Chattanooga Pickers

Chattanooga Pickers

August 1st, 2013 by Mary Beth Torgerson in Local Regional News

We've all passed by them before-the faded storefronts plastered with rusted gas station signs and window displays piled high with furniture.

To some, these stores look like a scene from the A&E documentary series "Hoarders." To others, the sight of dusty antiques makes their faces light up, their palms sweat, their hearts beat faster-to them, these sites are treasure troves just waiting to be picked through.

Gary Ross, owner of Estate of Confusion on Main Street.

Gary Ross, owner of Estate of Confusion on...

Greg Ross, Owner of Estate of Confusion

Visitors at Estate of Confusion would be hard pressed to not bump into at least two or three artists while rummaging through the stuff piled high behind the Main Street shop's chain link fence.

"I supply people with material to do what they want to do," says Greg Ross, Estate of Confusion owner. "I was paid a compliment one time by the curator of the Hunter Museum. She said, 'You have a good eye,' and told me there was an artist who had used some things from here in a piece that's at the Hunter Museum. I said, 'So I have junk at museums?' She said, 'Greg, this is the second time you've had your junk in this museum.' Another artist had repurposed some junk for her art, too. I thought that was cool."

After almost completely filling a commercial warehouse with stuff-old books, bottles, pieces of metal, rusted tools and building supplies, just to scratch the surface-Ross decided it might be time to try to sell off some of his hoard. "Everybody had stuff they wanted to get rid of, so I would go haul it off and put it in the warehouse. I started in '97 when it became obvious that I should be in the junk business. I had an estate remnant sale and it went well, so I started looking for a space," he says. "There's a lot of junk out there. It's everywhere- estate sales, scrap yards, on the side of the road ... and I do more than my fair share of demolition."

That's why the shop is only open "most weekends from when we get there, until when we leave," according to the website. Ross spends most of his time sourcing items to sell, and sometimes in all that effort, real treasures show up-historic plaques denoting Georgia's previous ownership of Chattanooga property, a tiny appointment book from the personal assistant to Dorothy Kirston (a singer who performed leading roles at the Metropolitan Opera for 30 years) and even a possible Picasso etching that he is working to get authenticated.

But most of the time, you just have to have vision. "There's not enough people out there who can deal with this type of business," he says. "Individually you can see it, but piled together, it's a bunch of junk. You have to be able to see the possibilities."

Check online at or tour the store at 301 East Main Street

Rhonda McFadden, owner of Antique Connection in Hixson, Tenn.

Rhonda McFadden, owner of Antique Connection in Hixson,...

Easy Pickins: 10 Tips for a Successful Treasure Hunt

Our local experts offer these tips to make your transition into picking a breeze. If you're planning to peruse the World's Longest Yard Sale this month, be sure to keep these tips in mind.

Know the trends

Be sure to stay abreast of the latest home d├ęcor and furniture trends-but also be sure to forecast what you think is going to be big in the next year or so. Right now, midcentury modern furniture is flying off the shelves, so if you find an authentic piece of this sleek and straight style, be sure to snag it before someone else does.

Get a second opinion

If you're unsure if a piece is truly an antique or you think it might be worth more than you know, consult an expert or someone you know is more experienced than you in buying antiques. There's no shame in asking for help while you're learning the ropes yourself.

Go for unique pieces

Everyone has an average dresser, dining table, etc., so in order to make those people buy another, you need to step outside of the box. Bob Grove, founder of Hometown Pickers, is known for his unique tables. One that recently sold is an old college basketball backboard that he attached to metal legs to create a desk. To some, this may seem odd, but for the right buyer, it's a definite gem.

Price (and price tags) really does matter

Don't price things too high. Try to focus on selling many pieces at a lower price rather than trying to sell a few big ticket items. Speaking of prices, the way that you tag your items does matter. Take the extra step to print nice tags and affix them to the item with twine. Easy things like this can amp up your space to make it more popular with customers.

Scratches, dings or dents? Don't worry.

Pretty much any furniture or architectural accent that is solid wood can be fixed, says Architectural Exchange Owner Anna Roberts. It might take some effort, but the internet is full of tutorials to help you through the process. If you want to hone your skills, find a small, solid wood piece (nothing more than $20) that is in serious need of TLC and give it a go. Better to learn to refinish with smaller pieces that are of less value to you than to accidentally mess up an investment piece.

Do your homework

Learning the different types of wood and metal, and the many furniture styles will be invaluable while you're digging for great finds. This will also help you when you are trying to come up with a price to purchase or resell a piece.

What you can't sell, repurpose

If you have a vision for a piece and it is taking a long time to sell, put in the legwork to make your idea come to fruition. If no one is buying it, maybe they can't see the item's possibilities themselves, so go ahead and make those Mason jar chandeliers you're imagining. The price of the items may go up, but the likelihood of them selling will, too.

Check for quality

We've already mentioned that solid wood is best, but also check to make sure that the piece was well-made. Do this by looking for dove-tailing in drawers, pressing on each corner to see if it wobbles and ruling out any pieces that are made of soft wood that scratches easily (you can test this lightly with a fingernail).

Know how to bargain

Haggling is common practice in the antique and junk dealing world. If there is a price marked on the item, a good way to see if they are firm on the price is to simply ask just that. Many sellers will budge at least 10 percent on price especially if you're buying more than one item-so it never hurts to ask.

Style your space

If you get to the point where you have a booth in which to sell your items, be sure to present them in an attractive way. Style a table with placemats and dishes or a bowl of faux fruit. If there are outlets available, go ahead and plug in the lamps you have for sale-it will create a better ambiance than the standard fluorescent lighting.

Rhonda McFadden, Owner of Antique Connection

After many years working under the thumb of corporate America, Rhonda McFadden packed up her desk and decided to make a change.

"My job was going nowhere fast, so I left and went back to school. After I graduated in 2011, I still wasn't convinced that I wanted to go into a desk type of job," she says. "I felt like I've always had that entrepreneurial spirit and me working in some office looking out the window all day every day wasn't going to work for me. I'm a free-spirited person."

Rhonda's husband, Toney, had always tried to take her to local flea markets and antique stores, but she wasn't interested. "He would ask me to go with him, and I would say, 'I don't want to look at that old stuff ... it makes me sneeze,'" she says with a laugh. "But eventually we went together and I started to really like it. I started collecting simple things like glassware and trinkets. Then we started going to auctions and estate sales and I ended up with a collection in my garage and then a storage unit and another storage unit."

Like many pickers and collectors, once McFadden started hunting for great finds, she couldn't really stop. "Eventually, my husband started saying, 'What do you think you are going to do with all this stuff?' And I said, 'Maybe I could get a little antique store going?''' she says. "The idea just kind of grew inside of me and blossomed. I started collecting in the fall of 2011 and I knew I had enough to make a storefront. It went faster than we expected once we found our location, and we had our grand opening May 2012."

McFadden's store, Antique Connection, is packed full of glassware, lamps, knick-knacks and furniture for every room of the house. She travels all over the Southeast and sometimes ventures up North to estate sales, flea markets and auctions to find the perfect unique items for her customers.

"I look for things that have odd shapes or color or something extraordinary, not anything you're just going to see in your everyday antique home. Most of the time the unique items bring a different type of customer," she says. "People say, 'You have the neatest things,'" and that's what I look for. I'll just go and if it catches my eye, I'll get it. I've done pretty good with that."

For would-be pickers, McFadden recommends choosing items that appeal to their tastes and either researching via smart phone before they buy or purchasing the item and researching later at home to find an accurate price for the items. "If it's really something that caught your interest, with technology now if you're not sure about something, try to find a little something about it. Because of those smart phones, you can find out at a blink of an eye," she says. "A lot of things were made after market, and there were a lot of reproductions made of a lot of good furniture, so without that research you could get an item that is not authentic. Do your homework so you won't overpay for something that you shouldn't overpay for."

Check online at or visit the store at 3882 Hixson Pike

Victoria Meeks-Underwood, owner of The Insyde Outsyde Shop in Red Bank

Victoria Meeks-Underwood, owner of The Insyde Outsyde Shop...

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

Victoria Meek-Underwood, Owner of The Insyde Outsyde Shop

For The Insyde Outsyde Shop owner Victoria Meek- Underwood, picking has always been a family affair. "I was born into it ... no options, really. In high school I spent every weekend in Jackson, Mississippi or Memphis doing an auction. All of my friends would be out camping and fourwheeling and I would want to be at the auction," she says. "I went to school to do other things but it seemed that with everything I went to do, I always came back to the furniture."

Underwood comes by it naturally. Her father, Les Meek, has been shipping English and French furniture to the United States since 1969, eventually opening Meek's Auctions in Red Bank and later Les and Victoria opened The Insyde Outsyde Shop. "My dad and I go all over England and the Welsh countryside and London. My dad goes to France for items for his auctions. We go wherever we can find great deals to pass along to people," she says. "We're from Wales, and we still have a home and our own warehouses there. We have our own trucks and we do it ourselves. Most of the time we can remember the exact place we bought the item from and any history that goes with it."

Underwood says that beyond the affordable pricing- a French armoire that may go for $1,500 elsewhere could be found at Insyde Outsyde for $300-$400, for example-the history and quality of antiques is what keeps people coming back to Insyde Outsyde rather than a big box store.

"It's more fun, isn't it? People want to know the heritage of the items. Europe is much older than the Unites States and people are fascinated with our history and our castles and our royalty," she says. "It's fun to wonder what the person before me did with this piece. Did they have money or were they coal miners? When you know a legitimate piece of history for a piece, it's much more interesting than saying, 'I got this at Ashley Furniture and it's going to last me three years.'"

Underwood says that the key to picking up good furniture pieces is to pay attention to its "lines" and what it could look like with a little TLC. She says that Pinterest holds a wealth of knowledge about ways to make a piece look brand new. "It's got to have good bones and be solid wood, of course. There are endless possibilities with that-you can paint it, strip it, stain it as long as it's solid wood," she says. "If it's a chest of drawers, look for the dove-tailing on the inside of the drawers. You can check to see if it has some nice feet on it like any bracket foot or Queen Anne's legs. But just be sure to buy what you like, not what someone tells you is in style."

Visit the shop at 5006 Dayton Boulevard or find The Insyde Outsyde Shop on facebook

Bob Grove, founder of Hometown Pickers

Bob Grove, founder of Hometown Pickers

Bob Grove, founder of Hometown Pickers

Bob Grove was a picker "when picking wasn't cool."

"I started back in 1978. I was looking for something and didn't really know what I wanted to do at that time in my life, so I went to the flea market a couple of times with a friend," says Grove. "After that, I started digging into it deeper. And as your knowledge grows, you know more what to look for, and next thing you know, you get crazy and you go into the mountains and are going into every barn and every shed that you can."

Grove not only created a name for himself by being one of the first in the business, but also because he has lived every picker's dream-rescuing that one amazing treasure that sells for a hefty sum.

"I guess I'm noted around town with all the in crowd that's done this forever," he says. "I found a piece one time that brought a lot of money. I bought a hunt board in East Brainerd for $600. You know those paintings with the riders chasing the fox? Well, when they actually killed their game and when the hunters come home at the plantations, they could ride up on their horses and the hunt boards were so tall, they could ride up beside it and lay their game up there and the women and workers would prepare it right on that hunt board. I paid $600 for it and it brought $16,000-$17,000."

Grove calls the find a "godsend," and says there was more to it than a paycheck for him. "You have to remember that it's not all about the money. Some people don't get it," he says. "That money helped a lot of people. The guy I bought it from, I said to him, 'If this is worth more money, then I'm going to come back and bring you a check.' When I sold that thing, I bought an envelope to his house and he said, 'This is going to come in handy. My wife had to have shots in her eyes today that cost $2,000,' and I said, 'Well open that envelope because there's $2,000 in there.'

"I went to church the morning I found the hunt board and they needed money to fix the parking lot. They said it would cost about $1,600 to fix it, so I said just go ahead and do it and I'll find the money. I got me a sandwich after church and prayed and said 'God, you've got to help me out here on this thing,' and then I found that hunt board that afternoon. If you give the church 10 percent of the money it sold for, then that's exactly $1,600. I don't believe in mistakes or coincidences."

Beyond the monetary gain that can come from being a picker, Grove says he lives for the thrill of the hunt and the art of finding items that will appeal to people as the trends change. "It's a new generation. Now we're in a disposable society and people in their 20s and 30s don't care what their grandmother had. When I was a kid, if we could have two things from our grandmother's house, that really excited us," he says. "So, now the Victorian and marble top pieces that used to go for $1,500 now sell for $300. It's just a taste bud kind of thing. Everybody has their own taste buds."

Grove says that those who are getting into the business can look to larger cities to scope out what trends are coming to Chattanooga.

"You just have to look and see what is happening in New York or Atlanta, and you can see what's going to be in Chattanooga in a year or two. Sometimes it takes a while to stick like glue here. You have to have vision and see if it's going to fly here," he says. "Last time it was shabby chic things with white paint and now it's distressed gray furniture. And right now if you go look in Atlanta, you've got aloe, a mint green, and camel, a yellow beige, and that's going to be the new big colors this year."

To make it in the picking world, Grove has learned to change with the times. And to those who don't like change? He says they should probably look for careers elsewhere. "Years ago when I saw it all changing, I said, 'Everything you've got priced at $400 and you got $200 in it, sell it for $250. There's nothing that's going to bring it back. All you're doing is holding on for less because that number won't come back,'" he says. "We used to get paid to take paint off furniture and now we're getting paid to put it on. You've got to see the future and where the changes are going. You can't ride a dead horse so to speak and you have to go to where the next fad is."

Visit or find Bob Grove at Joe's Mercantile, located at 719 Cherry St.

Anna Roberts, owner of Architectural Exchange

Anna Roberts, owner of Architectural Exchange

Anna Roberts, owner of Architectural Exchange

When Anna Roberts, former construction manager and founder of Architectural Exchange, says she puts blood and sweat into salvaging architectural items for her shop, it's not just an expression-it's true life.

"When some people think of salvage, the next word they think of is free. And that's true if it's your time, but what people don't realize is all the work that goes into getting pieces out intact," she says. "There's an art to it-you can spend 45 minutes on a newel post-easily-trying to get it out and keep it intact. I think you definitely have to have a construction background to be able to deconstruct."

And Roberts is certainly not afraid to get her hands dirty. Sometimes to save things, Roberts says she has actually had to risk her life, an act that she does pretty frequently in the effort to keep usable items from heading to the landfill. "One of my favorite finds was a Boy Scout knot board that I found in the attic of the rectory in St. Paul's [Episcopal Church] in one of my first salvage jobs," she says. "I was really the only one small enough to crawl through on the joist in the attic, and no one had been in there since the '40s. I was making my way to get the knot board, and my feet went through the ceiling and I straddled the joist.

"I thought I would never sell it, but there was a guy who was a scout master and he and his wife asked me for four years, 'How much for the knot board?' and I always said it wasn't for sale, and finally I said 'Make me an offer I can't refuse.' His wife said that it was a lot of money for that, but I said 'Well, I hate to say it, but that's the value of my life ... we about died for this one!'" Roberts' shop is a hodge-podge of these various salvage items-stacks upon stacks of doors, tiles, windows, hardware, columns and even clawfoot bathtubs. Each item has its own history and an intrinsic value in its age and experience that Roberts says she can just feel. "I hate to see people take out old windows. They've lasted 80-100 years, and with some love and care, you can fix them and you have more resale value than any new window you can buy today. You keep the character, you keep the growth and you keep the value," she says. "Their life is not over. There is a pride and quality of workmanship that you can just feel in an old home. It's warmer, it's stronger and in a new house I don't get that feeling of weathering time, and as my dad says, all the mistakes that build character. We have gotten disposable, and that's a mistake."

Thanks to websites like Pinterest and many new repurposing and picking shows on television, Roberts says that people have grown more inclined to keep or build in old items instead of going with new options. "Women homeowners are my biggest clients. They see something unique on the Internet or in a magazine and they come in here and want to recreate that."

"The great thing is that your neighbor will never have something from here; it's most likely one of a kind," she says. "I recently sold some paneling and people repurposed it as a headboard, and I've seen old hot and cold sink knobs used to make a towel rack. I think it's great that people are repurposing things now and giving them a new life. You think of heirloom furniture, why can't you have heirloom architectural pieces? I look at them that way."

Visit Architectural Exchange at 1300 McCallie Avenue