Mike Wolfe of 'American Pickers': 'It's Rough Out There Finding Good Stuff'

Mike Wolfe (left) of American Pickers, with Frank FritzWhen Mike Wolfe hits the road with the cast and crew from the hit TV show American Pickers in search of "rusty gold" to turn into cash, he stays in nice hotels. Less than two years ago, though, Wolfe says he slept in his van during these trips.

Such is the power of The History Channel's American Pickers, which features Wolfe and his co-star and childhood buddy Frank Fritz (pictured left and right, respectively) rooting through piles -- and sometimes mountains -- of refuse in barns and outbuildings that dot the back roads of America looking for discarded bargains that they can resell at a higher price.

The show -- which Wolfe pitched for years to TV executives who were skeptical that the public would care about "junk" collecting-- now has an audience of more than 5 million viewers.

In an interview with DailyFinance, Wolfe, points out that his road to TV stardom hasn't been easy. The second of three children of a single mother, his family didn't have much money when he was growing up in Joliet, Ill. Wolfe began rooting through the trash as a kid, scoring prizes such as a box of stickers and a bicycle that had been abandoned. While riding the bike, an older kid offered him $5 for it. He took the money, and thus began his career.

Tough Place to Make a Living

After running a bicycle store for 11 years, Wolfe opened his store Antique Archaeology in 2000 in LeClaire, Iowa. Another location will open in Nashville later this year. He has never stopped picking. Danielle Colby-Cushman, the store's manager who is a regular on the show, is what Wolfe calls the "911 dispatcher of junk."

A few years ago, friends suggested that Wolfe tape his adventures on the road. It was these tapes that convinced Wolfe he could be on TV even though he had no previous experience in the medium. Though Fritz often is shown at the store on American Pickers, he doesn't work there and has his own business. The chemistry between Wolfe and Fritz is so convincing that false rumors have sprouted on the Internet that they're gay.

The road is a tough place to make a living. The picks take several hours, and the items they purchase can be heavy. Safety is a constant worry. Wolfe once talked his way off the property of a man wielding a gun. He denies that he takes advantage of hoarders, arguing that collectors have pride in their stuff but hoarders don't.

The hard work is paying off. Business at his store is booming, thanks to the surging interest in Antique Archeology merchandise. Wolfe's mission is to make antiques cool to young people, or anyone who isn't on Social Security. When Wolf and Fritz go to antique shows, they're often among the youngest people there. Both are in their late 40s.

Wolfe is now working on a book about collecting for kids to ensure that the hobby doesn't die out. Below the photo gallery are edited highlights from DailyFinance's conversation with Wolfe.




DailyFinance: Does it get lonely on the road?
Wolfe: Yeah, it did. That's why I started doing what I did with the videos because I was having all of these mind-blowing experiences, meeting these incredible people, and I was having it by myself. Then also, I love this stuff so much. I love it to the marrow. I wanted to tell these people's stories. I was blown away by this. So, I bought a video camera and started documenting this stuff.

What's the part about Antique Archeology that the public doesn't see on American Pickers?
That's the biggest question we get. How do you guys make a living? We buy tons of stuff that they don't show because they only have 44 minutes to tell a story.

How did you convince Frank to come on the road with you?
Frank and I have known each other since the eighth grade. We've always gotten along really well. He bought different things than I have and stuff. A long time ago -- like 20 years ago, doing this as long as I have -- I started bringing Frank with me when I was in the Midwest, like if I was going to Wisconsin or Missouri or whatever.

I would bring Frank because he was close, and he was fun to travel with. When I started videotaping myself making the show, I honestly realized that I could sit and talk into a camera by myself, so Frank became a big part of the show because of the dialog between us and the relationship we have. That's what's great about it. We are both completely opposite people, but we love what we do.

You seem to pick -- at least on the show -- the country. Why not pick the suburbs or even cities?
Well, we do. If we can't find something in a rural area, then we will go into towns. We will go into a downtown area that's kind of blighted. We'll be looking into the windows of old warehouses and stuff. And we'll start [looking up] old property tax records. We've always done that. I get the address. I will get online on my phone, find out who paid the property taxes on the building, call them and say "Hey, I'm down here. Do you have anything that's for sale in here?"

Do you find it amusing that a whole new group of shows like yours have cropped up?
These other shows? That's the biggest story that I feel that hasn't been covered. I can't think of any other category of television that has been recreated to the point where ours has been recreated -- and in such a short time period. I mean we've only been on the air for a year and three months. There's like freakin' six other shows on the air, it's like a tsunami of collector's shows.

When I was pitching the show for four-and-a-half years, I'm like, "This is a hot topic." They were like, "We love what you do, but no one is going to watch a show about collecting." I like any show that promotes collecting because our industry is hurting. But a lot of these people [on the other shows] are tourists, man. They don't even live in our world.

One thing I was curious about is why would someone go to Mike Wolfe rather than sell on eBay or at an auction?
People don't want to mess with it. eBay is a full-time job. I've hired someone at my shop, and that's all they do is eBay and put stuff of my website. It's not that they can't understand it, but it's just like, "I've got too many other things in my life going on right now to mess with this stuff."

Who knows how an auction is going to go? That can go either way, especially in this economy. Things are going a lot cheaper at auctions now. People aren't turning out like they used to at auctions. A little bit of that has changed now that we have the show, and people are like, "Wow, I can make a buck on the side doing this." It's rough, man. It's rough out there finding good stuff.

What about your prices? Are people offering you the Mike Wolfe price now that you're on TV?
When we first started the show, people were like, "Oh my God, those people are kicking everybody in the nuts. They're not giving them enough money." Now, it's the complete opposite: "Oh my God, they're paying way too much money for stuff right now."

As far as the value stuff, when we come to someone's property to buy it, we're not going to give them any more than they normally would get.The only thing that's changed when we roll up on their property is people obviously know who we are.

What's your best pick ever?
About eight years ago, I came across a barn full of Indian motorcycles outside of Philadelphia. The guy had like 12 of them in a barn. A roof had caved in on it, and no one had been in there for years. It was like a time capsule, and it was like the holy grail to me. That happening to me was like the thing that I had dreamed about happening to me ever since I was 18 years old. I think I bought them all for like $50,000 and sold everything for like $125,000.

Everyone wants to know about the biggest finds and everything, and that's cool. But I guess what needs to be said is the way to sustain yourself in this business is to buy this thing for 50 bucks and to sell it for $150, to buy it for $200 and to sell it for $600. Those are the deals that keep you in business.

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Lisa Whisnant

What yr did u start pitching your show

August 12 2013 at 4:08 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Chris

I like your wig Mike looks really cool!!!! especially when you rock those old lady sunglasses. You two look like a couple of queers out "antiqeing together"
So who takes it up the hee haw? My moneys on Frank

April 26 2012 at 7:49 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Mary Curran

I just had the stuff removed from the crawl space under part of my house. There is a very old bicycle frame and wheel and a large inflatable "Miller" beer bottle. Watching your show it seems that you like old bicycles and unsual advertising items. I don't know how old they are, but they have been there since the house was built. I would rather let you get these items than have them end up in the junk. Contact me at c.curran@att.net.

April 24 2012 at 11:48 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Jamie Bruflodt

i have a 1952 columbia built bike i would like to sell youbean watching your show seems like you get a haard on when you see bikes. especially this year and style peawee herman ultamate.contact me tammysbigboy@hotmail.com

March 25 2012 at 11:22 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
George and Angie

Some of these old people remind me of my old uncle who was a sharecropper in Tennessee. Eighty years old have had this stuff since the 1950's and when you ask them if they want to sell something they say,"No.I'm going to do something with that one of these days".

January 16 2012 at 11:17 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
love50

I love the show it is educational. And shows what things are worth and what is junk, I knew kinda that Frank did not work with Mike in ways. He has his own clients he sell's too. Its a heck of a way of earning a living and must be very hard. i can see why they are not married they are both more in love with there jobs.

January 09 2012 at 10:31 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
joe r

Mike is the reason I dont watch the show. Dont get me wrong I love the concept of the show and have enjoyed many episodes. Lately this guy has annoyed me so much that i have stopped watching it. It is riviting and exciting but Mike comes across so fake and really does not give a **** about the people he buys from or their stories. I know he is in the buying/selling trade but come on dude be a little real sometimes like your partner. Am I the only one that thinks this. If so then maybe i am wrong?

October 11 2011 at 8:11 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
edwrdcool

A great way to add both to the store and to the show (well, not sure about the store)
There's a LOT of people that collect stujff inMaryland,ect. Break up into two groups. There's more pickers out there so have Frank go in a van with one person while you go out somewhere else with another person/van.
After a couple shows you and Frank get back together and go around while the other set of two go out in the other van. You could double the amount of money you bring in. Because it's you show,store,vans, everything, have them pay you a percintage of what they bring in. Think about it.

September 05 2011 at 12:52 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
sasstoops

shannon stoops of w.v. wants to know if the pickers are interested in hot wheels and old sewing macines and maybe some other various items depending on your interest???????????if so contact me at 5250 Elkriver Rd Elkview W.V.25071

August 15 2011 at 9:48 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
jeffrey wise

i know a great place 4 u 2 pick n yuma arizona! my friends parents have both passed away, they were collectors. they have stuff like an old E Z haul national car rental sighn(this was b4 they were u haul) they have a 50's diner n there house. lots of coke stuff ,drive in movie speakers ,railroad stuff, toys in origenal boxes, old restraunt stuff. 2 much 2 tell u about. old porcelain street sighnes. would b a great tribute 2 them if u would pick there stuff. hope 2 hear from u guys

August 08 2011 at 9:48 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to jeffrey wise's comment
vegasmike81

hello, my name is mike and am very interested in buying stuff from your friend... Is there an address or phone I can reach them... Im in las vegas and not far away... thanks...

September 06 2011 at 12:28 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply