I’m a fourth generation antique and collectible “dealer.” That is to say, I buy and sell things that other people collect, display, or cherish. I do so to make a profit. While this is not, and will never be, my full time job, I have a great respect for folks that do turn it into one. I have to, because I grew up in a home where half the income came from antiques. My father learned the trade from my grandmother, and carried it on to my older step-brother and myself. From 1970 to 2004, my father bought and sold stuff full-time. He had a used book store, an antique store, and an antique mall before “retiring” to eBay. While he still has a booth and a showcase at a local antique mall, he’s primarily buying stuff he likes, as opposed to whatever turns a profit. Still, without the income of my mother, who was a nurse, we would have never made it. There are few businesses as demanding as this one, and fewer as rewarding.
When I watch American Pickers or Pawn Stars on the History Channel, I get worked up over the unreality of these reality shows. Heck, I even get angry when I watch Antiques Roadshow on PBS. Yes, there are people like the two guys on American Pickers who go out day after day buying and selling. That is reality. The unreality is the prices they are paying for so little profit. I don’t even know how they make expenses. Likely, the other reality for that program is that it’s made for entertainment and the History Channel is picking up the tab on much of what these two guys do. As for Pawn Stars, the most believable of the three programs, what you don’t see is what I would truly be interested in. The show focuses on the more “interesting” items and characters that walk into the shop. It doesn’t go into the bread and butter that keeps that pawn shop in business. I suppose that might be boring for some people. Antiques Roadshow is similar. We only get to see the greatest booms or busts, we don’t see the mid-range stuff. That show is too focused on auctions anyway, which are no way for a newbie to make a living. These days, many auctions are dumping grounds for the ultra rare or the ultra blah. Those auctions I’ve encountered in recent years are the leftovers of dealers, or remnants from past auctions. Sometimes you even see an item shuffled around from one auction house to another. Anyway, my point is that you have to watch these shows for the entertainment value, rather then “reality.”
The true reality is that buying and selling anything used, be it antiques, collectibles, furniture, jewelry, or even clothing, is a feast or famine vocation. It depends on how much stock you have and how quickly you turn it over. Your mission is to buy something and sell it quickly so that you can reinvest the money into the next item. What extra profit you have goes towards expenses, bills, food, and creature comforts. Heck, sometimes the profit is used to increase your bankroll so that you can buy more stuff to make more profit on. The goal is money, money, money. The best way to do that is to not screw around on items that you cannot at least double your money on, or guarantee a super quick sale. The last thing you want to do is throw money at something and have it sit forever in your car, shop, or garage. Sitting money is dead money and must be avoided at all costs.
Granted, everyone will screw up and buy that one thing that you’ll never be able to sell at a profit. You might not even break even. You take what you can get out of it and start over. No use crying over it. Take what money you have and buy something you can sell. These are rules pounded into my by my father and seen in practice my entire life. One week we ate well, because we did well at a show, in the shop, or at a flea market. The next week we might struggle. We learned to live with those ups and downs. Sometimes we’d hold back one really good item (if we could afford to save it) in order to have some money during the lean times. No matter how bad it gets, the worse thing you can do is give up. Likely as not, even if you wanted to, you couldn’t give up. This type of business is very addicting.
The real estate mantra is “location, location, location.” The mantra for anyone in the antiques and collectibles biz is “condition, condition, condition.” I shake my head every time I see those American Pickers buy some rusty piece of junk and half-there doohickey. I don’t care if the rusty half-there doohickey is rare. It’s still a piece of junk that you don’t have time to restore, nor search out someone to restore for you. Leave that crap where it sits and buy something you don’t have to mess with in order to make it salable. Your time is far more valuable than any possible profit you might gain. It’s one thing to clean off cobwebs and dirt… Quite another to sandblast rust, clean off 30 years of cat excrement, and rebuild from scratch. If it looks nice, and you know you can sell it, then buy it. Once you begin musing on the possibility of “fixing it” or “someone might want it…” then leave it alone.
So, now the important things are laid out. Profit must be maintained and made quickly, and you never waste more time on an item than is necessary in order to sell it. Now comes the most important thing I’ve ever learned in this business: Patience. Every summer I would go with my father on his “buying trips.” These trips radiated out of Central New York and into the Adirondacks, Thousand Islands, Ontario, and once or twice down into Pennsylvania. One time we even went to Brimfield, MA to a giant antique show. This is very conservative compared to other folks in this racket. Many, many dealers will buy up and down the entire Atlantic coast. Some dealers will buy from one side of the country to the other and every where in between, while at the same time doing shows and flea markets. However, Dad preferred to stay close to home. Between these trips, stuff walking into the store, and going on “house calls,” he did all right. Doing all right does not mean he made money every time he went on a trip. I can fondly remember going on these 2-3 day journeys without having the money to stay at a motel, eat out, or even buy a candy bar. We stayed in the car, had a cooler full of bologna, mustard, bread, and cheap store brand soda. One week, we could travel from home in Interlaken, NY to Massena, NY and not buy a single thing. The next week, we’d have our car full before we even got to Oswego, NY. No matter what happened, Dad never freaked out or got frustrated. He knew he’d find something to make up for lost time and miles. Often times, he did. Sometimes, not so much.
Experience comes with the territory. I may be lucky to have family who are in the business, but that didn’t make it any easier for me to learn the ropes. My father is a veritable fountain of knowledge unparalleled by any dealer I have met in my lifetime. At 68, he’s Yoda and I’m still some farm boy looking at the stars. He never really sat down and taught me anything. I learned by watching him. I learned by doing it on my own. I made a lot of mistakes, and I still do. When I do, I ask Dad why something failed and he’ll tell me (usually by remarking that the item is “common” and therefore likely note salable). Sometimes, I buy things that he would never buy in a million years because he doesn’t look for that stuff, or understand it. Usually, this happens when I buy anything from the 1960s or 1970s. Dad is very old school in his buying, but he’s branched out recently.
Another unwritten rule in this business is adaptation. Adaptation keeps you from growing stale, especially if the stuff you buy goes out of fashion. Stuff tends to cycle in popularity and you have to ride those waves. You may not like Depression Glass, but if it’s selling you better keep an eye out for it. If those canoe paddles that were popular last year suddenly stop selling, liquidate them and find something else. When I see Dad buying G.I. Joes (the small kind, mind you), I know he’s doing it because he’s aware of the popularity, not because it’s something he likes to sell. That said, he’ll usually sell them to me, and then I’ll sell them to someone else. There are ways to make these partnerships, and while it may be easier with family, they do help when out on the road. Those extra set of eyes may see things you’ve missed. They might see things you want, and you might see things they want. You help each other and in the process you help fill your pockets. Still, you can’t afford to get stuck buying the same things over and over. Learn the market. Pay attention to what people are buying and selling.
The best thing about this business, besides making a score, is the people you meet. You will make friends and you will make enemies. You will get to know, or at least see, some strange characters. You might even sell something to someone famous. You really can’t have this connection if your business is focused online, as mine has been in recent years, but you will still mingle with people when you’re at yard sales, flea markets, auctions, or shows. There will always be that person you and your cohort (if you have one – I have Dad) will snicker about. There will always be that person you like seeing, even if you haven’t seen them for a few years, and talk like you’re old pals. This is a club. We are collectors, dealers, pickers, and flippers. We drink bad coffee from concession stands at flea markets, eat soggy tuna fish sandwiches while we hawk our wares at a show, sit in the rain at country auctions for that one item that makes it all worth it, and dodge doggy landmines when we go to a yard sale. We’re good, affable folk. We’re making a living, surely, but it’s nothing like what you see on TV. It’s better.