At home with the Jack Kerouac of junk
The wandering Mike Wolfe, of the reality TV series "American Pickers," settles down in Iowa with some of his "rusty gold."
The New York Times
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LECLAIRE, Iowa — Mike Wolfe, the co-star of "American Pickers," the popular antiques show, is known for driving the country's back roads and pulling old signage, bicycles, gasoline pumps and other "rusty gold," to use his term, out of people's barns and garages. So it's not entirely surprising to walk into his house and find a 1913 Harley-Davidson parked in the dining room.
Like everything Wolfe "picks," the motorcycle has a story. He bought it in upstate New York from a man whose father ran a classified ad that Wolfe came across 30 years later. After establishing that the bike was still in the family, he recalled, "I drove all the way to New York, slept in the guy's driveway and knocked on his door the next morning."
Fast-talking and persistent, Wolfe, 46, can sniff out unique or valuable antiques like a bloodhound. He persuaded the reluctant owner to sell him the bike for $25,000, although "it's worth 55 grand, easily," he said, holding the handlebars protectively, as if a visitor might jump on and drive away.
On "American Pickers" (and in "American Pickers Guide to Picking," a book out next month from Hyperion), Wolfe and his childhood friend, Frank Fritz, 47, show a similar enthusiasm for wheeling and dealing with eccentric collectors or, more often, "freestyling," their word for driving around in search of homes with lawns that look like junkyards and may contain treasures. As pickers, they are middlemen in the antiques food chain, buying items they can sell quickly, at a markup, to dealers and collectors.
The History cable-network reality series draws about 5.5 million viewers a week, and its success lies in its rugged approach to the traditionally genteel antiques world. As Wolfe put it, "We don't wear blue blazers and have 10 cats and talk about Ming Dynasty vases."
Seeing him pull a dirt-caked crock from a farmer's field with giddy excitement, one might assume Wolfe lives in the kind of pack-rat nest he visits on the show.
In fact, he owns one of the prettiest buildings on the main street of this small town on the Mississippi River, and the duplex apartment on the top floors that he shares with his girlfriend, Jodi Faeth, is furnished with Mission-style pieces, comfy chairs and a few carefully edited picks, like the 1913 Harley and a weather vane pulled from a Nebraska barn.
Their third-floor bedroom has large windows with a sweeping view of the river. "I can sit right here, dude," Wolfe said, hopping onto the bed with his boots on. "I can watch the river, I got the fireplace raging. It's like a treehouse up here."
Following the advice in his book, which suggests avoiding "fresh paint jobs," "landscaping" and "shiny new cars," his house wouldn't rate a second look from a picker. What gives?
"I love this stuff, but I would never live in a place that looks like the places we pick," Wolfe said, leading a visitor around the building, a former grocery and boardinghouse built in 1860 that was a "dump," he said, when he bought it seven years ago.
It doesn't look like that now. Wolfe refurbished the ground floor and rents it to a pair of home décor stores. Upstairs, he gutted the space to the studs, widening doorways and windows to open the floor plan. "There were four fireplaces in this building — so all that soot," he said. "I still have a cough."
The original window trim and hardwood floors retain the building's historic feel, but Wolfe installed a modern kitchen and bathrooms.
Still, one thinks of "American Pickers" and envisions Wolfe on an old farm, tinkering with machinery. "I want to be in the thick of things downtown," he countered. "See, that's the beauty of this property, man. I've got a two-car garage, a courtyard and I'm on the river side. I've really created my own environment."
It appears the building is one of Wolfe's picks, and to pay for it, and its renovation, he sold several of his other picks, including rare motorcycles. (In typical fashion, he also negotiated the $325,000 asking price down to $175,000.)
Wolfe, who has lived in LeClaire for 15 years, owns several buildings in town and would like to see the riverfront community become a tourist destination. Speaking as if the town itself were a pick, he said, "I used to wander around down here at night and say, 'This could be something.' "
His store, Antique Archaeology, is a few blocks away. On "American Pickers," the men return there at the end of each episode and present their finds to the third cast member, Danielle Colby, 35, a sassy tattooed woman who minds the store. Wolfe's home, on the other hand, doesn't play a role on the show, and his personal life isn't discussed, either.
Perhaps owing to a stereotype about the antiques business, rumors circulate on the Internet that Wolfe and Fritz are gay. In fact, both men are straight; for the last 17 years, Wolfe has dated Faeth, an accountant with a laid-back manner that complements what Colby described as her boss' "firecracker" personality.
Faeth, 40, learned of his picking early on.
"When I met him, he used to disguise picks as dates," she said. "He'd say, 'We're going to Wisconsin to a bed-and-breakfast.' We were really going to Wisconsin to meet Speedo Joe."
She doesn't take issue with the things Wolfe brings home ("Obviously, I let a motorcycle in the living room," she said), but on occasion she boils over when he sells a favorite piece, like the vintage tobacco ad depicting an American Indian woman that hung in their living room. "I came home and it was gone," she said. "He's like, 'What? Property taxes are due.' "
Referring to the success of "American Pickers," she added: "I'm happy to say things have changed and pieces are staying around longer."
As for Wolfe, he is still making the adjustment. "I was sleeping in my van on buying trips two years ago," he said. "Now people are coming up to me and saying 'We love your show.' It's trippy."
Wolfe grew up in Bettendorf, Iowa, just downriver from LeClaire, and began picking at age 6. "I found a bicycle in the garbage, and I sold it in two days for $5," he recalled. "I was hooked."
The family didn't have much money (his single mother raised three children) so Wolfe learned to barter his picks for things he wanted, like his first motorcycle. "I traded a guy a pair of stereo speakers for it," he said.
By the late 1990s, he owned two bicycle shops, but he began to focus on picking professionally. He started with antique bicycles ("I was pulling bikes out of barns for 10 bucks and selling them for 500 bucks," he said). Then, after meeting two antiques dealers who quizzed him about what else was in those barns, he expanded into furniture, lighting and items that evoked the machine age.
Eventually, he said, "I'm sitting in the bicycle shop going: 'What am I doing in here, man? I need to be on the road.' So I closed the shop, bought a cargo van and hit the back roads. I was a full-on hobo — a Jack Kerouac of junk."
At the suggestion of a friend, Wolfe bought a video camera and began filming his picking trips. Sometimes Fritz came along. Wolfe thought their adventures would make great TV because "antiques are all about the story, the treasure hunt," he said, and pickers are "in the trenches finding this stuff."
But he spent 4 ½ years trying to convince a network of that, and failing. Finally, History bought "American Pickers," and the show began early last year.
Since the first episode, viewers have been coming in droves to Wolfe's Antique Archaeology shop, a converted garage in an alley that once functioned as his man cave and warehouse. (In the beginning, he said, "we didn't even own a cash register.") Colby, who meets many of them, reasoned that they "develop a crush on the lifestyle and the cool stuff we find" and get "sucked into Mike's fantasy world." These days, the store is a curious hybrid of retail operation and unofficial "American Pickers" museum.
On a recent afternoon there, an older couple from Northern Iowa took photos while other fans bought Antique Archaeology T-shirts and pointed to oddball items picked on the show, like oversize Laurel and Hardy heads made of plastic. Most of them asked, "Where's Mike and Frank?" or "Where's Danielle?" and seemed surprised by their absence.
Adam Hurlburt, an employee, kept repeating, "Mike was here yesterday" and "You just missed him."
As a small-town guy, Wolfe is in the strange position of being a TV star that is also accessible. He limits visits to the shop now because it's difficult to get work done. Sitting on the fireplace hearth in his bedroom, he admitted that the show's popularity caught him off guard. "I never thought about how busy the store would be," he said. "I was so naive to all of this."
But he appears to be learning quickly. He joked that his store's logo now appears so often on television, "it's like I have the advertising budget of Ford."
In addition to the "Guide to Picking," which he worked on with Fritz, Colby and Libby Callaway, a freelance writer, he is one of the authors of a children's book, with the working title "Kid Picker," because a lot of children watch the show. And last month, he opened a second Antique Archaeology store, in Nashville, Tenn.
Wolfe has also started to move from finding cool stuff to designing it. At the new store, he sells lighting made from materials he picked, created with David Phillips, a designer in Nashville. The next step, he said, is to produce antique-looking home pieces, similar to those sold by Restoration Hardware.
"I can never pick enough stuff — it's physically impossible," he said. "I have to make stuff to sell, and I want to do that because I'm into décor ."
Wolfe was interrupted by a text message, and he disappeared into another room to conduct business. Lazy afternoons around the house are rare. He had just returned from a two-week picking trip to South Dakota, and the next day he and Faeth were driving to Nashville with a van full of fresh picks. The couple bought a historic home there last year, something they were able to afford because of the show's success.
"Hopefully, we're doing some porch time," Faeth said.
But the work schedule Wolfe rattled off for the coming week made that seem unlikely.
"I'm always busy," he said. Then, as if summing up the itinerant life of a picker, he added, "Sometimes it feels like I don't live anywhere."