Stephanie Harsin-Pilus doesn't buy anything unless it speaks to her.
And many things speak to her.
Old lamps, pottery, dressing table trays, nesting bowls. Vintage wedding dresses, salt and pepper shakers, old prints and paintings.
She finds these things at garage sales and estate sales, at thrift stores and auctions, at secret spots near Alma, Neb., her hometown, which she visits several times a year.
Harsin-Pilus is a full-time junker. She hunts down — or picks — antiques for dealers on both coasts, and she sells stuff on the Internet through her Etsy store, Shabby Chic Picker Chick. Until May, she had a storefront at 46th and Dodge Streets.
She's been successful in part because Nebraska has been, until recently, an untapped market for junk, she said. And junk is a big deal now. Primitives — barn wood, old signs, weathered windows and doors — are still affordable and abundant here, though she believes the trend is creeping inward from the coasts.
That trend is difficult to miss. Nationally, television shows like “American Pickers,” “Pawn Stars” and “Storage Wars” have illustrated how a little time and a good eye can unearth a treasure (and sometimes a small fortune).
Magazines like Flea Market Style showcase good finds and ideas for converting — or upcycling — damaged antiques and found objects into things that are useful, a trend within a trend. Even mainstream design blogs such as Design*Sponge and Apartment Therapy offer ideas for do-it-yourself junk upcycling (a knife organizer made from reclaimed wood, for example, or the seat of a chair woven from vintage leather belts).
Junk enthusiasts share ideas through Pinterest, Facebook and Etsy, and they buy and sell junk from beautifully designed booths at upscale flea markets (some of which are actually juried). This weekend's Junkstock, at 192nd Street and West Dodge Road, will feature 25 vendors selling a mix of primitive reclaimed items, upcycled pieces, collectibles and crafts.
Junk has become a movement, Harsin-Pilus said. And it's a movement she's glad to be a part of.
Becoming a picker allowed her to re-enter the workforce after a series of strokes ended her career as a nurse in 2005.
“My short term memory was shot,” she said.
She could, however, remember old things, the things her grandparents had collected and that she found at estate sales she attended as a child with her father.
She again began attending auctions, garage sales and estate sales, and she trusted her gut when deciding what to buy instead of purchasing things because they were trendy or she thought she could sell.
For the most part, her gut was right.
She started selling just a few things on online, then more and more. Her style caught the eye of several dealers from outside the Midwest, who asked her to find items — things such as old milk jugs, crockery and wicker furniture — all difficult to find in more urban areas.
“Here we give (those things) away,” Harsin-Pilus said.
In any case, within just a year or two, her business was booming.
Her quick success is not unusual.
“People are crazy over (junk) right now,” said Cammie Metheny of Laurel, Neb., who has been in the antique/collectibles/junking/repurposing line of work her entire adult life. Currently, she's the owner of Daffadowndilly's, an antique and junk warehouse that caters primarily to dealers. She also sells on Etsy and contributes to Flea Market Style magazine, which was founded in 2010, as junking began to take off.
Metheny says the antiques business is in the midst of a revolution. Like Harsin-Pilus, she grew up going to auctions with her parents — something she found excruciatingly boring. But the auctions grew on her, and eventually she ran an antiques and crafts store with her mother.
The past few years, she said, the business has changed. Etsy and eBay stores give sellers wider reach. Pinterest and home decor blogs abound with ideas for converting objects that were previously unsellable — old doors missing their hardware, say, or the bumper of a classic car — into things like headboards and shelves, creating demand for stuff that a seasoned picker like Metheny has no problem rounding up for next to nothing.
“It's not about the pretty glass or the 100-year-old crock,” she said. “It could be anything now. You can take a metal screen that hangs on the wall and you can make a magnet board out of it.”
Peter Bleed, a retired archaeology professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, attributes the junk craze to two factors:
“The economy encourages economy, and the baby boomers are getting rid of their stuff.”
Bleed has frequented flea markets and thrift stores for years, and he spent a summer studying the habits of thrift store shoppers in the 1990s.
The shoppers who lined up before the thrift stores opened each morning back then were mostly male and usually interested in very specific things — old books, say, or hand tools, he said.
That's changed, too.
Bleed believes that thrift shoppers who resell on eBay have brought new customers to auctions and secondhand stores. After buying a few things online, shoppers realized that with a bit of digging, they could find these things cheaper on their own.
He, too, has noticed a shift in what people want. Many of the collectors he sees now are younger than 40, and they're foregoing the ornate antiques or rare collectibles that their parents may have sought. Instead, they're looking for midcentury furniture and household items, and stuff they can repaint, remake, or otherwise repair or convert.
“You don't want the stuff your parents had, but your grandparents' stuff is pretty neat,” he said.
Style tends to skip a generation, he said, so the midcentury trend isn't surprising. The advent of upcycling doesn't surprise him, either.
“That generation has grown up with recycling and repurposing.”
Bev Wertz, who owns Those Girls Estate Sales in Lincoln with her sister-in-law, Kathy Hoffart, has noticed that trend, too.
Customers are willing to buy furniture in need of paint or other repairs, as long as the price is right, she said. The same goes for things that a few years ago wouldn't have sold at all — weathered tin and enamelware, scraps of wood and weathered benches.
Sara Alexander, who owns the Junque Factory in Papillion and is organizing Junkstock, thinks part of the allure of old stuff is the idea of rescuing something.
“It's just neat finding this stuff buried for years ... and bringing it back to life and finding it a new home.”
Alexander said customers often stop in her shop looking to re-create something they found on Pinterest. And when they find what they're looking for, they're hooked.
“There is nothing like going out and finding something unique,” said Harsin-Pilus.
It's more difficult to part with those unusual items, though that's part of the job.
“I always feel even if I can have something for a little while and enjoy it, it is kind of my duty to pass it on to someone else.”
Contact the writer: 402-444-1052, firstname.lastname@example.org