Fans of the popular History Channel show, “American Pickers,” which follows Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz from Iowa as they track down used “jewels” among piles of “junk” across the country, might just like stepping inside Lee Stewart’s store in Columbus.
That’s because the Alabama native, who opened The Rusty Nail thrift business at 5300 Veterans Parkway just over a year ago, also enjoys the thrill of the hunt when he goes out looking for a piece of furniture or an unusual sculpture that might be worth much more than first meets the eye.
Stewart, 47, also is a talented craftsman who loves to transform an old headboard or fireplace mantel into a useful piece of furniture or decorative item that someone wants to put in their home rather than toss in the trash. As the “Pickers” routinely point out, it’s called re-purposing a worn-out item without making it look too new. Tools of his trade include paint, welding equipment and a creative imagination.
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Of course, the bread and butter for the Columbus businessman who lives in Salem, Ala., is the 102-vendor retail operation set up in the old Hamilton Hardware store that operated on the property for years. It keeps Stewart busy, with it plenty successful enough that he just signed a three-year extension on his lease.
The Ledger-Enquirer visited with the personable and homespun Stewart recently to discuss his job, why it’s different than your average vocation, and what it takes to be a success. Did we mention that he has been singing since he was six months old and is a member of The Seekers Quartet, a gospel group that includes his father and travels around to churches and other events. This interview is edited a bit for length and clarity.
Q. Tell us about that the singing.
A. It’s called The Seekers Quartet. My daddy started the quartet when I was six months old. I’m fixing to be 48. He’s still living and sings with me still. I’ve been to 13 different states. We’re based out of Columbus and this is where we originated. It started out with my mother, my dad and two other gentleman. We leave out on Friday and come back late Sunday or early Monday morning. In the industry, they call us weekenders. It’s a calling for me. We don’t do it for the money. If we did it for the money, we would have quit six months into it. Churches just don’t pay like they used to do.
Q. How did you start crafting furniture?
A. I got into this business when painting furniture wasn’t cool, because people thought I was crazy. But we would sell it in Florida because of the beach houses. They liked that painted white stuff. But I collect just about anything. We take old walnut pieces of wood and plane ’em down and make coat hangers for the wall. Just anything you could ever imagine with wood or metal, we do here. Then we put them out here for sale. And I can’t tell you how many doors, thousands upon thousands, that people throw away when they replace them. We re-purpose those old doors. We make bars and islands out of them.
Q. Finding stuff for others to collect re-purpose is basically the American Pickers concept.
A. It’s like that. The thrill for me is the hunt for that stuff. That’s the exciting thing. But I can’t do much of that now because I’m a business owner.
Q. When did you get into this business?
A. It was about six years ago. I had never done it before. Then (he and his former wife) got a booth over at Front Porch of the South and it grew to a second booth and then a third booth. After the third booth, we realized that with the amount of rent we were paying for the booths, we could lease our own building. There’s times in this business that I wish I had stuck to just boothing, because you don’t have the overhead. This building is very expensive (in terms of lease payments, insurance and taxes).
Q. What sells the best for you personally?
A. Painted furniture is the hottest thing going right now. People still love that. I do a lot of custom paint work for people. If they come in and say, I want a bedroom suite painted, it was my mama’s, and it’s old wood and still stained, I’ll modern it up (with paint).
Q. You stay pretty busy?
A. I’m here seven days a week. The only time I’m not here is if I’m not singing. I haven’t had a day off in 365 days. They were cutting up with me today about that. (laughs)
Q. Why no time off?
A. It’s because I really enjoy it. This sounds crazy, but I don’t think the sales are as good if I’m not here. I’m a greeter. I’m a person who loves people. I’ve been doing this so long that most everybody around here knows who I am. I’m also over and beyond. My vendors will tell you that there’s not another store in this town that does what I do. We help them take stuff out of their trucks. We help them load up. We help them fix stuff in their booths. … I have enough staff here where we can help do that. Most places don’t have that.
Q. So it’s about customer service?
A. This is the way I look at it. My vendors are business partners. They truly are. Without them, I just don’t have a store. I just don’t. If they’re not loyal to me, then they’re going to jump around (to other thrift businesses).
Q. Which requires a certain commitment from them as well?
A. I explain to people before they come into the store: If you think you’re going to come in and lease a booth from me, and put something in once a month, then come back to pick a check up, and put some more stuff in it (occasionally), then don’t come into this business, because this is a job, you want to make money. I have vendors here who make $10,000 a month out of their booths. Good money. It’s amazing. I’ll write one of them $10,900 just this month alone.
Q. What’s the merchandise mix?
A. We sell everything from a dollar item to a baker (rack) book case I just sold that’s in the back for $4,800. I’ve got that piece right there (pointing to a sculpture) that’s $8,500. I bought it out of an estate sale. I just cleaned it up.
But getting back to the vendors, they are the lifeline of this store. It’s not about Lee Stewart, it’s about my vendors. There’s not any one vendor in here that makes this store. There ain’t four or five of them that makes this store. It’s everybody that makes this store. When you walk through here and look, there’s different things in every booth. Your personality is different than mine. Stuff that you’re going to like and put in your booth, I wouldn’t do in my booth.
Q. How much time do you spend on painting and custom work on items for folks versus dealing with the business and vendors?
A. Usually, I’m back and forth from the back. I have a resident painter that I hired here. She painted houses her whole life, but never painted furniture. … She was a little down on her luck, so I hired her full time and she came in here and started painting furniture with me. It takes a lot of the load off of me. And I have a gentleman that works for me and he’s a craftsman, too. He and I get back here and design things together. We’ve got things we do that are standard (produced items), like our bars. Our little islands are standards. I got a bar built just a few months back that’s made out of an old fireplace mantle. It’s got lights up in it and stuff. It’s a pretty neat thing. Everybody talks about Pinterest. Anything that you can see on Pinterest, I can build it. I can make it for you. I love it. My grandfather taught me how to use my hands. He was a loom fixer at Pepperell Mill. I never seen anything that he couldn’t fix.
Q. What’s the biggest challenge with your job?
A. The biggest challenge about this business … you and I have noses like everybody else in this world … most people have a nose, just like opinions ... I’m in business with 102 people. Can you imagine how much opinions that is? You know what I’m saying? (laughs) And it’s hard to get everybody on the same page. That’s the hardest thing.
The second thing would be getting them to work their booths. My daddy used to tell me, I can lead you to water, like an old horse, but I can’t make you drink. When he’d tell me how life would be, he’d tell me don’t do this, but I’d have to find out myself. Well, I tell people if you work your booth — you may not bring nothing new in — but if you’ll go in there and do what we call fluff it, move things around, it will work. The same type of people (customers) come in this store every week, and if they walk around and it looks the same as it did the past week when they came in, they won’t even stop by (to look at a booth). But if you move it around and something in their eye catches something different, they’ll look (and maybe make a purchase). … The front of my store, you can come in here tomorrow and it won’t look the same. We’ll move things around. It’s basically retail 101, but you can’t get people to understand that.
Q. Where do vendors get their merchandise?
A. Yard sales, estate sales. The big thing now is Facebook. It’s got a marketplace and people are going on there and buying things. How I have basically started getting my stuff is, I’ve been doing it so long, people drive up in my parking lot out here with stuff in the back of their cars and trucks and say, Lee, you want to come out here and look?
Q. The American Pickers guys are fairly selective.
A. I’ve had to get that way. When I walk through the back of my store, we buy so much stuff in volume that I can’t tell you what’s back there anymore. I’ve lost track of what’s back there, and it looks to the untrained eye that it’s junk. But junk sells. We take it and re-purpose it and make something out of it. A lady brought two old twin foot boards in here and I’ll show you what I made with them.
Q. Is there anything you find that you won’t part with?
A. Everybody will tell you, there’s not one thing I’ve got that’s not for sale. Not one thing. (laughs) I’ll give you an example. I had a mantle that we fixed and I put a ridiculous price on it because I didn’t want to sell it. Well, a woman made me an offer and I sold it. She asked me, what’s the ‘I don’t want to sell it price?’ I gave her a price and she gave me a price $100 less than I told her. I said no ma’am, so she raised it $50 and I took that, and I made $600 off of it. I didn’t pay but $150 for it. I just cleaned it up and distressed it. But that type of thing is fewer and far between. You don’t get much of that. I’ve also got a guy that’s a vendor of mine in here and he found an old Hot Wheels collection and one of the cars was worth about $1,100. He paid 20 bucks for the whole set. So the thrill of the hunt is what’s so fun.
Q. What do you enjoy most about your job?
A. I enjoy the people, the people first, and then making something out of a thing somebody was going to throw away, that somebody will buy and pay money for to put into their home. That’s what I like. And I love to see when I paint a piece of furniture for somebody — that’s their mother’s piece that they were going to do away with because it was ugly — and they bring it to me and I redo it, and the look on their face when I give it to ’em.
I did a piece for a lady. It was her grandmother’s and it was in really bad shape and it was in her grandfather’s barn, and the wood was rotted around the bottom of it. We cut all of that out and put old wood back in place. When I gave that back to her, she broke down and cried like a baby, because it was such a beautiful piece. (Before that) she was going to throw it away.
Hometown: Smiths Station, Ala.
Current residence: Salem, Ala.
Education: 1988 graduate of Smiths Station High School; has attended Auburn University
Previous jobs: Worked at the old Lewis Jones supermarket on Hamilton Road as a kid; had a job in a textile mill, which including cleaning cotton lint from the ceilings; and was a sales manager with an independent car dealer locally, with he and his father starting a dealership as well, which closed because of the Great Recession
Leisure time: Enjoys singing with his father in the nearly 50-year-old gospel group, The Seekers Quartet, which still travels and sings at churches and other events. He began singing when he was 6 months old