Collecting Life’s Moments With The American Picker
Mike Wolfe doesn’t just collect "rusty gold," as he fondly calls the vintage treasures he unearths across the continent. When the creator, executive producer and co-star of the History Channel’s hit TV show American Pickers goes treasure hunting, he’s also collecting moments.
Like this one, for example. One day the drum tech for the Rolling Stones walked into Wolfe's Nashville store, Antique Archaeology. He invited Wolfe to the band's concert that night. Naturally, Wolfe obliged. Upon being introduced to the greatest rock n’ roll band in the world, Wolfe was stunned when Mick and the boys regaled him with questions about their favourite finds from his show. "I'm like, 'Is this really frickin' happening?' I mean, these guys are really into it!" he exclaims adding, "I was speechless, and that rarely happens!"
Not too shabby for the middle son of three who was born in Joliet, Illinois and grew up humbly with his single mom and siblings. The treasure-hunting bug bit when Wolfe was a mere four years old. "I found a bike in the garbage and sold it to a kid down the street. That kid gave me $5 in 1968! I was hooked!" he explains.
He wasn’t the only one. Now in its eighth season, American Pickers is a bonafide hit for the History Channel and appointment television for millions of viewers. It’s also a testament to Wolfe's perseverance. He pitched the idea for five years before a broadcaster stepped up. The show's first episode, broadcast in January 2010, garnered 3.1 million viewers.
What makes the show so popular? Wolfe says it’s the story every found item tells, whether it's rusted, or buried underground, that makes American Pickers a resounding success.
Collecting the past
"There's more to life than the here and now. There's more to appreciate about our past," he says, adding, "For a true collector, the past resonates with us. It’s in our marrow."
Wolfe has felt this way his whole life. As a boy, match books emblazoned with vintage advertisements, old posters and comic books, were some of Wolfe's favourite finds. He’d even hang out in junk yards where he'd excavate rusty cars' glove boxes to unearth old registration papers.
"I felt like a detective," he says. Wolfe explains that he was a tiny kid: he was 4' 11" in Grade 9 and weighed 97 pounds. He got picked on. A lot. Back alleys and backyards were the safest, surest bets to get to and from school undetected. Picking through junk and through garbage became his refuge.
"The finds became my friends, my inspiration. I could travel with my imagination and I feel blessed that I had that hook because people who don't collect are missing out on something," he explains.
The show (co-hosted by Wolfe’s lifelong friend Frank Fritz) mimics what Wolfe did for years in anonymity, picking first for antiques dealers. After eBay launched, he sold his retail bike shop in Iowa, started up an eBay account, a website and then hit the road full time. "I did what I call free styling. I knew I'd be going to point A and then stop and knock on doors. Out of 25, I'd get into maybe one place. But that's all it took to find the good stuff," he says.
That sense of adventure and discovery is also what keeps viewers coming back for more.
Picker shows in Canada and Australia have begun to proliferate, and the show's success has given him the ability to expand his own retail concept. You'll find Wolfe-discovered treasures on the shelves in his Nashville and LeClaire, Iowa stores: he favours what he calls "the odd and bizzare," anything from handcrafted, architectural details to 50s Sci-Fi B-movie posters. But he also understands that most of his shops' clients aren't there to buy a piece of the past. They want a piece of the show.
Collecting the collectors
"Our stores have become a destination. We've got T-shirts, sweat shirts, bags and logo'ed stuff. That's what people want to take home." Given that the History Channel debuted its eighth season on May 6th, 2015 and runs 12-hour marathons most Wednesdays, we wager the wattage behind this brand is pretty fierce. And so is viewer loyalty.
Wolfe recently met a man who was in a serious accident. He said that watching American Pickers got him through his year-long recovery. In tears, the man thanked Wolfe for "being there" for him. Wolfe thinks it's moments like these that remind him that he's blessed. Now living in Nashville with his wife, daughter, Charlie, and with a new pilot called "Nashville Flip" in the works (he's the executive producer), Wolfe says he knows not to take any of this for granted. "If you drink your own Kool-Aid about being on TV and have people thinking you're different than you are, you've failed. I'm on a reality show and if it's over in three years, I'll go on living my life. You have to walk through it and feel blessed because every person that comes up to me, writes my cheque. You have to give them time." Fans and memories alike are collected moment by moment.