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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Fruits of ‘picking’ mostly modest

The estate sale has just begun, and Dennis Held is already flipping through hangers in a bedroom closet.

What’s he looking for? “Men’s pants,” he says, moving quickly. “Look for metal zippers.”

Before you know it, he’s got a brown suit draped over an arm – the “Mad Men” look is hot, and metal zippers are a sign of quality – and a steer horn stuck in his back pocket, and he’s looking, looking, looking for the next thing, the hidden gem, the thread of gold among the dross.

“I’m looking for that thousand-dollar item I can buy for a dollar, like everyone else,” says Held, a “picker,” poet, editor and owner of a secondhand-slash-art store, Area 58.

Except that Held is kidding about that thousand-dollar thing. Not that he doesn’t want the big score, but the big score – that super-rare Beatles album or vintage oil-company sign – is not what he lives on. What Held is about is the series of small scores, discoveries of overlooked significance, the elevation of the ordinary thing.

At the recent estate sale in Millwood, he accumulated a modest pile of finds: a garden bench, a weather vane, a draw knife, a miter saw, some African art, a women’s tweed coat. He darted into the garage and nosed around in a back corner among the dusty, end-stacked lumber, where he found half a fishing pole. That made him think that maybe there was a bamboo fly rod in there – though there wasn’t.

“This is where I get my good work done,” Held says. “In the dirt, in the corner, where everybody else has already been.”

Thanks to reality shows like “American Pickers” and “Storage Wars,” the world of secondhand treasure is in the spotlight. Held says the shows glamorize and oversimplify what is essentially an ethos of frugality: resurrecting and reusing things that would otherwise go to the dump, from lowly household cleansers to pricey antiques.

Held opened Area 58 on North Monroe Street with his wife, Connie Grove, five years ago. But he says he’s always been a picker – a talent born out of childhood struggle and chaos. At age 12, he spotted six delicate pink wine glasses at a neighbor’s yard sale, saw something in them, and forked over $2 he’d earned selling night crawlers.

“I still have five of them,” he said.

As he grew up, he pursued his twin passions – language and picking. Years later, while studying poetry at the University of Montana, he got a job at a secondhand store after he brought in an item to sell and impressed the owner.

“I didn’t even know that what I did was called picking, and I was a picker,” he said. “But I had a natural eye for value.”

A former literature professor with two books of poetry behind him – the most recent was “Ourself,” released in January from Spokane’s Gribble Press – as well as many credits and acknowledgements as an editor, Held gave up a tenured faculty position at Lewis-Clark State College in 2001 and moved to Spokane. He taught at Spokane Community College and did some freelance editing and hunted down bargains for resale and his own use. But he realized that he couldn’t make a living as a picker unless he was retailing it himself.

So he and his wife cashed in their retirement accounts, got a small business loan and opened Area 58. The store has kind of a dual purpose, selling art alongside secondhand items. It’s a good business for the times, but it’s a constant struggle to keep the doors open.

“People in Spokane are frugal to the point of parsimony,” he said. “I’ve had people argue down a one-dollar piece of jewelry. I admire that. In a way.”

Last Friday morning, Held was at the Millwood home before the doors opened at 9. The owner of the home died in late September, and Help N Hands Estate Sales was brought in to sell the household items. A line of 15 or 20 other folks – pickers, estate-sale hobbyists – were there, too, and when the sale began, they began rushing through the home.

Held said he likes to let the first wave move through and follow in their wake. He found a $4 elephant carving, a $12 weather vane, an $8 draw knife. Dressed in a leather jacket and work boots, Held moved quickly but purposefully through the home – looking, looking. Somewhere along the way, he scraped a knuckle bloody.

Asked how it happened, he said, “I have no idea. It just happens.”

“I’m a tactile guy,” he said. “I like to get my hands on stuff.”

He says the hands-on part of his life stands in pleasant contrast to the “all-up-in-my-head” part, but there’s a lot of similarity between editing and picking. Both are about selection, judgment, sorting through the negligible for the valuable.

Within an hour, Held had loaded his finds into the back of his 1966 former ice cream truck and was back in the house looking at linens and African art. Back in the bedroom for a second time, he found a women’s Irish wool twill coat.

He bought it for a dollar. Took it back to the store, cleaned it up, researched its value, found that one had just sold for $129, marked it at $38 and put it on the floor. Saturday before noon it walked out the door.

“If I can buy an item for a dollar and sell it for $38, that’s a good day,” he said. “That’s the truth of picking.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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