Claire O’Keefe, originally from Coleambally, has a love of history – and a degree in it. Her husband Ben also loves history, particularly that with a military bent – and he spent much of his youth at flea markets.
Together they boast the best of skills for how they now earn a living – picking, visiting other people’s homes by invitation and buying stuff the owners no longer want.
Yes, there’s an American TV show with the same name which tracks these two blokes driving around the countryside conveniently stopping every episode, just outside a barn full of treasures, just waiting to be picked.
But no, it doesn’t work like that for Claire and Ben, the Riverina Pickers – but the theory’s the same.
The couple started their business on the NSW Central Coast about eight years ago. It almost became too successful. Older people moving to smaller homes wanted to get rid of things they didn’t remember they had.
They’d be kept in storage because no-one knew what else to do with it. People feel obliged to hang on to wedding gifts they might have had for 50 years, never used, always kept “for good” in a cupboard.
Times have changed, Claire said, but people will still collect what other people have.
“People tend to ring us when they’ve had a change in life circumstances,” she said.
“Maybe someone in the family has died, or gone into care. Or sometimes because they might have inherited something they don’t want or know what to do with.
“What we do is first talk to them on the phone about what they have, then we go out and have a look at it and if it’s something we want, we might make an offer on it. We don’t haggle with people – that’s not what we do. We just tell them the price we can pay for it and leave it up to them to decide.”
Trends in collectibles, like fashion, change often. Something that collectors would offer big money for a few years ago, may now be less appealing. It all depends on the market, the item and what someone is willing to pay for it. Like Pyrex dishes. Once the preserve of the back of cupboards because they’re so daggy, they can now be a prize “get” for many collectors.
These days, for pickers like Claire and her husband, nostalgia is what it’s all about.
“If you ask what’s hot right now, for us it would have to be vintage retro video games – Nintendo, Atari and SEGA consoles,” she said.
“People want to revisit their childhoods. We were both born in the late 70s so that’s probably why we love collecting retro toys so much.
“We’ve seen grown men with a toy room full of say Ninja Turtles or Star Wars stuff.”
For Claire, it’s all about Barbie. One of her favourite finds was a huge collection of vintage Barbies – many still in their boxes, probably about 500 of them.
“It was a huge collection of Barbies,” she said.
“They were mostly from the 1980s – there were dolls and clothes. They had all been kept in wonderful condition. It was someone’s lifetime collection and when they died, the children decided to sell them – there were so many they freed up a whole spare room in the house.”
Claire said she spent the best part of 12 months sorting through the collection, matching dolls with clothes and shoes and boxes. It was a labour of love and a trip back down memory lane to her own childhood.
When you pick for a living, it’s hard to be surprised by what people collect. But when you run it as a business, sometimes things are as clear as mud. Like collector spoons. Not a fan, Claire says although they come across such collections regularly, they don’t have a huge resale value.
“They are good things if you want to remember where you went on your trip around Australia,” she said. “But that’s about it, really.”
Claire and her husband have only just hit the road again after being restricted by the pandemic as to where they could go picking.
“But we were still busy. Lots of people would ring us wanting to downsize, wanting to get rid of things and wanting to reprioritise their lives as to what’s important.
“Before we go out and see people we always talk about what they want us to look at. No two places are the same. You might spend half an hour at a place or you might be there for three hours. It just depends. Sometimes people just want you to see their stuff, maybe have a talk.
“But I have to say it’s pretty rare for us to not come away with something. We’d probably buy something at 90 per cent of the places we go to.”
Although based in Wagga, Claire and Ben travel throughout NSW and across to the ACT in their search for good pickings.
For more information go to Riverina Pickers.