them) weren't exactly hopping all day long. 

My personal work ethic is pretty strong, so idleness does not sit well with me. So,when I was bored, I took it upon myself to clean & organize whatever I could find that was in disorder. I sorted out junk drawers into categories,sections (etc) of  screws & random bits of this and that. I organized shelves of parts in the back, moving around NOS tail light lenses of cars from the 50s, NOS piston sleeves for old tractors, and assorted old stuff that amazingly somehow had not been tossed in the 2 big purges. In this organizing I did come across an old Willard Batteries flange sign (a 2 sided sign with a strip on one end bent at a 90 degree angle to allow mounting to a building) that my grandfather was using as protection for the wood shelf.

 Protection from what? A car battery, which had sadly corroded one side of the sign. But, it was a treasure I ended up being able to take home. He also allowed me to take the NOS tail light lenses and some old car repair manuals....In his mind he was getting rid of junk, I'd assume!

In my boredom, with all the remnants of disorganization that was not already in landfill being all pretty organized, I set my sights on the attic door I spotted in the ceiling of the little building. I finally convinced my grandfather to let me get up there and and explore on a coffee break.

I managed to get a ladder propped up, and pushed the door up and into the attic.

It was a tiny attic, with not much in it. But, there was a sign made of cut out wood letters, which I did not take interest in. (Actually might still be there today. The building is now in the hands of the local museum , however). But, there was this round thing with convex sides. It was painted with beige paint, all over.

I dragged it down, and my grandfather's immediate response to seeing it was:

"Throw that piece of junk out!"

I replied that I wanted to see what was under the paint, as it seemed to have something on either side of it, which you could view through the hole in the bottom.

It wasn't like we were busy, anyway, and something else to do to keep my mind and hands busy was not a bad thing.

I grabbed some razor blades, and not-so-carefully started scraping paint off it, only nicking the glass a few times. 

Colour started to appear with each scrape.

Red, Yellow, Black.

I eventually got most of both sides exposed.

It read "RED HEAD GASOLINE" with a somewhat cartoon like picture of a boy with red hair on it.

I thought it was pretty cool, and so did my grandmother, who cleaned it up more, and my grandfather put it out on display.

 I wanted it, but did not express that deep desire much at the time, feeling it wasn't my place. I was a shy, timid kid.

One day I came to work there on a weekend, and the gas globe was gone. As was the beautiful old oak rolltop desk with all the cubby holes, and a 4 drawer oak filing cabinet.

A picker had come along, and bought all three for a grand sum of $300. $100 an item. I don't know if that is what my grandfather was offered, or it was a price my grandfather quoted.

 I my mind, as a picker myself, there would be a big difference, ethically. The globe, even at that time was easily worth $800+ (now upwards of $4000? $8000?) I am sure my grandfather was happy with the sale of the "old junk", and maybe that is all that matters. A newer, modern desk took the roll top's place, and a 2 drawer tin file cabinet from somewhere like Sears to the place of the oak filer. 

Nothing replaced the globe.

I think I might have gotten bought an extra Coke that weekend. Those times sitting out front of the station, drinking Coke from a glass bottle with him are fond memories, and something I looked forward to each time I was there. Nothing like drinking ice cold Coke from a glass bottle. My generation was the last to really experience that en-masse. Coke in a plastic bottle just is not the same.

Maybe all these years I have been trying to replace that globe. I actually did know where it was, and may still be, but I know the antiques dealer/collector owner refused $2000 for it many years ago. His son has inherited it, but, who knows what he'd want for it. I doubt I could buy it, even if I had the funds to make an offer that would be realistic in today's market, on such a rare globe. 

And, besides,  I'd hate to have to pay retail, I am a picker, after all!  Who knows, I might even ante up a retail price if I have the financial means someday....if I can locate the globe again. 

Someday.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Dirt Brain

No, this has nothing to do with having a dirty mind. Don't want to disappoint you, but there is no porn here. Not stooping to that level...yet!

Early in my picking career, a friend of my father owned a house near Number One highway that was going to be torn down. The land was sold to the federal government to enable the twinning of the highway.

A FREE pick....No cash required, just take whatever we wanted. Can't miss that.

I lived in "the city" (Winnipeg) at the time, and came "home" to check it out.

With it so close to the highway, it had pretty much been ransacked already, but we did some digging. I climbed into the attic, and pulled down some postcards, some other bric-a-brac, as well as couple dozen honey tins. I guess a former owner must have kept bees. Not a big seller at the time, honey tins, but I think I sold them eventually for $4 - $8 each. Ok for free, I guess.

So, we "did" the attic, "did" the rest of the house. Just the basement left...if it even had a basement. No basement windows on the outside, but that is not necessarily an indicator that there isn't a basement. Basically the only evidence of an entrance to a basement was the edge of a line in the the tongue and groove floor, partially obscured by dirt and debris. It was just visible near the edge of the ancient linoleum. The linoleum was loose, so we just lifted it up, and VOILA, a trap door!

My blood always flows faster when I get into a basement or attic that looks like no one has been in for years. The potential of "treasure" is greater. This particular cellar door was jammed shut good, so it was unlikely anyone managed to get in to ransack its contents. Kind of like a locked vault, the combination required was a hammer, screwdriver and a crowbar...something most random travellers who had explored the place don't carry with them.

So, once it was popped open, a musty, earthy smell arose in our noses. Years of being sealed. Mmmm. Good smell, to me.

So, I knelt down, looked in the hole with my flashlight.

A note of caution and advice to you amateur pickers. You ALWAYS look closely before stepping into any cellar hole! I have opened up cellar doors and found water a mere foot below the floor I was standing on. Other times, there is a single stair, and in the darkness you can not see the fact the rest of them are long gone. Sometimes they are so rotten that any pressure at all and they crumble. Other times they are barely holding together, and the sides are falling away, threatening to drop all the stair treads at once with your first (and possibly last) step. Plus, you need to use all your senses. Does it smell VERY wet? Is there a half foot of water on that floor or 10 feet of water? Does it have an odor of skunk? An odor of animal urine or feces? Even a chemical smell? A "crap-smell" (methane)? All can be a big issue...and dangerous in their own ways. A half foot of water in a basement dangerous? Yep. A half foot of water, even with good rubber boots, in a basement with a dirt floor can trap you in your boots like glue, in some remote, dank corner. And who knows what is under that water. Yes, you may be able to see down in it now, but after taking a few steps, that silt that has been undisturbed for the last 50 years is now making the water near black, or at least so cloudy it is impossible to see anything below the surface. The next thing you step on is a long shard of glass from that old sealer jar you kicked over. You might as well run your boot & foot across a long razor blade. Plus, that muck can be as slippery as grease. In the least you will possibly slip & fall, get your ego bruised, and just become uncomfortably wet, lightly bruised & slightly odorous. Worst case scenario you could end up impaled on a chunk of steel hidden in the darkness, jutting out from some rusting hulk of gawd knows what, or be knocked unconscious and simply drown.

Well, no worries here....No stairs at all...and it was maybe 4 feet deep, no debris on the floor visible within the confines of the light from the opening. Walls seem solid enough, not likely to cave in, especially if I keep my hands off of them.

Bent over, grasping one side of the opening with one hand, flashlight in the other, I poked my head in the hole.

Upside down, blood rushing to my head, I turned my head, side to side and around, trying to determine what the cellar was like.

What I saw were 2 tunnels, one right, and one left. Both seemed to each lead to a room, and I could just make out shelves with some junk on them.

Cool!

I lowered myself down through the hole, and assumed the position.....the Duck Walk position.

The place was a little creepy, as abandoned homes always seem to be, to varying degrees, if you let your imagination go.

But, I don't let the creepiness factor stop me. So, I waddled down the tunnel towards the room. Once of the reasons it was so tough to see what was on the shelves, was all the cobwebs hanging down, breaking the beam of my flashlight. I brushed most away, but others were starting to drape over me, catch on my hair, shoulders, chest, back, sides of my face, etc. Annoying, and I likely looked like I was getting ready to star in some zombie flick.

I get to the room. It was tiny, maybe 4 or 5 feet wide. Basically 3 shelves across the one wall. And on those shelves?

Crap.

Well, not literally. Just label less Cheeze Whiz jars and not much else.

Oh well, still have the other room. Might be a nice crock, Beaver sealer or something else valuable and/or interesting there. Got to be optimistic, you never know.

Anticipation helped my now cramping legs push me to go back, past the opening and down the continuing tunnel. I kept my flashlight focused directly on my destination through the cobwebs, occasionally lowering it to make sure there wasn't broken glass, or worse a gaping open pit, or other hazard a foot in front of me. He died, cobweb covered, duck walking into a pit. Good line for my tombstone...NOT.

Suddenly, I felt as if the earth was closing around me.

I looked to my right, and realized the earthen wall WAS closer. I looked to the left, and realized the same. I thought that was a little CREEPY.

The weirdest part was that it looked like there was 2 huge dirt brains on either side of me.

All these intricate folds weaving in and out. Really weird.

Either way, it was just BIZARRE looking. Like two two giants were buried head to head, with their skulls lopped off. I put my imagination in check, brushed away the excess cobwebs draped over me, and kept to the task at hand. Hope and anticipation kept my cramped legs moving, and I made it to the second room, also lined across the back with 3 shelves.

More Cheeze Whiz jars.

Great.

I crawled back to the opening, as my legs were not interested in doing any more duck walking. We wandered around the yard, checked out the sheds, picked up a couple other knick-knacks, and loaded up and left.

THE END.

Yep that is it.

What did you expect, the brain would be from some fossilized Mammoth?

I assume they were shrew tunnels, but they might have been some kind of bug tunnels, maybe some sort of burrowing beetle.

Hey, I am a picker, not a entomologist!

Pint sized dealer

When most kids were setting up lemonade stands their front lawns, I set up an antiques stand.

Sold a few 'treasures' to the neighborhood kids, all tagged with carefully ripped masking tape price tags of 5 cents, 10 cents, 25 cents, and 50 cents got tagged on those really rare items. Alas, I didn't exactly make bundles of cash. Had I put Coca-Cola in the 1950s Coke bottles I was selling, tennis enthusiasts on the courts across from our house would have bought like crazy. hen I could have gone and picked up the bottles again. Should have figured out then that a lemonade/beverage stand would have been a more lucrative idea. Or, perhaps I should have just had both. Hmmmm...that thought has only has taken 30 years of after sight to come to light!

It was kind of cool to have a crowd (well, ok, 4 or 5) kids crowded around my little entrepreneurial enterprise. My interest in this junk was somehow appreciated and validated. The items were somehow more appreciated by others. Some of those orphaned relics found new homes.

Part of my entrepreneurial drive was created by my parents. I had an allowance, which at its greatest height reached a grand sum of $2. Chocolate bars were 40 to 60 cents, bottled or canned drinks 50 - 75 cents, etc, so this still did not go far. When it came to buying something like a stereo, a bike, etc, I was virtually on my own, with occasional assistance. Nothing really got "handed to me". So, I collected bottles, beer & pop, for the deposit refund...which was 2 1/2 cents for beer bottles, 5, and eventually 10 cents for pop bottles. Took quite a few bottles to pay for a bike or stereo. But, I did regular rounds on the weekends, checking in the bushes, ditches, back lanes, accumulated them from abandoned campsites when we went camping, etc. Bought most of my own "luxury" items that way. Of course, my father helped me haul them to the grocery store & hotel when I had accumulated enough to make it worth while...or my mother got tired of them stacked up in the basement.

My father had a job at a small town machine shop as a welder, and was under appreciated, underpaid with no company benefits. Not tons of money around. I remember the basement having a big shelf full of cut down laundry detergent boxes, stuffed with UPC codes, box tops, etc. My mother was into refunding & clipping coupons, so that added a little cash to the family coffers, and, as a result of having to buy brand name items for the refunding, we also ate ok. Our income was technically below what the government considered "The Poverty Line", but as far as I am concerned, we lived pretty much as middle class. Perhaps that is easier to do in a small town, with industrious & thrifty parents.

The town I grew up in had a population of just over 3000 people. Not really a stereo-typical small town stuck in time. Virden is the "Oil Capital Of Manitoba." Still booming now, and not really affected by the "recession" of recent time. Some parts of the back roads south of town are reminiscent of scenes I have see of driving through Texas...pump jacks everywhere you look.

It is still a small town, however. Progressive enough that there is money flowing, but small town enough that the place didn't get totally levelled when oil and money started flowing in the 1950s. A few facades got changed on buildings, some demolition occurred, but there is virtually a whole block of downtown, just past the single set of stoplights, that still retains virtually all the buildings from the early 1900s, as well as a few dotted along a couple side streets. There is much they could do with it to make it like those historically restored and picturesque towns in the US, and are finally making a little effort to shine up the place.

Another part of the town's ability to survive, is the fact it is right on Canada's main highway, which we just call "Number 1". Many towns along its route have been bypassed, with the straightening of its former many curves. The advent of bigger and better machinery to carve up the landscape has made the highway straighter than it was originally, and more fuel efficient vehicles, larger gas tanks, etc, has resulted in the disappearance of the gas stations that used to dot its route. That, and the fact that assorted little towns and villages have been bypassed, in order to keep traffic flowing at a high rate of speed, rather than forcing vehicles to slow down while they scoot through the multitude of little towns. In Canada, most towns that have been bypassed by that oh-so-influential highway have withered to a skeleton of their former selves.

Depressing, really, this death of towns along its route. But, as a picker, it has left some of them stuck in time, so I suppose there was a slight benefit to my profession. Still not worth their death, however.

How did I end up on this sad subject, anyway?

So, that is my home town, Virden, former home of some noted public figures, such as David Rockola, inventor of the Rockola Jukebox, Jim Treliving (one of the 'Dragons' from the TV show "Dragon's Den" & owner of Boston Pizza & Mr Lube chains),the founding editor of Reader's Digest, among others.

Have I bored you to death, yet?

I think a picking story is in order for the next blog....

Monday, May 3, 2010

Welcome to MY World!


Well, this is it, the start of something I should have been doing a number of years ago. Better late than never, I s'pose.

Now, if you happened to just trip over this blog, thinking:

"Hey, cool, this guy plays Banjo!"

Sorry, I don't play a banjo...nor any other stringed instrument...no musical instrument at all, really...not with any kind of talent or skill, at least. Can bang on the piano, make those old school "horror movie" sounds, but that is about it. I think I might be tone deaf, too, so don't bother getting me to try singing, either. Not a pretty sound at all....

SO, if I don't play banjo, then what kind of "picker" am I?

Yeah, ok, "a nose picker", yeah, yeah, yeah, heard that one before...can you hear my eyes rolling? Read my lips - Go a w a y!


Still here? Ok, so you are truly interested. Good!

I'm essentially an "antiques picker" . So, in this context, a "Picker" is a person who travels around buying antiques/collectibles and related stuff, usually intending to resell the items to an antiques dealer, a collector, decorator, maybe at a flea market, antiques mall booth, etc. If you have been in or are in the antiques business you are quite likely familiar with the term, too. If you happened to have seen the History Channel show, "American Picker" you are already familiar with the general concept, though, they are essentially just an example of one type of picker.

Myself? I am a picker, similar to the guys on "American Picker", yet I am different. No two pickers are alike, really.

I have been in the antiques business for over 20 years. I have also loved old junk since I was knee high...2 feet tall? Ok, so I was a little taller than "knee high", but you get the picture. I'd take trips on the Greyhound to my Grandparents place in a nearby town to stay a few days...I am assuming my parents wanted some alone time....and one of the highlights of the stay there was a trip out to the town's garbage dump to look around.

I KNOW some of you are going "ick" and others are saying "HEY, I used to do that with my (-insert relative here-)." Yeah, you are out there...and there are more of you out there than will admit it!

The back part of the dump, which was the oldest part, was flat, and nothing really grew there (what the heck WAS in that ground???). Mother Nature used some of her her tools; rain and wind, to expose the solid objects just beneath the surface of the sandy soil. So, we would find all sorts of treasure, thing such as old bottles, like thick glass 6 oz Coca-Cola bottles, pre-1900 cork top bottles on occasion, and bottles of all kinds, bits of glass glittering like diamonds in the sun, blue, white, and other old colors of china fragments, as well as other assorted bits of years pasts' trash. My grandmother had an interest in such things, and was also a creative sort, so various items got salvaged, saved, and archived, much to the chagrin of my grandfather, I am sure. He had little use for anything old, generally. My grandmother kept her treasures and things clean and very orderly, and mostly stashed out of sight.

The most heart warming childhood memories of my father and I interacting would be when we would take a load of trash out to the local town dump, and generally, we'd come back with something...occasionally even a full load....much to the chagrin of my mother, who inherited her father's non-appreciation of clutter and old "junk." My father is a creative sort, also, always inventing & creating things. You need a supply of raw material for a creative mind, and the dump suited that requirement perfectly. Not to mention the supplies there were free. Can't beat that. Could be why we called it K-Mart....K-Mart stores in Canada were basically the same oas the US's Kresge stores. Many members of the community I live in now affectionately call the local landfill Wal-Mart. Weird, as much as things change, they stay the same.

Now, those were the days (Oh geeze, what the heck did I just say??? "Those were the days"??? I just realized I am getting old)....SO, that was when the majority of town's landfills still allowed some sort of salvage of whatever you wished to remove. Recycling at its BEST. These days, we are truly backwards in the broad thinking that once it is at the dump it should be left there, and buried. We fence them off with steel fencing, barbed wire strung across the top, as if we are protecting some sort of valuable commodity...well, actually, it is a valuable......oh cripes, there I go, off on a tangent again...I warn you, I tend to do this, so bear with me. In this case I could spout on and on about the virtues of recycling objects in general, but I will spare you the soapbox commentary...for now, anyway

The stuff I saw out at the dump...man, I wish I knew then what I know now! Anyway, I picked up whatever captured my fancy, within reason...as I still had to deal with my mother. I always seemed to be drawn to old things, though. Sure, some new thing that had some minor problem appealed a little, but the old stuff called to me....whispered furtively "please rescue me"...

So, I accumulated bits and pieces of "treasure". Stashed it here and there, used it for various creative projects, and displayed some of it in my room, decorated my "fort" in the back yard. Beginning of a hoarder? I hope not! Have too much experience with the results of hoarding, so I hope I have learned something . I have dug through countless piles of flotsam and jetsam, deposited as monuments to lifetimes spent saving every little thing....but, I am getting ahead of myself...I will leave those stories for later. We are talking about ME here, ya know!

So, back to my childhood. Say, you feeling like a shrink yet?

"Tell me about your mother."

Actually, I will tell you about a friend of mine who, as it turns out, unwittingly had a major effect on the direction my life has taken.

His name was Steven. Steve to his friends. Hmmm, you know, I haven't heard from him since I was, well, I don't know, maybe 10, or 11? His father was a constable with the RCMP, so they moved at some point in my elementary school career.

Steve and I were best friends. So, when he showed interest in one of a pair of decks of cards I was showing him, (which I had picked up at the dump, of course), I figured I'd just give the deck to him.

He refused to take it...that is, refused to take it for free.

I insisted.

He responded by forcing a quarter into my hand.

An entrepreneur was born!