Jim Hillibish: Go West, with your truck of antiques, young man

Jim Hillibish

I stopped at the Portage truck stop for coffee and spotted two Ryder rental vans in the parking lot. Inside, I sat near their drivers, listening about riches for the picking in, yes, California.

Their trucks were loaded with the common goods we find in our junk stores, the hardware of life around here 100 years ago: chairs, tables, basins, candle sconces and even a few old coal shovels and rusty wheelbarrows with steel wheels.

Here's the genius: You can find old coal shovels here for about $5, the old flat-blades with the short handles to fit between the furnace and the basement wall. If you drive out I-70 to I-15 to Los Angeles, you might sell them for $100 each at the Los Angeles flea markets. Not to shovel coal, of course, but to grace the wall of somebody’s house. It’s pretty much a sure bet.

The same is true with antique wheelbarrows. “They pay plenty for them, sit them out in their front yard and grow pansies in them,” a driver said.

I asked the guys how this could be.

A little history lesson explains things. Not long ago, everybody here owned a coal shovel to stoke their furnace. Nobody did in California (they used wood or didn’t even have a furnace).

But here's the kicker. Somewhere in that long journey West, our coal shovels and wheelbarrows become their antique gold-mining hardware. You'll never see one advertised as a “coal shovel.” The difference a name makes.

There's some truth here. In the gold rush of the 1850s, prospective miners stopped here for supplies enroute to the Golden State. Indeed, a lot of our sweat tools went into the mines.

“It’s all in knowing the market,” one of the drivers said. Turning $5 into $100 is a pretty good trick. But not the best one.

Our old furniture is a better trade than our shovels. The drivers told me the secret is not the age or design but the wood. Oak, walnut and cherry were common hardwoods in our forests and in our furniture 100 years ago. You can still buy these antiques at reasonable prices here.

California had few hardwood forests. Pine and lightwoods ruled. The scarcity of antique hardwood furniture out there means your $20 walnut chair may bring hundreds in LA.

One driver told me the retail price of hardwood furniture in some antique stores here can  be below its wholesale price in California. He bought an oak kitchen table here for $89 and quickly sold it out there, to a dealer, for $450. You bet he’s hauling out more.

He said he never deadheads his empty truck back to town. Authentic California pine ranch furniture is common and cheap there, rare and more expensive here.

Ever the contrarian, I asked them if they hauled all of our antiques out there, wouldn’t that create a scarcity and inflate prices here? Won’t that collapse prices out there?

“If that happens,” he said, “We’ll just bring ‘em back.”

“Not that we're suggesting you quit your day job,” the other guy said.