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Interview: Mike Wolfe, author of KID PICKERS

Mike Wolfe, the star of "American Pickers" on the History Channel, is the author of KID PICKERS: How to Turn Junk into Treasure. This guide is loaded with tips on how to pick through junk, not only to find unexpected treasure, but to find the history of your everyday environment. In this interview, Mike Wolfe explains how he first got started picking through junk, why he values the worn-down everyday item and what he hopes children will take from his book.

Why do you love picking through junk so much?

Adventure, discovery and the thrill of the hunt. I love not just to uncover the rare piece but also to uncover the story behind it.

How --- and when --- did you begin picking as a hobby?

I started picking when I was 4 years old. I used to walk to school and I was amazed at the things that people threw out in their trash.

It seems like so much of your childhood memories are of times when you were searching out treasures. What valuable lessons did you learn through your picking adventures?

I learned that there is literally a story behind everything and that if you can pick something up and use it again, then it's not junk. I also learned that people have relationships with items that help them remember a time, a place and a person. I feel that wanting to preserve history has always been a blessing to me. Collecting is a very passionate, rewarding, emotional journey that I hope never ends....

What advice do you have for someone who wants to start restoring junk to its former glory?

I am not one that likes to restore. I like to leave things in their natural state. I've always felt that once a restoration is done, that is what people see in the piece. They begin to look at the restoration and tend to look less at the item. Perfection has always been boring to me. I celebrate the age, the wear and tear and the imperfections.

What is the weirdest place you have ever discovered something great or valuable? And what's the story about getting it?

One of the weirdest places I have ever found things of value has been what farmers call the rock pile or the dump. People on farms don't have garbage service; so for generations, whatever they toss usually ends up on a wooded hillside. Over the years, I have pulled everything from old Coke machines to very rare bicycles out of these piles. One time, I found about 60 1950's Coke Machines dumped over a hillside on a farm in southern Illinois. I remember looking down the hill and seeing these old vending machines lying everywhere, as far as the eye could see. To find one of these machines was a huge deal, so imagine my surprise when I came across a mountain of them!  It turned out that the previous owner of the property owned a vending business and when these machines went out of date, he would bring them home and toss them over the cliff.

What is your favorite story of an object's background that you happened to find?

I once found some paintings from an early expedition to Alaska over 150 years ago. The paintings were done by a US Naval Officer to document the trip. These were wonderful paintings of native children and animals. The story behind these paintings was both the history of early American exploration, and the one I imagined; the expedition, the untouched beauty of the people and the wilderness, the lives of those children…all from a different time and place. I ended up giving these amazing paintings to museum in Juneau, Alaska 

Do you have a favorite find?

As a kid, one of my favorite memories was of an older neighbor who let me peek around his garage full of junk. In my eyes, it was a treasure. He gave me an old cigar box that I cherished. I would put other little things I had found in the box. It was my prized possession: My treasure chest.

As an adult, all of my favorite finds are motorcycles and bicycles...I bought a 1912 Indian Motorcycle out of a garage in Florida that had been in a crate since the 1960's and had never seen the light of day until I found it. The iconic motorcycle had original paint and had some racing history. 

How do you defend against hoarding too many treasures that you find? Was this ever a problem when you were younger?

I've always bought and sold to make a living so I never had the problem of having too much. I had to sell to buy more and also to pay my bills. I do have things that I keep to remember a person, place or time. I've gotten pretty attached to the people from which I have picked over the years. To the point that at some degree, I feel I was living their lives. Being able to search through somebody's personal artifacts is an honor and one I've never taken lightly. I feel like I've become closer to the person through their items, even if they are not alive anymore. To see the clothing they wore, the letters they wrote and their photos has always painted a picture in my mind of life in forgotten times. I imagine how people lived and the social difference and challenges they faced through out the history of their lives.

How did you begin your TV show, "American Pickers?"

I started filming myself digging through barns to document the relationship people have with their collections. Through that process I wrote a treatment and started pitching the show concept to production companies. "American Pickers" is about people, their stories and a journey to discover them. We give the items, and the people who collect them, a voice. It’s important we learn that these places still exist in America and why we should be preserving history, not throwing it away. Along the way, we are all inspired by the people we meet and the stories they tell.

What do you want to readers to take from KID PICKERS: How to Turn Junk into Treasure?

Kids are born pickers. They are already ingrained with a natural curiosity, an impulse to explore and are thrilled by a sense of discovery. From the first cool bottle or rusty metal sign they find and drag home, it’s clear that they are natural foragers. Collections are built and traded. Grandpa’s old stuff comes with the patina of time and his personal stories, and kids are fascinated with their own family history and legend. Their bedrooms are full of found stuff.

Picking is more than just the treasure hunt. I want kids to understand that no matter what they collect, if they like it then it has purpose. I want them to be able to learn history hands on and that when they find things in their community, they can learn a lot about the history that is right in their own backyard. Not world history or national history but the history of their town, their neighborhood and their families. KID PICKERS is filled with learning moments, mixing history, geography, repurposing, recycling, collecting and most of all, a spirit of adventure.

What other projects are you working on in addition to your book and TV show?

I'm pitching a show called "Kid Pickers," and we have also created an online presence for kids that collect called It is a place where any child that has the passion to collect can connect with other children that share the same ideas, interest and love of the hunt.