The Morality of Picking in a Consumer Society

Happy Monday, everybody. This is going to be an interesting week, as I’m in Flash training all of this week and will be fitting in writing as I can. It’s not that unusual; every year when the holidays roll around, writing becomes a lot more difficult because of the social schedule. Hey, at least I have a social schedule, right?

Anyway, I want to talk about something today that I don’t typically discuss. I may have mentioned before that I currently have about three jobs: I’m a technical writer, I’m a novelist, and I’m a picker. I want to talk about the last one today.

I get a lot of questions when I tell people that I do that. What’s a picker, they ask? The folks who have seen American Pickers have some idea of what I do, but I don’t think any two pickers use the same methods, so you’re only getting a piece of the puzzle watching that show (though I do enjoy it). Methods are typically based on the picker’s target. Those guys sell vintage stuff and antiques, so it makes sense for them to hit up people who have stored generations worth of stuff in barns and sheds. I specialize in vintage video games, video game ephemera, and software, and dabble in toys and video. As you can imagine, the approach of hitting up those guys with barns would be pretty damn useless, so I stick to thrift stores, garage sales, and yard sales. Thrift stores make up the bulk of my targets, though. Why? Well, that’s part of why I’m writing this entry in the first place.

For those of you who don’t know what a picker is, we basically find the things that other people might not value as much, pay a fair price, and then turn around and sell it to collectors. It can be a pretty profitable business, but it takes a decent amount of knowledge, preparation, and luck. Luck, especially; it’s sheer luck that you sometimes stumble across something that’s been knocked down to $5 but sells for $200 online (as with a printer that I recently discovered). There can also be some risk, as if that printer hadn’t worked, I would have eaten the cost. I could write a whole entry on the process, and might do so if there’s some interest. For now, I’m interested in looking at the morality of what I do.

I admit that, for a long time, I felt some guilt over picking these things up at thrift stores. I’m in a financially fortunate position and thrift stores are, ostensibly, to help out people who are less fortunate by both offering these things at reduced prices and by passing the money on to the chosen charity. I struggled – was I taking these items from people who might have needed them? I’ve relaxed somewhat on that by realizing that I’m not buying clothes or any other essentials. There’s a calculus involved, as well. Say I’m purchasing a $1 PC game from 1994; does the portion of my purchase that goes to charity outweigh taking it away from someone less fortunate? I don’t know. For that reason, I’ve started contributing 10% of my net sales to charity, as I’ve mentioned before on this site.

I think the morality of the business that you do is important, whether you’re making widgets, starting your own business, painting, etc. As Google once believed, Don’t Be Evil. Pretty basic. For me, that means transcending blind capitalism. It’s quite possible to be a capitalist without being evil – America managed it for quite some time, after all. I try to re-use packaging materials and purchase recycled materials where I can. I give back, as I mentioned above. I donate lots of our own surplus stuff to the same stores.

It’s just…we live in a world where so much is disposable. Some of the things that I dig up are priceless and have just been cast aside; each has a story, and each has a value to someone out there. In that way, I’m something of a cultural recycler. You can watch the trends within society by what you see in a thrift store; for instance, I’ve started to see Glee items in the thrift stores in the last month, a sure sign that that trend has reached a dead-end. Those items are still on the high end of prices, however, and will take some time to diminish. America is moving on, as they moved on from the Playstation 2, VHS, and soon DVDs.

This is where I feel like pickers come on – we facilitate the return of those cultural artifacts to the hands of those who truly value them, and I think there’s something to be said for such a job. I know I enjoy it.

And I’m out of steam for today. Look for future entries on this. I have a whole lot more to say.

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  1. You are so much nicer than me – I never felt a moment of guilt!!

  2. “Cultural recycler.” I like that. But why would anyone want an out of date printer?

    (See, this is why I’m not a picker.)

    • Well, this printer, for instance, cost about $500 just three years ago, so $200 is getting it at quite a bargain, and it was a pretty good printer even for its time, so it’s not that far behind.

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