LEBANON - Cracker Barrel's Décor Warehouse is a picker's dream.
Created by the folksy restaurant-country store chain to provide the antiques, curios and memorabilia that decorate its 624 locations across the country, the warehouse is a treasure trove of pure Americana.
"We used to go out looking for this stuff, but now it mostly just comes to us," said Joe Stewart, Cracker Barrel's supervisor of inventory control and restoration and manager of the warehouse, part of the company's 90-acre headquarters compound in Lebanon. "People know what we like, and we really don't have to search for it anymore."
At the warehouse, a handful of workers classifies, cleans, restores and prepares the décor items for shipment to Cracker Barrel stores, where the pieces adorn the walls and hang from the ceiling.
The items include a wide variety of products, many of them long obsolete, such as butter churns, farm implements, wood cookstoves, tobacco and home-remedy cans, washtubs and ringer washing machines, nickel soft-drink machines and mechanics' tools. Old black-and-white portraits are a mainstay, as well.
Some of the décor items are so obscure that many people have no idea what they are, Stewart said. Sometimes the curious call Cracker Barrel to ask about a particular piece, such as a recent inquiry about a cream separator.
Decorating restaurants, businesses and even homes with artifacts from the past has become a big business, driven in part by the nostalgia of aging baby boomers, but also by a keen interest in things of the past by young people, said Randy Smotherman, a veteran Murfreesboro antiques dealer.
Smotherman and his wife, Belinda, have been scouring America for 34 years looking for "picks" they could sell to other dealers in the Nashville area or display at their store on the square in downtown Murfreesboro.
"We've been at this a lot longer than most people," and well before 'picking' was popularized by the 'American Pickers' TV show," Smotherman said. "I guess you could say we're the original 'Nashville pickers.' "
TV show fuels sales
The popularity of the TV show, which debuted in early 2010 on the History Channel, has fueled a huge increase in antiques sales and a corresponding interest in hunting for these relics in barns, attics and basements, he said.
"It's such a phenomenon now that things we considered junk just a few years ago are now selling like crazy," Smotherman said. "Besides the store, we have three warehouses full of merchandise, and we're now selling stuff that had just sat in those warehouses collecting dust for years."
"American Pickers" star Mike Wolfe - who has a home in Leiper's Fork - has even opened his own antiques and memorabilia store in Nashville to help capitalize on the craze. In the old Marathon automobile factory near downtown, the store, Antique Archaeology, features a variety of items, ranging from old motorcycles to brand-new T-shirts and other merchandise promoting the show.
On his website, www.antiquearchaeology.com, Wolfe says, "I've been looking for treasures in the trash forever. When I was 5, I had my first big score when I found a pile of old bicycles in my neighborhood on trash day. And I was always bringing home old bottles and other random stuff. I never thought of it as junk; to me, it was beautiful."
Smotherman and Cracker Barrel's Stewart say the popularity of "American Pickers" is making it harder to find some of the old stuff that people and businesses want - and it's also raising the prices.
But there's still no shortage of "picks" to fill the antiques stores and Cracker Barrel's warehouse and retail locations, Smotherman and Stewart said.
On one recent day, Smotherman said, "We had 10 people come by with trucks full of stuff they were wanting to sell us."
Last week at the Cracker Barrel warehouse, one long aisle in the middle of the building was filled with boxes stacked on pallets, waiting to be opened, sorted and inventoried.
"This stuff just came in, and we know what's in the boxes, but we haven't had the time to get to them yet," Stewart said.
Once the boxes are opened, the staff will clean each piece, and some will have to undergo at least some measure of restoration. There's a whole room dedicated to that, where the crew uses shop tools, machines and a sand blaster to clean and repair the items. When that's done, most pieces get sprayed with a protective coating to prevent rust or decay, Stewart said.
When Cracker Barrel gets ready to open a new store, the décor items intended for that store are put on pallets and banded together to ship to the location.
"There are five items that we put in every store," Stewart said. "Those are a shotgun, a cookstove, a deer head, a telephone and a traffic light. The rest of the décor items will vary from store to store, depending on the location. For instance, in a coastal area, the store might have a lot of fishing-related gear."
The deer heads and shotgun go over the stone fireplace that's in every Cracker Barrel. The traffic signal goes over the restrooms' entrance.
"Some items are getting hard to find, but old farm implements are still plentiful," Stewart said.
Old signs are a mainstay, and those are among the items that are becoming hard to find, he said. They advertise defunct companies and discontinued products, such as the Clabber Girl baking powder sign hanging in the Murfreesboro Cracker Barrel. Some are vintage signs for still-popular products, such as Coca-Cola and Popsicle.
At Smotherman's Antiques, many of the clients are restaurants getting ready to open, looking for décor items to go with their theme, such as fishing gear and ships' wheels for seafood restaurants, and sports memorabilia for sports bars, Smotherman said.
"It's not limited to restaurants," he said. "There are a lot of different businesses and even professional offices that want antiques to decorate with. Old bicycles are popular, and old checkerboards, musical instruments and all kinds of signs. Deer heads are very popular. Businesses want anything real old and different, preferably with color."
Magazines such as Flea Market Style have been popping up recently, leading a new revolution in home décor, Smotherman said. Those, along with social media websites, are giving people ideas about how to use old stuff to decorate their houses.
"There's a new age of decorators who have turned the market upside down, and it's really kind of fun," he said. "They're decorating with stuff that we used to call junk. And it's not just older people. We sell a tremendous amount of merchandise to college students."
As for Cracker Barrel's collection, Smotherman said, he'd like to have a crack at some of those antiques if the chain ever decides to get rid of them.
"If they ever shut down, they could have one huge auction," he said.