When Mike Wolfe hits the road with the cast and crew from the hit TV show American Pickers in search of "rusty gold" to turn into cash, he stays in nice hotels. Less than two years ago, though, Wolfe says he slept in his van during these trips.
Such is the power of The History Channel's American Pickers, which features Wolfe and his co-star and childhood buddy Frank Fritz (pictured left and right, respectively) rooting through piles -- and sometimes mountains -- of refuse in barns and outbuildings that dot the back roads of America looking for discarded bargains that they can resell at a higher price.
The show -- which Wolfe pitched for years to TV executives who were skeptical that the public would care about "junk" collecting-- now has an audience of more than 5 million viewers.
In an interview with DailyFinance, Wolfe, points out that his road to TV stardom hasn't been easy. The second of three children of a single mother, his family didn't have much money when he was growing up in Joliet, Ill. Wolfe began rooting through the trash as a kid, scoring prizes such as a box of stickers and a bicycle that had been abandoned. While riding the bike, an older kid offered him $5 for it. He took the money, and thus began his career.
Tough Place to Make a Living
After running a bicycle store for 11 years, Wolfe opened his store Antique Archaeology in 2000 in LeClaire, Iowa. Another location will open in Nashville later this year. He has never stopped picking. Danielle Colby-Cushman, the store's manager who is a regular on the show, is what Wolfe calls the "911 dispatcher of junk."
A few years ago, friends suggested that Wolfe tape his adventures on the road. It was these tapes that convinced Wolfe he could be on TV even though he had no previous experience in the medium. Though Fritz often is shown at the store on American Pickers, he doesn't work there and has his own business. The chemistry between Wolfe and Fritz is so convincing that false rumors have sprouted on the Internet that they're gay.
The road is a tough place to make a living. The picks take several hours, and the items they purchase can be heavy. Safety is a constant worry. Wolfe once talked his way off the property of a man wielding a gun. He denies that he takes advantage of hoarders, arguing that collectors have pride in their stuff but hoarders don't.
The hard work is paying off. Business at his store is booming, thanks to the surging interest in Antique Archeology merchandise. Wolfe's mission is to make antiques cool to young people, or anyone who isn't on Social Security. When Wolf and Fritz go to antique shows, they're often among the youngest people there. Both are in their late 40s.
Wolfe is now working on a book about collecting for kids to ensure that the hobby doesn't die out. Below the photo gallery are edited highlights from DailyFinance's conversation with Wolfe.
Cool Antique Finds
From a coin operated horse to a flying motorcycle movie prop, browse through the gallery for a peek at some of Mike Wolfe's coolest picks now up for sale.
Getty Images / AP
DailyFinance: Does it get lonely on the road?
Wolfe: Yeah, it did. That's why I started doing what I did with the videos because I was having all of these mind-blowing experiences, meeting these incredible people, and I was having it by myself. Then also, I love this stuff so much. I love it to the marrow. I wanted to tell these people's stories. I was blown away by this. So, I bought a video camera and started documenting this stuff.
What's the part about Antique Archeology that the public doesn't see on American Pickers?
That's the biggest question we get. How do you guys make a living? We buy tons of stuff that they don't show because they only have 44 minutes to tell a story.
How did you convince Frank to come on the road with you?
Frank and I have known each other since the eighth grade. We've always gotten along really well. He bought different things than I have and stuff. A long time ago -- like 20 years ago, doing this as long as I have -- I started bringing Frank with me when I was in the Midwest, like if I was going to Wisconsin or Missouri or whatever.
I would bring Frank because he was close, and he was fun to travel with. When I started videotaping myself making the show, I honestly realized that I could sit and talk into a camera by myself, so Frank became a big part of the show because of the dialog between us and the relationship we have. That's what's great about it. We are both completely opposite people, but we love what we do.
You seem to pick -- at least on the show -- the country. Why not pick the suburbs or even cities?
Well, we do. If we can't find something in a rural area, then we will go into towns. We will go into a downtown area that's kind of blighted. We'll be looking into the windows of old warehouses and stuff. And we'll start [looking up] old property tax records. We've always done that. I get the address. I will get online on my phone, find out who paid the property taxes on the building, call them and say "Hey, I'm down here. Do you have anything that's for sale in here?"
Do you find it amusing that a whole new group of shows like yours have cropped up?
These other shows? That's the biggest story that I feel that hasn't been covered. I can't think of any other category of television that has been recreated to the point where ours has been recreated -- and in such a short time period. I mean we've only been on the air for a year and three months. There's like freakin' six other shows on the air, it's like a tsunami of collector's shows.
When I was pitching the show for four-and-a-half years, I'm like, "This is a hot topic." They were like, "We love what you do, but no one is going to watch a show about collecting." I like any show that promotes collecting because our industry is hurting. But a lot of these people [on the other shows] are tourists, man. They don't even live in our world.
One thing I was curious about is why would someone go to Mike Wolfe rather than sell on eBay or at an auction?
People don't want to mess with it. eBay is a full-time job. I've hired someone at my shop, and that's all they do is eBay and put stuff of my website. It's not that they can't understand it, but it's just like, "I've got too many other things in my life going on right now to mess with this stuff."
Who knows how an auction is going to go? That can go either way, especially in this economy. Things are going a lot cheaper at auctions now. People aren't turning out like they used to at auctions. A little bit of that has changed now that we have the show, and people are like, "Wow, I can make a buck on the side doing this." It's rough, man. It's rough out there finding good stuff.
What about your prices? Are people offering you the Mike Wolfe price now that you're on TV?
When we first started the show, people were like, "Oh my God, those people are kicking everybody in the nuts. They're not giving them enough money." Now, it's the complete opposite: "Oh my God, they're paying way too much money for stuff right now."
As far as the value stuff, when we come to someone's property to buy it, we're not going to give them any more than they normally would get.The only thing that's changed when we roll up on their property is people obviously know who we are.
What's your best pick ever?
About eight years ago, I came across a barn full of Indian motorcycles outside of Philadelphia. The guy had like 12 of them in a barn. A roof had caved in on it, and no one had been in there for years. It was like a time capsule, and it was like the holy grail to me. That happening to me was like the thing that I had dreamed about happening to me ever since I was 18 years old. I think I bought them all for like $50,000 and sold everything for like $125,000.
Everyone wants to know about the biggest finds and everything, and that's cool. But I guess what needs to be said is the way to sustain yourself in this business is to buy this thing for 50 bucks and to sell it for $150, to buy it for $200 and to sell it for $600. Those are the deals that keep you in business.