Home & Garden

With the right eye, treasures among the trash

Sarah Littlefield, professional picker, poses for a portrait with paint-by-numbers artwork she has collected over the years.
Sarah Littlefield, professional picker, poses for a portrait with paint-by-numbers artwork she has collected over the years. TNS

For Sarah Littlefield, there’s decorating gold in that there junk.

Picking.

It’s not the most glamorous way to describe your livelihood, the skill you have been developing for years, the thing you do when you walk into a room stuffed with belongings and know there’s something special waiting to be found.

But that’s what Sarah Littlefield does for Seattle restaurants, retail stores and people who have the money but not the time to search for a certain something for themselves or someone else.

All of them call on Seattle Junk Love to find what they didn’t even know they were looking for, but what Littlefield is skilled at spotting: Pendleton blankets, leather cowboy hats and old signage. And, quite often, the perfect Christmas gift.

“I buy things knowing this person is going to want it,” Littlefield said recently. “I have a roster of people that I shop for. If I’m lucky, the piece is sold by the time I get to my car.”

These are especially busy days for Littlefield, whose Etsy shop and Instagram feed carry regular posts of what she’s picked from the piles at estate sales and flea markets from Seattle to Mexico, as well as places like New York and her native North Dakota.

A Filson Mackinaw coat. A constellation of belt buckles. A battered Thonet chair oozing with restoration potential.

“It’s that thing when you know you’ll never see anything like it again,” Littlefield said of her picking technique. “I know what people are on the lookout for.”

Littlefield, 47, grew up in Fargo, N.D., the daughter of an educator mother and a university professor father who was “super curious” about architecture and history, and who could hold forth on obscure subjects like wheat production during the Civil War.

At Oklahoma State University, Littlefield’s instinct was to become a history major, but instead she got into recreation administration and started hitting estate sales in her free time. It was her way to stay connected with things past and to learn in the process.

“Half the fun is the research, the backstory,” Littlefield said of her finds. “The beauty is in a thing’s utility, or history, or the fact that it’s site-specific.”

Littlefield moved to Seattle with a girlfriend in 2001 and worked for a remodeling firm until 2008, when the housing crisis cost her her job. She did staging for a realtor, which helped her polish her design skills. She saw where one vintage item could anchor, or enhance a room.

All the while, she kept at the estate sales, picking up things she found interesting.

When Jody Hall was starting Cupcake Royale in 2005, Littlefield helped find furniture, lighting and casework for the stores.

“I used the newspaper, Craigslist, drove around with a map,” she said, shaking her head and cradling her iPhone like a bar of gold. “It was the dark ages, for sure.”

What Hall didn’t want, Littlefield sold to other restaurants and shops, who asked her to look for more. So did set designers on films and at the Microsoft Studios, as well as private people looking to put some pop, or history, in their homes.

Littlefield also took over a corner of the Georgetown shop called District, where Macklemore spotted and bought one of her hats.

Recently, she helped Filson with the design of its new store.

And she has picked up clients, who ask her to search for things such as barware and paintings of saints.

In addition to Cupcake Royale, Littlefield has helped with the design of the Salt & Straw ice cream shops in Portland, Linda Derschang’s Bait Shop and the Urban Animal veterinary clinic on Capitol Hill. That last job led to her being asked to help design a veterinary clinic in Toronto. It is located in what was once the oldest continuous funeral home in Ontario.

There’s a lot of that going on here; the old being gutted and repurposed. But that doesn’t mean there’s a wave of stuff to pick through in Seattle.

“It’s rough,” Littlefield said. “The competition is rough.”

So rough that she will spend the night in her van outside an estate sale in order to get in first. There’s always a line of shop owners and collectors looking for vintage clothing, tools, records and electronics.

“I go in and I look,” she said. “It sounds stupid. There should be some science to it. But I can’t explain it. More, the trick is to know where to go regionally, based on the age of the cities and the towns.”

The place to go junking are rural areas, smaller cities. The Midwest. (“My homeland,” Littlefield cracked).

At the home she shares with her wife, Larisa, Littlefield stores her finds and keeps her own collections of chalk animals, photos of same-sex couples and paint-by-numbers of outdoor scenes.

Some things have been impossible to part with: the 1920s-era Calumet Baking Powder clock that once hung in the kitchen of her father’s farm. The Trapper Nelson backpack on which the owner had sketched his journeys.

“I mean, shut up!” Littlefield said, pulling the photo up on her phone.

One recent find: A 3-foot-by-6-foot framed drawing of the old Fisher Flour Mill on Harbor Island. It includes a Norwegian ship docked out front, complete with wicker deck chairs; a man driving a delivery truck and another man walking in the front door.

Littlefield keeps it on the mantle. It will likely stay there.

“I’d sell it to the Fisher family,” she said, “but that’s about it.”

In that sense, Littlefield is not so much a picker, as the one who finds the things that people didn’t even know they wanted, or needed, or couldn’t do without.

Sounds about right, she said.

“I know it when I see it.”

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