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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Sunday, April 21

Gapers Block

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I got a call this week from an antique picker I know named Bob. He had just found a bunch of old letters and photographs from the 1800s and wanted to know if I was interested in buying them. As we talked on the phone, I asked Bob where he got the stuff from. He just said it was "alley fresh." I knew what that meant, Bob had been out hitting the alleys with his 1972 station wagon looking for treasure. We met later that day and I bought the letters and photos. Bob was happy to get the cash but seemed really anxious to leave. When I asked where he was off to, Bob said, "I gotta go man, it's the end of the month. I gotta go alley shopping. There's a ton of stuff out there." With that, Bob jumped into his ratty old station wagon a drove off to go hunting.

Garbage pickers like Bob are a dying breed. In the old days, a guy could get into his car, cruise the alleys and fill the car with quality old stuff with no problem at all. The alleys were filled with all kinds of junk and treasure. Today, the Antiques Roadshow and Ebay have changed the way people look at old stuff. Instead of throwing old things out, everyone and their brother are looking over things that are headed to the trash and ask themselves, "Can this make me rich?"

The main competition Bob has these days are the metal men. The guys who pick up scrap metal are also on the lookout for old stuff. The pick up anything that looks interesting and bring it back to the scrap yards. There are antique dealers who sit near the scrap yards and buy the old stuff from the metal men.

I'm not saying you can't still find good stuff in the alleys. Bob is living proof of that. He has no job (that I know of) other than being an alley picker. I asked Bob what his three best pieces of advice for someone who wanted to go "hit the alleys."

1. Know the days garbage is picked up in the neighborhood you're picking in. There's nothing worse than driving around and seeing nothing but empty cans.

2. Go at night. Go on the weekends. Go at the end of the month. Bob says "People these days have busy schedules. If some relatives are cleaning out grandma's house, they go there after work or on the weekends." That's when the good stuff comes out.

3. If you find a pile of good stuff in the alley, don't be afraid to go knock on the door of the house and ask if they have anything else they're going to be throwing out. Bob says this is the way he's gotten some of his best finds. He gives them a sob story about trying to get something to sell so he can feed his kids. People are usually glad to get rid of some more "junk" to help out poor old Bob.

All good advice, but I'd add a fourth. Find a neighborhood that's changing. One where the old folks are moving out. Right now I'd say the area around Belmont and Central is one of the best for hitting the alleys. Go out there and do some hunting, you never know what you'll find. If you see Bob in his 1972 blue station wagon (he's hard to miss), stop him and ask him what he has for sale. He always finds the good stuff.


Ron's pick this week:

Sunday August 14th
Elkhorn Antique Flea Market
Elkhorn, Wisconsin

Located near Lake Geneva, this is one of my favorite antique shows in the midwest. You never know what you'll find at Elkhorn. Many of the dealers who sell here are from northern Wisconsin and don't make it down to the Illinois shows. This may be a reason it always seems there's a little better selection of items at Elkhorn. The local volunteer fire department sells amazing pastries (and cream puffs the size of your head) at a booth located near the middle of the show. Good stuff. It's about a two hour drive from Chicago but well worth the trip. Check the website for detailed directions.

Happy hunting!

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About the Author(s)

Ron Slattery is a collector of interesting junk and other wonderment. You can visit him at and

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