American Junk TV

The buyers and sellers of dreams: American Pickers

The buyers and sellers of dreams: American Pickers

Whenever I go back to my parents’ house to visit, I usually end up watching a year’s worth of TV. It’s part of the experience. There’s not much else to do where I’m from. And while I was home over the summer for two weeks, I couldn’t stop watching Junk TV. I’m not saying that TV is junk, although it pretty much is, let’s face it, I’m talking about TV about junk. Junk porn. It began in the late 70s with Antique’s Roadshow on PBS. But no one other than the liberal, elderly demographic of PBS paid much attention until now. Now there’s Pawn Stars, Cajun Pawn Stars, Hardcore Pawn, Storage Wars, Storage Wars: Texas, American Pickers, and the creepy-crawly, panic attack-inducing Hoarders-all on channels that used to be about history or arts and entertainment. They remind us of the things that we own, the things we throw away, the things that our grandparents own or owned, things that used to be made in the good ol’ US of A, things that we knew where they came from. It’s nostalgia in a tin toy robot or a Winchester rifle, a ceramic pot with owls on it. It’s nostalgia wrapped in things we own, or wish we did. It’s big business now, buying and selling junk, and I think it says something about our consumer culture as it was and as it is becoming. We are addicted to nostalgia porn.

Not to sound like a hipster douchebag or anything, but I was on this bandwagon years before the likes of cable television got their grubby little mitts on it, before every channel got a piece, before it entered every baby boomer’s living room every evening after dinner. When I was basically living in my parents’ garage back in 2007, I spent a lot of time at thrift stores and antique shops. I’d drive my 1978 Mustang II all over the Great Plains to look at all of the things that used to be in every mom and pop shop on Main Street USA. I’d go alone because I was in a very alone state of perpetual despair at that time and because driving has always been a relaxing activity, a personal one, a time for reflection, and by going alone, I could go wherever I wanted without bored passengers wanting to stop at Dairy Queen or go do something else, something that normal twenty-somethings do. So I went almost every day, with no particular goal in mind. Just something to do, some place to go, a reason to drive on the open road in the vast, barren prairie desert that is Eastern South Dakota. One day I’d drive to Canton, SD, or to Vermillion, Beresford, Hartford, or Tea. There was Brookings, SD, where I spent the first two years of my tumultuous undergraduate career. There was Madison, Salem, Yankton, SD, and LaVerne, MN, a little town on the border. All of these towns had nothing of interest to me other than the little shops that sat virtually empty every day, from early in the morning until mid-afternoon, run by retirees, by old folks, by people who knew more about the items than most museum curators. I wanted to discover these places on my own, see for myself what they had to tell me about the past and the future. I became an amateur archeologist.

I want to look at EVERYTHING.

I want to look at EVERYTHING.

I found comfort in all of the forgotten things, the unloved things collecting dust and value on cluttered shelves in empty shops. I loved touching the patina, smelling the age, examining the wear of the abandoned gems, feeling the grooves of the real wood, not particle board, of real metal, not throwaway plastic, and these things felt so close to me. I wished and longed to be born in a different time, a time when people made things with their own hands, with blood and sweat and attention to detail. When people took pride in their work. When there was a gadget for everything and you could see how it worked, look at the gears and pulleys and levers, unlike the digital/virtual/technical age we live in now where everything is hidden, compartmentalized in chips, wires, and circuit boards that I don’t understand. I romanticized everything I saw at those antique shops and fell in love with the things that were unloved, rejected, abandoned by people who upgraded, downgraded, or died.

I started to collect stuff I thought was cool and that I could afford, the things that I couldn’t afford not to take home, and the trunk of my car became a shelter for the unloved and forgotten things. I collected typewriters, fedora hats, costume jewelry, cigarette tins, antique buttons, weird German figurines, and 1960s sputnik furniture. These were beautiful things to me. Keepsakes not found in the purgatory that is Walmart or Target, or the sleeping giant Those places give me panic attacks.

Now these old things with a patina I cherished are hot commodities. The rest of America is catching on and cashing in to those treasures they used to throw away and give to Goodwill. I still go into these shops when I feel like browsing the aisles and looking at history in compartmentalized ruins. I still enjoy looking at and touching these things. But now I can’t afford them. They’re too expensive because now everyone thinks they’ve got a goldmine in their attic or a stockpile of cash in their basement. Now everyone wants to cash in on their unloved items. They saw it on TV. Anyone can do it. And now I can only afford browse and gawk at the newly stickered, astonishing price tags and this breaks my heart. Who do these people think they are? What value can you put on an item without robbing it of its essence? How can you charge $70 for a busted up ice grinder? How can you value a kicked-to-shit fruit crate at $50? Really. Who do these people think they are? And why don’t I have a bigger apartment?


  • leyna krow says:

    “Those places give me panic attacks.” Ditto. I have a very real fear of dying in a big box chain store. I do not want to die in a place like that, and so when I’m in one, I often can’t stop thinking about it.

    I too wonder if the recent popularity of “junk” shows means, increasingly, others feel the same way? Not about my death fear, but about an interest in the unique and the old rather than the mass produced? I’d like to think so.

  • Asa Maria says:

    One of my favorite shows of all times is the British “Junkyard Wars.” From IMDB: “A show in which, each week, two rival teams are given the task of building some kind of machine, in one day, using only the items found in an unusually well-stocked scrapyard.”

    It combines science and junk, two things I love. I would love to fill my house with discarded items because they are so very fun and each has a history, which I can make up. But after moving several times and preparing for extended travel by getting rid of most of my possessions, I now satisfy my junk habit by browsing ebay and collecting pictures of treasures on Pintrest.

    • Katrina says:

      Yes! Such a good show. It’s like competitive upcycling!

      I spend so much time on Etsy and Ebay looking at random junk.

  • Cathie Smathie says:

    Great post! I really dig when you mention how people used to make things with their hands and paid attention to details. Truth.
    And I also fall in love with things that look forgotten — it’s funny because my sister and I grew up with my parents watching Antiques Roadshow. My sister turned into an archivist and I turned into a poet. We both, in our own way, try to preserve the things that might go unnoticed in life. The big difference though is I want to play with the old war uniforms and she wants to wear white gloves and a face mask. We’ll tour Revolution-era homes and I’ll find myself wanting to buy/use the kitchen tables.

    Last thing: I also prefer antiquing alone. I don’t like people cramping my solitude when I’m surrounded by taking everything in.

  • Melissa says:

    I love the last section of this particularly. It does seem like a person used to have to be creative and resourceful in order to find something unique or to transform/repurpose an item into something more, whereas now, between all the trash-to-treasure shows that you cite plus Pinterest, it’s so trendy that it’s made it harder to do without a) spending a lot of money or b) feeling like something you’ve obviously been doing for years has now been co-opted.

    I love that you mentioned the fruit crates, because a friend saw a really cool coffee table made out of fruit crates (on Pinterest, haha) and had exactly the problem you mention– every place she looked wanted to charge her $50 per crate, even the farms in Central Washington. She came to visit me and I suggested we try Green Bluff, where she was able to get them for a much more reasonable cost, but the farmer also mentioned that he gets asked about them on a pretty regular basis BECAUSE people saw certain projects on TV or on Pinterest. Which isn’t to say it’s not awesome to make your own coffee table out of fruit crates– it looks amazing and she has the satisfaction that she built it herself– but it sort of takes the fun out of it if you know a bunch of other people are doing the same project. Takes away the sense of discovery you’re describing.

    Love the phrase “compartmentalized ruins.”

    • Katrina says:

      Yes! Those fucking fruit crates!

      I use them as shelves and Jorge made one into an end table. Unfortunately, my shit is usually covering it so it doesn’t get shown off much.

  • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

    How can there possible be a show about storage?

    I love this idea of nostalgia porn.

  • Laura Citino Laura C. says:

    Nostalgia porn is probably the best way to put it — because eventually, if this many people keep getting into the coolness of old junk, at what point DOES it become a fetish?

    There have been plenty of times I’ve walked into an antique store or a yard sale and it just makes me…uncomfortable. People own too much stuff.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *