Unassuming outbuildings, piles of scrap in an overgrown field, collapsed barns and beat-up old Buicks sitting unused in driveways along winding country roads: For some, these sights might be blights along the rural landscape. But for Terry Penrod, they are clues in a never-ending hunt for the next big score.
The 50-year-old Raleigh man is a “picker” – a nickname for antique enthusiasts who travel all over converting unwanted items into profit. With 36 years in the antique business, Penrod can spot a moneymaking pick where others see only junk. And with a network of dealers and buyers spanning the country, he can “flip” an item in hours with the aid of his iPhone and a computer.
“I have the best job in the world,” he said, scratching at his thick beard and puffing on a big cigar. “I get to go treasure hunting every day.”
Penrod spends at least three days a week traveling and knocking on strangers’ doors to gain access to an unseen world of antiques. Sometimes, he stays in North Carolina, but his old Ford pickup truck regularly takes him as far as New England on picking adventures.
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No get-rich-quick scheme
Picking has received much attention in recent years thanks to antique-related reality shows such as The History Channel’s hit “American Pickers.” Penrod said the exposure has made his job easier in some ways; people are more receptive to his unscheduled visits.
“Of course, those shows are exaggerated,” he said. “A lot of times, it’s not very glamorous. You don’t see all the hauling and cleaning of stuff. If you think it’s a get-rich-quick scheme, you’re wrong. I’ve seen a lot of people come and go. There are a lot of days when you just don’t find anything exciting.”
Yet Penrod has made some pretty impressive scores over the years. He once stumbled upon a 1960 Alfa Romeo Giulietta Spider, an Italian sports care coveted by collectors. The owner was at first reluctant to sell, but Penrod persisted and eventually bought it for $850. A few days later, he sold the car on eBay for $6,700.
And then there’s always a market for the strange. “Unusual sells,” Penrod said. Among his picked oddities: a child’s coffin, an uncirculated 1868 silver dollar and a 3-foot Buddha head. All sold quickly and turned a profit.
“America is kind of a hoarding culture,” he said. “You just never know what you’re going to find in someone’s house.”
Staying up to date
Technology has changed Penrod’s business – he uses social media, researches an item’s value instantly with his smart phone, texts potential buyers, and uses his phone’s camera to make quick deals. His computer has become a traveling sales office of sorts and he often gets an offer for merchandise before he even buys it.
“The Internet has opened this up to the whole world,” he said.
Before picking full-time, Penrod owned several stores, and was a co-founder of the popular Raleigh non-profit thrift shop Cause for Paws. But he enjoys the freedom of picking and doesn’t have to worry about the overhead of running a shop.
But that doesn’t mean he’s disconnected.
Penrod has to keep up with trends to stay relevant in the picking game. He often reads home decorating magazines to keep up with current tastes. Items that sold well 10 years ago might be hard to unload in today’s market.
“The fun thing about this business is that it’s a big cycle,” he said. “The older people sell stuff and the younger people buy it. I’m somewhere in the middle. It’s nice to see younger people appreciate the craftsmanship of older items, instead of the modern particle board junk.”
Penrod is a regular vendor at the Raleigh Flea Market at the State Fairgrounds. He also sells at shows in Atlanta, Charlotte and New York City.
“Picking is a lot of hard work,” he said. “It’s not for everyone, but it can be rewarding.”