Mike Wolfe is in his element. The star and creator of History channel's hit show American Pickers weaves his way through the vintage motorcycles, folk art and random oddities that line the floor of his new storefront in Nashville, Tenn.'s Marathon Village, a sprawling small-business complex that a century earlier housed the short-lived Marathon Motor Works auto factory.
When construction is complete, the 3,000-square-foot site will serve as the Music City outpost of Antique Archaeology, the collectibles retail shop Wolfe founded in LeClaire, Iowa, more than a decade ago. For now, though, it's a work in progress, to put it charitably--with the scorching summer months closing in fast, the space still has no air conditioning (no electricity whatsoever, for that matter), the front window is shattered and the walls are in dire need of a contractor's attention.
Wolfe could not care less. "Look at these beams, man," he raves as he tours the room. "Look at these poles--they're like masts off a ship. Look at the brick. You just can't re-create this kind of space."
Wolfe lives for this stuff. Each week on American Pickers, he and his co-host, childhood pal Frank Fritz, travel the country's highways and byways in dogged pursuit of hidden gems and one-of-a-kind artifacts languishing in small-town attics, basements, barns and junkyards. But the genteel, fragile heirlooms and curios that once dominated the antiques market are not Wolfe's forte. He loves rust, dust, dirt and grime almost as much as the Curtiss V-twin motors, Airstream trailers and circus sideshow banners that lurk underneath.
And he's not alone: Launched in January 2010, American Pickers attracts more than 5.7 million viewers each week, less than 1.5 million off the pace set by sibling series Pawn Stars, History channel's flagship show and basic prime time cable's highest-rated original series.
With the American Pickers cult flourishing, Wolfe's passions are going mainstream. Collectors are clamoring for the Americana curiosities and oddities that make up the bulk of what he and Fritz pick each week, and their mud-caked, sunbaked aesthetic is shaping interior design trends as well.
"I've always bought what I liked, and I've made a living off of my eye and my gut and what I think is cool," Wolfe says. "On Monday nights, I have an hour-long commercial on what I think is hot. Imagine being in business and having that opportunity. Whatever we're finding, people are like, ‘Wow, that's cool. I love it. I want to buy one of those.'"
Wolfe is parlaying that opportunity into an empire, balancing his production responsibilities (every two weeks on the road filming, every other two weeks off) with a host of projects that promise to further cement his stature as the new face of the business of old stuff. Foremost among Wolfe's ambitions: Kid Pickers, a series of educational books on collecting with a corresponding social media website designed to connect children with others who share their interests. There's also an official American Pickers Guide to Picking, scheduled for publication in September, and even Music to Pick By, a CD assembled by Wolfe and legendary Nashville record producer Brian Ahern complete with three new songs composed and recorded by Wolfe and country singer/songwriter Dale Watson.
"I'm a businessman, so I'm gonna make hay while the sun's shining," Wolfe says. "I've been self-employed for 23 years. That's an accomplishment in itself. You gotta be out there hustling. If you're not, you're not gonna make it."
Labors of Love
American Pickers, Pawn Stars and the myriad copycats spawned in their wake--American Restoration, Storage Wars and Auction Hunters among them--have made unlikely celebrities out of the small-business owners who make their living buying and selling the collectibles at the center of each series, blurring the line between PBS's venerable Antiques Roadshow (the granddaddy of the genre) and more blue-collar, mainstream TV fare. But what sets American Pickers apart is that it focuses less on the monetary value of the items Wolfe and Fritz uncover and more on the larger-than-life collectors they meet in a day's work.
"The people we pick are the real stars of the show," Wolfe says. "Audiences remember [fan-favorite collectors] Hobo Jack and the Mole Man. They remember the people, not what I bought from them. Frank and I are just telling their stories. It's a business, yes, but it's always been an honor that people open their homes and their hearts to us."
The colorful characters depicted on American Pickers don't simply drive the show's narrative. They also fuel market interest in the treasures they've accumulated. "In the antique industry, it's all about the story. I'll buy something just because of the story. If you have the story behind it, you can ask twice what it's worth," Wolfe says. "A story can come from me--my struggle to find the thing--to the relationship the person has with it once I find it, to the struggle of convincing him that I want it more than he does, to the struggle of trying to buy it. Once, these things had no monetary value. Now people realize toward the end of their lives that their Indian Chief motorcycle is worth $25,000, so they're holding onto it even tighter."
American Pickers' emphasis on narrative engagement made the program a natural fit for History channel. "The show offers a combination of great characters, entertainment and history," says History channel senior vice president of development and programming Dirk Hoogstra. "Digging through history--that's their job. Our viewers love information, and [Wolfe and Fritz] are so knowledgeable. They can find a needle in a haystack because they have so much knowledge and experience."
A History of Picking
The 46-year-old Wolfe began picking as a child when he rescued a bicycle from the trash, cleaned it up and sold it to another kid for five bucks. Hooked on junk (in the most literal sense), Wolfe spent his formative years scouring alleys and abandoned houses. In time, he accumulated so many finds that his single mother began parking her car in the driveway, ceding him the garage as a storage space for his collection.
In his early 20s, Wolfe raced bicycles competitively while working in a bike shop. The store's owner maintained a warehouse packed with antique two-wheelers, and Wolfe was so smitten that he began assembling a collection of his own, driving to the countryside, knocking on farmers' doors and asking if they had any vintage bikes they'd like to sell.
"That was the heyday of antique bicycles, back in the mid-'80s. I'd buy a bicycle for $50 and sell it for $5,000," says Wolfe, who ultimately purchased his own bike shop in Eldridge, Iowa, financing the deal by selling a prized 1934 Harley Davidson motorcycle.
An antiques dealer with a penchant for turn-of-the-century wood-rim bikes became one of Wolfe's best customers, urging him to expand his picking expeditions beyond bikes and motorcycles. Wolfe took the advice, and started selling everything he could find to local dealers.
"When eBay came around, I was like, ‘This is it. This is me.' I'm gonna close the store, buy a cargo van, build a website and hit the f*****' road," he says. "And it was total freedom."
It wasn't long before Wolfe bought a digital video camera to capture his picking expeditions: "I was having all these incredible experiences on the road, and I wanted to start documenting them."
Wolfe tapped producer Justin Anderson to help him finesse the raw footage into a series of short videos for the Antique Archaeology website. They pitched the clips to multiple cable networks, but all passed on the proposal. Wolfe later produced his own pilot episode, recruiting Fritz--then employed as a fire inspector--to co-star. The pilot attracted the attention of Canadian production house Cineflix, with executive producer Mark Poertner re-cutting and adding to the footage to accentuate the comedic chemistry between the wiry, energetic Wolfe and the low-key Fritz.
"That's where I made my mistake," Wolfe admits. "To me, it was all about the people and all about the item. There wasn't enough of me and Frank to show our personalities."
Cineflix shopped the retooled pilot to History channel, which soon agreed to a 10-episode order. Filming on American Pickers began in September 2009. The rest is … well, history.
An Underground Market
Not everyone is a fan of American Pickers. Some TV critics and viewers contend that Wolfe and Fritz prey on the collectors they pick, capitalizing on their financial need and limited knowledge of secondary market prices to pay them a fraction of an item's true value. Wolfe shrugs off the comments.
"A lot of people don't understand the concept of small business," he says. "They don't have a clue. I'll flat-out tell people on the show, ‘Hey, this is worth $600. I'm only gonna give you $250. I've got a store and employees--that's the reality of it. If you want to get $600 out of it, you can try. You can maybe call an auctioneer, but you gotta pay them 20 percent. You can put it on eBay, but who knows how much it'll go for? I'm here now. I have cash.'"
And just because an authoritative source--the annual Kovels' Antiques & Collectibles Price Guide, for example--lists an item's value at a certain price doesn't mean a dealer will or even can sell it for that much.
"We quote retail price in our book, but wholesale is a lot less," says antiques expert Terry Kovel, co-author of the guide and more than 50 other books about the collectibles market. "This is a business where everything is negotiable."
Because the antiques and collectibles market doesn't operate like other businesses, it's also extraordinarily difficult to quantify. "It's the great underground economy," Kovel says. "No one talks about the number of people making money that no one knows about. Most dealers aren't licensed--they don't know they're supposed to be, so they haven't even applied. That makes it very difficult to trace sales totals. If you decide to get rid of grandma's stuff, you can just pocket the money and no one will ever find you."
What is clear is that viewer enthusiasm for programming like American Pickers is translating to surging consumer demand for the Americana artifacts Wolfe covets. Among the hundreds of thousands of collectibles searches conducted on Kovels.com in May 2011, the top 10 included queries for common household goods (bottle openers), retailer staples (cash registers), iconic brands (Coca-Cola and Pepsi) and screen legends (Shirley Temple and Howdy Doody)--the kinds of items intimately familiar to the American Pickers faithful.
"Prices are back up, and a lot of new people are getting into buying and selling," Wolfe says. "That means it's getting harder to find stuff. I'm always looking for something that's funky, different and unusual. But it's hard digging through all the coal to find the diamonds."
Although American Pickers ranks among the most popular and talked-about shows on TV, Wolfe understands the viewing public is notoriously fickle. "Everything has an expiration date," he says. "I'm a realist. Do I think I'm Pickin' Jesus? No. That's ridiculous."
So Wolfe is busy building the foundation of his post-American Pickers life and career, looking to his own past to set the future in motion. His Kid Pickers social networking platform (which, unlike the History channel-owned American Pickers brand, is Wolfe's and Wolfe's alone) is designed to offer today's children something the young Wolfe himself craved but never had: a means to connect with other kids who share a passion for picking and collecting. Children, it turns out, make up a sizable chunk of the American Pickers audience.
"We have so many people who tell us that our show is the only one they watch as a family, and that's such an honor," Wolfe says. "Sometimes kids come in to Antique Archaeology and bring their collections with them. Their parents can't believe how much they know about this stuff. Every kid is born a picker, and we're gonna teach them how to pick and what to pick. Kid Pickers is going to be my legacy."
In the meantime, Wolfe still has a business to run. Expanding Antique Archaeology to Nashville further strengthens his ties to the local design and decorator community, which constitutes a vital component of his client base.
"They rely on guys like me to find these amazing statement pieces," he says. "I'm not the guy who can finish a room, but I'm into space and color, and when I look at something, I can see past it not having an antiquity value."
Setting up shop in Nashville also brings Wolfe into close contact with the city's vibrant creative culture. Already, he has commissioned Hatch Show Print (a letterpress print shop first opened in 1879) to produce a limited-edition poster commemorating Antique Archaeology's opening.
Wolfe is giving back to Nashville as well. With the city putting the finishing touches on an $8.7 million effort to restore the historic Franklin Theatre, a 74-year-old cinema house that reopened in June, Wolfe stepped in to complete work on its green room, unearthing vintage 1940s fixtures that evoke the building's glory days.
The Franklin faced imminent demolition before local residents mounted a grass-roots campaign to bring it back to life. Now it lives on, allowing elder Nashvillians to relive their memories of the venue--and giving future generations the opportunity to create memories of their own. Maintaining the ties that bind yesterday, today and tomorrow is what drives Wolfe above all else.
"My job is putting things in their rightful place. If I don't buy something, it's going to rot, so I have to rescue it," he says. "One time I sold a green, wooden toolbox to a woman. She told me, ‘When I was a little girl, I used to go out to my grandfather's shed. I would stand on a green toolbox just like this one, climb up on his workbench and spend hours with him.' For me, those kinds of emotional connections are what this is all about."