Passion for PICKING4/24/2013
Ever go dumpster diving, curb shopping or garbage picking? If not, you might be missing out. Some people actually make a good living that way — pilfering through others’ castaways. It’s the slightly less glamorous way of “going green,” and it’s catching on like a fever, especially this time of year.
“Pickers” — or “junkers,” depending on who you ask — are people who take thrifty shopping to a latex-gloved level by trying to find treasures in trash. But trash is such an ugly word, and to pickers, it’s far from being considered garbage. Rather, it’s unwanted items prime for finding extraordinary treasures to salvage or sell. And Iowa has become the epicenter of it all. Two reality TV shows on two major networks revolve around stores that sell such found items, and both take place in Iowa. In addition to the fame and glamour of those involved with the TV shows, countless others are digging through trash and “striking gold” minus the fame and TV crews in tow.
The couple that picks together stays together, at least that’s the philosophy by which Chris and Mandi Swanson live. The Des Moines couple has been “junking” for three years and have made a decent living in doing so.
It all started with good parenting, Mandi said.
“I remember my dad doing it when I was little. Then one day Chris and I were driving home through Urbandale, and we saw stuff sitting out and just stopped,” she said. “We ended up staying out until 6 in the morning.”
They’ve been hooked ever since but have discovered the hobby-turned-job requires a huge commitment of their time. They usually start their day around 5 p.m. and go all night. They end up staying out until early morning, which enables them to spend the rest of the day selling the items they’ve found. It wasn’t long before they ran out of room in their house in Highland Park, and they currently rent a storage unit to house their treasure as they await interested buyers.
A PICKER’S KIND OF LOVE
Mandi and Chris sell items out of their storage unit and through a Facebook page, REDO. Most are priced in the $1 to $30 range. They like to keep everything affordable so the client can walk away happy while the Swansons also make a little money for their efforts. Everybody wins.
Although they both have jobs, they admit a majority of their income comes from junking. It’s a second job, but it’s also fun, and it’s their passion.
“I’m happiest when I’m with him, and we just decided to help each other and go at it full time,” Mandi explains of going into the business with her husband.
In the beginning it was more about grabbing anything and everything, but the couple now employs more strategy and purpose in their hunts. What they look for is dictated by the needs and wants of a loyal and growing clientele.
“I’ll grab everything; Chris has to be the voice of reason,” Mandi smiled.
Early on in their junking days, the couple would rummage through trash bags. They quickly learned that items in trash bags are bagged for a good reason, though. It was often disgusting, Mandi said, and they weren’t finding the items they were looking for.
“One time I found a dirty catheter — that was really gross, and sometimes we get into cat pee,” Mandi said, describing a few of their worst encounters.
Eventually their picking skills improved and they were able to clearly spot potential treasure from trash. Once that happened, junking was not nearly as treacherous. The items they take are big and usually set aside. They will grab items that can be salvaged with a specific focus on antiques, furniture and things that can be repurposed, such as desk drawers that local artists can turn into shadow boxes.
Although the couple is on the lookout year-round, April through June is the peak picking season because of the nice weather and spring cleaning.
“If it rains, it’s limiting, and if it’s windy, stuff will be blowing all around,” Mandi said.
Every March Mandi makes a list of all the spring-cleaning days in the greater Des Moines area, and they make sure to hit those areas early and often. One city’s trash isn’t necessarily better than the other. Last week Urbandale was prime for the picking.
Chris and Mandi realize that not everyone wants their curbside throw-aways picked through, and some homeowners look down on what Mandi and Chris do. They admit they get their fair share of dirty looks and obscenities yelled at them, but for the most part, people are friendly, Mandi said.
“One guy saw what Chris and I were doing, then just started giving us stuff out of his garage, like new, unopened stuff,” she said.
The couple isn’t there to rip through trash bags and be destructive, they asserted.
“We try not to make a mess; it’s rude,” Mandi said. “If you’re friendly and respectful people are nice.”
Law enforcement isn’t a problem either. Legally speaking, picking isn’t a crime. As long as the pile is situated between the sidewalk and the curb it’s considered public domain.
“I don’t think they really care, or they turn a blind eye,” Mandi said.
PICKING OUT THE PICKERS
Neither the homeowners nor the police do much to stand in the Swansons’ way. Rather, it’s the other junkers who pose the biggest problems during their nocturnal pilfering. The scene can get very competitive.
“I try not to look at the backs of people’s cars in front of us, because I get jealous of what I see,” Mandi admitted.
The Swansons sometimes become the objects of envy, too. While the couple was sorting through piles in Urbandale, several other junkers were circling them like vultures. Fellow junkers are easy to spot, Mandi said, with their pick-up trucks piled high with found items.
“Those are the cord cutters,” Mandi said while pointing to a passing car loaded with scrap metal. “I can’t stand cord cutters.”
Cord cutters are pickers who are looking strictly for metal. Mandi doesn’t like them because they ruin what would otherwise be perfectly useful items. They open the cords of TVs, washing machines and other electronics just to cut out the copper guts, destroying an otherwise working device. Mandi turns over a discarded TV to reveal an example.
“See, they’ve been here,” she said, pointing to where the TV’s cord had been severed.
The Swansons also criticize people who take mattresses. Whenever they see someone drive past with old mattresses, they laugh and say, “There goes the bed bug motel!” The couple talks about the bed bug scare and the general nastiness of swiping an old mattress off a pile.
“That is one thing I will not take; that’s just a no-go. I will save the money and buy a new one,” Mandi laughed.
Mattresses are just about the only furniture item the couple buys new. Mandi estimates that 90 percent of the items in their home are from junking and thrift stores. One of her most valuable finds was a working Dell Inspiron 1501 laptop. A more recent Urbandale score was a working 32-inch LG flat screen TV. Another gem was an antique trunk they found on the side of the road in Adel.
“Chris pretty much jumped out of the truck while it was moving,” Mandi said.
While they have amassed a lot of finds, Mandi stresses they are not hoarders.
“I hate clutter, but junking is a hoarder’s paradise,” she admitted.
REAL IOWA PICKERS
Hoarding and clutter aside, Mandi admits that junking is definitely a dirty job, even compared to what is depicted on shows like the LeClaire-based “Real American Pickers,” which airs on the History Channel (Mondays at 8 p.m.). The show follows Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz as they scour the countryside looking for their next grand find.
“We’re a lot dirtier than them. We’re going through trash, not people’s barns,” Mandi said.
They were fans of the show and used to watch it all time, but it got boring, they said. They’re bigger fans of “Storage Wars” and HGTV’s “Flea Market Shop.”
“Were not the classy ‘American Pickers’; we’re the trashy ones,” Mandi laughed.
“Real American Pickers” isn’t the only show in town anymore, though. In February, HGTV premiered “West End Salvage” (airs Thursdays at 7 p.m.) that follows the adventures of owner Don Short and his employees at West End Architecture Salvage in downtown Des Moines.
What started as humble beginnings for Short has grown into a successful business that now includes a reality TV show. Short originally refurbished homes and would salvage some of the more interesting pieces for tag sales. After the tag sales became popular, people started bringing items directly to Short to sell to him.
Then, seven years ago, Short decided to open the store, originally located on 14th and Locust, just south of the sculpture park, in a 10,000-square-foot building. One year later they moved into their current, multilevel, 50,000-square-foot building on the corner of Ninth and Cherry. The store gave Short’s business credibility, making it more appealing to TV producers, he said.
“We were contacted by the production company; they actually searched us out,” said Joe Davis, an emplyoyee and buyer for the business.
Davis and his brother, Hal, have been with Short since the first location. He’s a key buyer and is in charge of merchandising the products, pricing them, selling them and working with clients to make custom furniture. He’ll also hit up the occasional auction to search for items, most of which he finds right here in Iowa.
Davis says people come in every day looking to sell things to the store and estimates six times out of 10, they buy from them, too. In addition to the items coming in to the store, West End receives countless calls and emails.
“People who bring stuff know what we like,” Davis said.
Once the items do come in, it’s up to the five craftsmen in the basement to work their magic, making them unique and in demand.
“They are very skilled and talented people,” Davis said.
The quality and style of the items has even caught the eye of high-end architectural salvage chain Olde Good Things. The chain has stores in Pennsylvania, New York City and Los Angeles, and its hunters make a point to stop at West End when traveling between locations.
Davis’ passion for his occupation has deep roots.
“My mom was an avid collector. We were always going to auctions and garage sales,” Davis said.
He recalls his mom buying an item for $5 then taking it home and showing him research that estimated the real value at $500, for example.
“People don’t know what things are worth,” he said.
Davis does. And he has developed a keen eye for those secret treasures, crediting his mother’s passion as a collector for rubbing off on him and his brother. Several items in West End are in the four-figure price range, with one of the most expensive priced at $10,000. While the higher-ticket items might be intimidating, things like $5 necklaces are also for sale.
“It’s definitely a destination spot for Des Moines,” Davis beamed.
These pickers have shown that what begins as a quirky hobby can evolve into a passion, an obsession, a bona fide way of life and a successful business. Big shot reality TV stars, everyday people like Chris and Mandi Swanson, and even the bed-bug musketeers and the cord cutters all share a passion for picking.
“It just sucks to see stuff go to the dump,” Mandi said. CV