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The original 'American Picker'

By Jay Jones, Special to Tribune Newspapers

4:03 PM EST, February 27, 2014

LECLAIRE, Iowa

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Though some people think of pickers as mere dumpster divers, Mike Wolfe doesn't mind. His childhood hobby spawned an adult obsession, one that he has parlayed into a popular antiques business and an even more popular TV show.

Millions of viewers tune in each week to watch Wolfe scour backyards and barns for "American Pickers," a series he created in 2010. The show often returns to Wolfe's roots in LeClaire, where his passion first turned profitable with the opening of Antique Archaeology. Located just off the main drag, the shop has driven the renaissance of this Mississippi River town 161 miles west of Chicago and just north of the Quad Cities.

Wolfe began picking as a kindergartner in Joliet, but his fixation with others' junk flourished after his family's move to Bettendorf, Iowa, when he was in the fourth grade.

"There was a junkyard down by the river in Bettendorf," he recalled. "It was kind of a coming-of-age story like 'Stand By Me.' We would walk the railroad tracks all day, hang around in the junkyard, break windows in the cars and dig around in the glove boxes to find things."

During his formative years in the 1970s, Wolfe said, "picker" was a derogatory term for "somebody who went through alleys digging through garbage and every once in a while came up with a gem." Eventually, he discovered that people were willing to fork over money for his gems. The business was born.

Antique Archaeology began in a former machine shop that's familiar to fans of The History Channel series. Items Wolfe buys in his cross-country travels for TV are sold either in the original shop or his second location in Nashville, Tenn., where he now lives.

Nothing gets restored, or even cleaned up, prior to sale.

"We don't touch anything," said Emily Soenksen, who manages the LeClaire store. "You're lucky if we get the bird poop off it."

Soenksen added that she is regularly asked, "Are pictures OK?" (They are.) The answer is sometimes harder when a would-be customer wonders aloud, "What is this?"

It's sometimes hard to determine precisely what Wolfe has purchased. Soenksen had to think for a moment before telling a would-be customer that what she was holding was the sconce from an oil lamp, minus the lamp.

Much of the merchandise reflects Wolfe's passion for road-related relics.

"The brunt of my business even prior to the show was transportation-related, and I think that's reflected in the show itself," he explained. "We buy a lot of advertising, a lot of motorcycle parts, car parts and sometimes (whole) cars."

Prices in the shop vary wildly.

"We've got stuff that's in there for 20 bucks and stuff that's in there for 20 grand," Wolfe pointed out. "We try to have something for everybody."

That said, Wolfe stated that the vast majority of visitors aren't even considering the purchase of one of his picks.

"Ninety percent of the people who come to my store, they don't collect anything. They don't want any antiques," he said. "They just want to come because it's their favorite show. They want to buy some merchandise, whether it be a hat, a coffee mug or a T-shirt."

With as many as 1,000 visitors a day during warmer months, Antique Archaeology's original shop became too small to handle the crowds. In early January, Wolfe opened a second shop next door.

"I built a building that looks like a 1930s service station," he said. "The brick is handmade in Illinois. Each brick is different and looks very old. It has warehouse-style windows and very high ceilings with exposed iron beams."

"We can't just be a little antique shop anymore," he added.

Before the Internet, LeClaire was known as an antique hunter's paradise. But Wolfe said eBay and other such online businesses forced many of the town's antique shops to close. The boom in tourism fueled by "American Pickers," however, has meant a resurgence of merchants.

What's old is new again. Just like a good antique.

ctc-travel@tribune.com

If you go

The store: Antique Archaeology (115½ Davenport St., LeClaire; 563-265-3939563-265-3939; tinyurl.com/leclairepicker) is open daily year-round, except when "American Pickers" is being filmed. As the website points out, "Lookie-loos are always welcome."

Where to eat: For delicious meals at moderate prices, check out The Crane & Pelican restaurant (127 S. Second St., LeClaire; 563-289-8774563-289-8774; craneandpelican.com) inside an 1859 brick building that once was home to a riverboat captain. Winter hours are 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday.

Where to stay: For an overnight stay in spacious surroundings, consider the Sweet Dreams Guest House (200 Jones St., LeClaire; 563-289-1339563-289-1339; sweetdreamsleclaire.com). The unit takes up the entire second floor of an old house, right above a gourmet chocolate shop. The winter rate of $79 includes fruit and muffins for breakfast.

Info: A listing of the various activities awaiting visitors to LeClaire can be found online at visitleclaire.com.