One Man's Trash ...

I remember when I was a kid going duck hunting with my brother and my dad. We had to get up really early, while it was still dark outside. Then we drove for what seemed like forever while I sat there bleary-eyed and half carsick. When we finally got out to the lake, we had to get out in the cold, early dawn and trudge through the marsh to get to the prime hunting spot. Then we waited for something to happen. Some payoff. There would be brief moments of excitement (when fowl could actually be seen airborne) preceded and followed by huge expanses of boredom and disappointment.

Come to think about it, that's exactly what treasure hunting, picking or "junking" is like.

And the analogy doesn't stop there. Even most hunters will admit that the idea of bagging game as an inexpensive way to put food on the table is a myth. After you buy a gun, ammo, a license, a fire orange cap with earflaps and gas up the Suburban, you've blown enough dough to keep the family in ground round for months. It's just not cost-effective. And it's a lot of work too, isn't it? Hunters hunt because they enjoy it. They enjoy getting out of the house, into the fresh air to take in the wonders of nature (and to put holes in something). It's recreation. It's love.

It's the same for junk store junkies. No one who has junking under their skin is getting wildly rich. The thrift store marauders, yard sale pirates and estate sale hounds are all operating in a highly competitive arena. Sure, just like those hunters and their kin (fishermen being the most notorious), junkers love to spin yarns and have a tendency to exaggerate. What's more, they are completely shameless whenever they secure even the most minor bragging rights. It's these shared urban legends -- together with the obvious thrill of the hunt -- that keep everyone motivated.

But it can all be deceptive. The uninitiated hear the tales of glory and it must all sound very exciting. You hear about someone paying $5 for a hand puppet only to turn it over to some nut on eBay for a cool $300, and your jaw hits the floor. Great story, right? What you never hear about is the 20 or 30 sales that day that turned up nothing whatsoever. Scores like that might only come once a season. Out there on the mean streets, you have to be inspired. And you have to love it.

That's how the Swanstroms got started. It was a love thing.

Jon and his wife Heather now support their family through junking. The couple used to operate local recycled goods shops until the advent of online auctioneering drastically changed their marketing strategy. Now, armed with a digital camera and a computer, they are able to reach buyers all over the world.

"It's a nice way to make a living," says Jon. "I don't have to go in and punch a time clock, which I like."

Here's how it works: They find items that are collectible but priced low enough to make money on. They buy the item, take a digital picture which they load up on eBay, where the item is auctioned off. They put their profit in the bank and move on to the next estate sale or junk store. Over the years, the couple's love of junk has been transformed slightly -- by more practical concerns.

"We're at a point now where we are basically just selling it for a living. I still like the stuff. I just don't get all freaked out by it anymore."

But they still experience the thrill of the hunt. "We've always compared it to a treasure hunt, you know. It's like we're pirates out there looking for treasure."

The Hunt

Sooooo ... Where do you find the stuff? Do you think treasures are bursting forth everywhere you look? Like fruit on the tree in some splendid Eden-like garden of musty delights, just waiting for you to happen along and pick? Falling out of heaven like manna? Wrong-O. It's hard work. And definitely not for the queasy or the faint of heart. Your weapons? Surprise and alarm. Killer instincts. A head like a 20-volume antique encyclopedia and razor-sharp senses to match. While it is possible for the casual hunter to score an incredible find, chances are, if you're not forever out there and on top of the game, you're going to be left behind. It's not so much "where" as "how." It's persistence and determination that will produce the big pay-offs. But there are places to hit. Here's a quick tour and a few insider tips:

Estate Sales

To a neophyte, the concept and execution of an estate sale might seem barbaric, even unholy. In most cases, an estate sale is conducted as a result of a person's death. Relatives, after presumably dividing up the valuables and personal items of the deceased, relinquish the remainder to be liquidated in a sale.

Most estate sales are conducted by antique dealers who know the collectibles market and have a stake in the game. That is not to say it's impossible to find deals here. Quite the contrary. A Zenith transoceanic radio worth more than $100 was recently purchased at such a dealer-run sale for a measly five-spot.

The best estate sales are the ones run by professionals with a "it's gotta go" attitude who price things accordingly.

Yvonne Thompson and her husband Joe have been conducting estate sales since 1977.

"Back then, we didn't know what a treasure was," she laughs.

The Thompsons strike a balance between the customers who come to their sales and the clients who have hired them to liquidate the estate.

"We try to be fair to both. It works out very well. Most of the money from these sales come from dealers who need to be able to make something on the item and collectors looking for a good deal. We understand that."

The sales to avoid? The worst are those run by the timid with "limited access" (only a handful of junkers are allowed into the house at a time) or by some antique dealers interested in squeezing every last drop out of each item. Antique store prices at an estate sale? It usually translates into an estate sale that fails to empty the house.

"We don't want to be stuck with a house full of junk when the sale is over. And neither do our clients," says Thompson. "They want it gone."

After reading about an estate sale in your local paper, you say to yourself "Hmmm, that Duncan Phyfe dropleaf table would look great in my dining room. I think I'll check it out."

Well, the sale starts at nine, so you show up at 8:45. Plenty of time, you reason, only to discover that you are but one of 70 others with the same idea. As you occupy your place at the end of the line, you first notice that everyone is holding a scrap of paper with a number on it. You don't have a number. You didn't know you needed one. Then as you listen in on the chatter, you discover to your amazement that those first in line showed up to get their numbers at 7 am. The crowd is getting restless and a little surly. The conductor of the estate sale emerges from the house to give the crowd a run-down of the sale rules: No pushing or shoving. No stealing ("remember, what goes around comes around"). No price negotiation until tomorrow at three o'clock. Don't see a price on an item? Ask. Have fun. Bang. They're off. And so are you.

You have to move fast -- not exactly running, but almost -- to avoid being trampled. Then you're inside and the hunt is on in earnest. You are distracted from your table search first by the ferocity and cool precision of a professional picker (they are amazing to watch in action), who may be the owner of an antique store. And secondly you're hit by a nagging, slightly sick feeling in your guts. This, after all, was someone's home. And these were personal belongings. And here you are like a member of a hunger-crazed hyena pack, tearing into the discarded carcass of a gazelle on the African savanna. A scavenger. You feel creepy and a little soiled.

Well, get over it. If you're going to be a player, you've got to harden yourself against those feelings. They'll only slow you down. Besides, no matter what you believe as far as the afterlife is concerned, it's a cold fact that the dead (wherever they may roam) have no use whatsoever for antiques and collectibles.

The Duncan Phyfe? There it is. Sold. With the buyer's name taped to it. Better luck next time.

Yard Sales

These can be a real crapshoot. More often than not, the items up for sale have one foot in the landfill. But with a little persistence, they can pay off in a big way. With experience comes an intuitive sense about which sales will turn up gold.

If a yard sale looks inviting from the street, by all means check it out. You will typically find excellent bargains and sellers willing to deal. Your average mom and pop yard sale vendor is a seller super-motivated by the horror of having to deal with unsold items after the sale. (If you've ever put on your own sale, you know the feeling.) Sometimes you can almost see the look of desperation in their faces as you turn to leave without buying anything.

Again, the early bird gets the worm, and if you hope to pick the good stuff out from under the noses of the pros, you better hit the circuit early.

Thrift Stores

These places used to be brimming with antiques and collectibles of every imaginable mutation. Before interest in collectibles boomed in the last two decades, you could stroll into local thrift stores and pick up truly amazing items for peanuts.

Today, however, nearly every thrift store in town has tuned into the craze and has an antique boutique or collectibles corner filled with items that were once found in general circulation. The prices on these collectible items range from reasonable to ridiculous. It's not at all uncommon to encounter prices far beyond what you'd expect to pay in the swankiest antique store. Now these stores are either operated by or at least aligned with charitable organizations, so it makes sense that they should try to generate as much money as possible from the sale of donated items. But the practice has made thrift store hunting considerably less exciting and lucrative.

Today, it seems, everyone's an expert. And everyone has their tentacles out there -- especially collectors and dealers. Still, as with estate and yard sales, a little persistence (and a bit of dumb luck) will often lead you to the gold.

I was wandering around in a local thrift store one afternoon after a particularly depressing morning wasted at cruddy yard sales when I stumbled onto a relatively great find. There it was, an Aurora Hydrofoil model kit from the 1960s complete with instructions in the original box. It was priced in the $2 range. A rare find in these modern times. I took it up to the front, and the girl at the counter (a young punker with a flair for the dramatic) exclaimed with wide eyes, "Where did you find that?"

She couldn't have been more transparent if she'd been made of glass. It was now immediately obvious that she was none other than an in-store operative and that this model kit had somehow mistakenly slipped through her fine-mesh collectibles dragnet. I imagined her accomplices in the sorting room were going to catch hell for this one. She eyed it hungrily. "That's worth a lot of money," she continued as if to a babe in the woods. "I know," I said. "Thanks."

That made my day. I later sold it on eBay for $40. The book price, exactly.

Antique Stores

Not the first place you'd necessarily go for a bargain. But they're not to be scoffed at either. Most dealers are in the business of selling and will frequently be pretty flexible when it comes to bargaining. They will readily work with you to the tune of 10 percent without too much arm-twisting. And if you notice a fine layer of dust on an item, you can assume that it's been around for awhile and you might very well be in a strong position to do some serious haggling.

The good thing about antique stores is that the weeding out has already been done by the buyer or owner, so what you're looking at is generally of a collectible nature. And for recreational treasure hunters, visiting antique stores has the added benefit of offering the ability to ask questions of people who know a lot about what's valuable, why it's valuable and what's not. "Antiquing," as it is often called, is where the collectible craze started, with people usually looking for older pieces of rare furniture or Depression-era glassware. Now there are just as many people looking for psychedelic '60s lamps as there are looking for 19th century armoires, but it's all treasure hunting.

What to Look For

What should you be looking for? That's really a matter of choice. There are as many things to collect out there as there are noodles in a bowl of Top Ramen. There's almost nothing in this vast wonderland of rampant consumerism that isn't valued by someone, somewhere. Flipping through an antiques price guide at the library can be an eye-opening experience. People actually collect this stuff? You betcha, just let your fingers do the walking. Starting from "A": autographs, barber shop collectibles, carnival glass, furniture, knives, nutcrackers, photographs, reamers, tea caddies, watch fobs. What's a watch fob? I'm not sure. But someone sure as heck collects them.

While it's hard to point out specific items to focus on, a good, general rule to operate by is to stick with what interests you. That way, even if you end up busted with a worthless piece of crap, at least it will be a worthless piece of crap that you enjoy having around the house. Also, look at the quality and condition of an item. Look for manufacturing dates, company logos and country of origin. If you can't find a date, look for the patent number. Patent numbers can be cross-referenced to determine the approximate date of manufacture.

More and more, the items that generate the most attention and excitement are the pop culture flotsam from the last four decades. Baby boomers who are now well established and rolling in disposable income have been the driving force in the popularization of pop culture collecting as they surround themselves with trinkets from their formative years. Hot categories here include old toys, advertising collectibles, electronics, cameras, '50s and '60s furniture, clothing and accessories. Anything even remotely kitschy, psychedelic or odd probably has a place in some lawyer's secret history.

The number one thing to avoid? Old computers. Remember that Mac Classic you blew $1,500 on less than a decade ago? It's a bitter pill to swallow, but the current value on that bit of planned obsolescence is currently hovering right around the $25 mark. That is, if you throw in the printer for free.

Trading Your Treasure

The effect of eBay and other similar online auction houses on the entire scene is two-pronged. On the one hand, they have leveled the playing field. For average people, these sites have become a source of information and a place to unload items. If Joe Everyman finds a dusty old Victrola down in his grandfather's basement, he no longer has to humble himself before an antique dealer in order to have this item of undetermined worth appraised. In seconds, from the comfort of his home, he can log on to a site, enter the item and instantly find out what the thing is currently trading for. And with a small investment of time and effort, he can then proceed to sell the item himself to the highest bidder.

Never before have so many buyers been able to find just what they're looking for in such a short time. You've got a mint condition velvet black light poster of Jimi Hendrix, and it just so happens that there's a guy in Atlanta who is collecting any black light posters he can get his hands on. In the old days, your paths would never cross, but now you're bound to hook up. How about that H.R. Puff 'n Stuff blow up punching bag? There's a woman in Queens who has her entire pad decked out in H.R. Puff 'n Stuff, and she's been looking for the punching bag for a year. This is how people get good prices out of their booty -- if somebody wants it bad enough, they'll pay.

The downside for junkers is that now everyone is an expert. Joe Everyman has wised up. But even though it has taken on the look of a business, for the vast majority of those out wasting sunny summer Saturdays tooling around neighborhoods, tying up traffic, making outrageous u-turns and never using their turn signals, junking is a thrill -- and, for some, an addiction.

"There are people in the game who are in it just for the money," says Swanstrom. "But there's a lot of beauty in that old stuff that we enjoy. And it's fun. You never know what you're going to find."

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