You are here

Pittsburgh Pickers: One Man’s Trash is Another Man’s Treasure

By Katie Kelly

Jeff Gordon and Roger Levine found interest in collecting mid-century modern furniture like old bar stools and vintage luggage sets eventually going on to open a store.

After making a chalkboard out of an old picture frame for his girlfriend, Seth Hunter realized a deeper love for finding and selling unique pieces, opening a shop that included old gas station signs that are hung up all around and some bigger pieces like an old Coca-Cola machine that still works.

Baruch Hyman has been collecting antiques since he could walk and talk and now has a store that spans five floors. It’s filled with comic books like Captain America No. 1, newspapers like The Herald-Times and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and some interesting historical finds such as signed pictures from meetings with President Churchill.

Whether it be vintage décor, repurposed furniture or antiques, you’re sure to find just what you’re looking for. From sets of old pint glasses, to old lockers or antique typewriters, you can spend as little as $1 to as much as $1,000.

“It’s an exciting thing to find something that’s wonderful that someone else discarded…We’re keeping things out of landfills and  putting them into the hands of people that value them.” Gordon said of the business.

According to a study done by Asheford Institute of Antiques, the market for buying repurposed and antique items is an ever-changing thing. With the introduction of the show “Mad Men”, mid-century modern design shows no signs in slowing down. Pop-culture collectibles, signs and costume jewelry are all big sellers too.

The age range of people purchasing these items all vary, however it seems the older the item with some, the younger the buyer.

WHO KNEW?

Gordon and Levine in their store, Who New? Retro Mod Decor. Photo Courtesy of Who New? Retro Mod Decor’s Facebook.

Gordon and Levine’s store Who New? Retro Mod Décor is located on Butler Street. The storefront focuses on mid-century and vintage design with pieces priced from brightly-colored vintage dishes priced at $15 to a vintage red vinyl couch as priced at $1,500.

Who New? has been open for 16 years but all of the items in the store came from years of collecting as a hobby. Gordon and Levine originally started with just the items they liked: some chairs from the 50s and a few paintings here and there, some knick-knacks they had found online that were a little older than most, and a few globes. The two soon found that they had a knack for collecting unique pieces.

“We were just collectors and then we couldn’t park in the garage,” Gordon explained. “We were going to rent a storage unit and then we found a dilapidated store front.”

With a vision in mind, they set their items up in the store located at 5156 Butler Street and opened.

A lot of the items featured in the store come from the 50s, 60s and 70s, in which Gordon explained as positive and modern design ideas from Europe. Those ideas featured a Golden Gate Bridge sculpture– signed and dated 1972 for $900, an array of Campbell’s Soup mugs– four for $32, and some original collectible board games including HI-HO Cherry-O for $20.

The small collectible game section in the store. Photo by: Katie Kelly

The storefront is filled with colorful vintage glassware from teapots to pots and pans, to a corner with collectable toys like Twister and masks including the Hulk.

Gordon and Levine find most of their items online. Gordon explained that when they see a piece, they’ll research it, find out the background and what it’s worth and purchase it for Who New? They’re especially drawn to the older vintage and unique pieces, like some of the various clothing items, one including a set of vintage 60s ‘girlwatchers’ sunglasses by Sea and Ski featured on their Instagram.

Some vintage hats such as fedoras and cowboy hats that are featured in the store are priced at $45-$50, while other items including a white vintage bar or a dresser from the early 1950s can be priced at $100 and up.

“We always work with people when it comes to prices. We do believe things should be sold at a certain price but we do negotiate.” Gordon said.

Being in the business for years, the store has worked with different films that have come through town, selling different pieces to be used on sets. They also work with photographers and theaters.

The Netflix Series “Mindhunter,” which was shot in McKeesport, picked up some props to use for the show. The Bircolage Theater is a returning customer that rents different pieces from the shop when needed for plays.

Colorful items are stacked on colorful shelves in this corner of the store.  Photo by Katie Kelly

Some movies that Gordon has sold and/or rented pieces to include “Pickled,” “The Fault in Our Stars,”  “Me Earl and the Dying Girl,” “Batman,” “The Dark Knight” and “My Bloody Valentine in 3D.” All to which they sold or rented bigger pieces of furniture to like chairs, couches and desks.

“We pride ourselves in having the cheesiest stuff, so bad that it’s good,”he said

JUNK TRANSFORMED INTO FURNITURE

If you’re looking for an industrial old sign, a vintage set of old school lockers or rustic wooden crates from all over the country, Toll Gate Revival is the place to stop in and look around.

Hunter first realized he had a knack for re-creating things with furniture when he was making his girlfriend a gift from a Pinterest post. He had stumbled upon a post where someone made a chalkboard out of an old window and used it around the house. So, he decided to make one for his girlfriend to use for her office, which she loved.

He made a few more chalkboards and sold them at $20-$25 at shows and flea markets. After a few successful shows, he started to collect some dressers and a few old farm signs.

That was the beginning of his new inventory.

“I noticed I picked more industrial pieces than what I was making from the Pinterest posts. That’s my taste.” Hunter explained.

Pieces that included old store signs such as one from General Tires, a Fort Pitt Machine Co. sign and gas station signs and Chesterfield sofas, which is an older leather sofa usually made in England are what would become Toll Gate Revival’s main hauls.

He found that picking up pieces from people willing to sell and finding some pieces on his own when searching some of his friends and family’s places (i.e. the family farm that gave the store the name it carries now) was better than searching for things online. Normally people reach out and ask him to come and look at certain pieces to price. This happened the day of the interview, he had to postpone it to pick up three taxidermy rams, something he said he knew he could sell.

One of three of the taxidermy rams Hunter purchased. Photo by Katie Kelly.

The first few pieces, such as some of the barrels and dressers, he found in the family barn, and refurbish them back to their former glory. The price of these could range in the lower hundreds, depending on how much work was put into it.

He likes to take the bare minimum approach: if it needs any major work, he’ll do it, but now he’s much more interested in just curating. He has an old cigarette machine in his shop that just needed picked up and cleaned a little bit. The same thing goes for the Coca-Cola machine. He’d rather the pieces speak for themselves in their original form than try and change them.

“I’d rather let the pieces live, if they do need some help I’ll give them a good clean here and there, but I try not to refurbish them too much anymore.” Hunter explained.

There are some pieces that do need a little help, he said, like a set of vintage courthouse filing cabinets and a bunch of wooden crates.

Located in Lawrenceville, the open space showcases the pieces in a way that compliments their style.

Hunter sells everything from old cigarette machines sold at $225, workbenches, and library cabinets to original Iron City Beer coasters for $1 to Chesterfield sofas for over $1,000.

One sofa, a deep-colored, leather one that he had become attached to was gifted a very high price tag to try and deter people from buying it. And it worked for 3 years, becoming the token set up for the shop surrounded by an old Mobilgas sign and coffee table. But someone came in one day, and offered Hunter a price he couldn’t say no to.

The sofa in question, posted on the Toll Gate Revival Instagram @tollgaterevial. Photo by @adammilliron

“That sofa made its rounds on the internet. It was everywhere.”  Hunter explained.

With plans to move after the holidays to a bigger space in Braddock, Hunter explained that social media is a driving force in his business. “I do a lot of business online. I post a picture with a little bit about the piece and that’s how most of my items get sold. I don’t really rely on foot traffic.” Hunter explained.

Anyone and everyone can message him for details about the pieces and exchange prices through messages or phone calls. He said about eighty percent of his business is online.

“It’s not like your grandmother’s traditional antique store.” Hunter said.

FIVE FLOORS OF STUFF

Crown’s Antiques and Collectibles located on Fifth Avenue has over 4 million pieces and stands at five floors. Each floor holds shelves stacked high and filled with items like matchbox cars, board games, records, books and even newspapers.

One floor holds things from acoustic guitars to electric and automatic typewriters and Nikon film and old flash cameras. Comic books on the same floor are valued from $1 to $306 and old 25 cent candy machines, brightly-colored yellow and red waiting for a candy to be placed in them.

The 25 cent candy machines, still attached to each other. Photo by Katie Kelly.

Another floor holds books, magazines and records. Any record you can think of, Crown Antiques has it. The magazines are dated back to some of the first issues of publications like “Man’s Illustrated,” and the books are piled high with every section Barnes and Noble wouldn’t even think to have.

All equally as filled and interesting as the next, it would take days to go through each floor individually. The shelves and aisles would lead you to getting stuck searching through a box of records or laminated newspapers.

Hyman has been collecting things for as long as he could remember. It started when his father collected coins and he started to collect stamps. Soon, they were collecting political buttons.

Soon, he and his father had collected so many items together that they started to set up at antique shows. Laying out their coins, buttons and stamps for people to admire before he was even a teenager, he never thought it would go any further.

One of his first memories was of the antique shows at which he and his father would set up their coins and stamps. He would walk around and look at the different booths and items each vendor had. He remembers being caught up on the comic books and some of the different sports memorabilia, which led to his next big collection.

Hyman’s impressive comic book collection, alphabetized in boxes. Photo by Katie Kelly.

Collecting was just a hobby at that point in his life, but as he got older, he began collecting more and more: a Marvel or DC comic book here and another matchbox car there. Soon he was renting out a storefront to display his collections in. After a few years, it expanded to the five floors.

The five floors of which are piled high, each with varying themes of antiques located on them.

There are at least two dozen boxes of comic books, from Marvel to DC alphabetized and ranging in prices from $1 and up.

Matchbox cars lay in a box next to a R2-D2 cooler. There’s a rack of clothing on the top floor, with a Green Tree Police jacket and a Pittsburgh PA, Syria Legion jacket sitting next to each other.

The prices for these items? You have to talk to Hyman and let him give you the history of the piece and the price that comes with it. Normally the prices are labeled on everything in the store, Hyman runs his differently, liking that people are interested enough to ask specifically for one piece.

“There’s no prices on things. We don’t do that here. It’s more of a ask and tell type of deal. Sometimes you get a story, sometimes you don’t.” Hyman said.

Just one part of the shelf that cameras lay one in Hyman’s store. Photo by Katie Kelly.

The way Hyman picks the pieces to add to his ever-growing store is easy. He gives appraisals to customers as they come and go and collects the items they no longer want. His favorites are historical finds and pieces he doesn’t come by often.

A woman and her husband were in the shop with her grandfather’s jewelry box, something that wasn’t uncommon to Hyman. As he gave them a low ball price of $600, he explained that he would have to get it fixed and then it would worth maybe $1,500. But he would have to get it fixed himself, and though it was old, he’d seen and even had a few in his shop.

“If I haven’t had one, it’s probably something that I want.” Hyman said.

Among the floors of the store, the old 25 cent candy machines and matchbox cars seem to be outnumbered by the thousands of records stacked high on the shelves and the piles of newspapers and magazines.

Old board games and cameras also line some shelves, all available to be handled, but if you break it, you buy it.

The Imperial Guard of the Czar’s helmet, sitting atop some spoons. Photo by Katie Kelly.

“Everyone is welcome to come in and look, they can touch as long as they don’t break something.” Hyman explained.

Some of Hyman’s favorites are kept in a safe on the first floor. They include the guest book to General Patton’s Funeral and a recent purchase of a helmet from the Imperial Guard of the Czar.

Hyman’s prices for every item are all different, he could tell you $1 or $1,000 depending on what it was.

The five floors hold hidden treasures in every aisle and on every shelf, piled with memories and antiques waiting to be found.

This story was originally published on Offbeat ‘Burgh, a magazine product of Point Park University’s School of Communication.

Related posts

Leave a Comment