Written by Kelli Fuqua Hart, Ocala Magazine Executive Editor and Desiree Smith-Wilson
We have all heard the saying, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” Well, that’s exactly what the fascination with picking is all about. But what exactly is “picking?”
According to urbandictionary.com, a “picker” is “an early-bird who hunts swap meets, estate sales, thrift stores, etc and scoops up the good deals – often for resale in antique shops or on eBay.” Picking has become a phenomenon in cities across the globe, even serving as concepts for reality television. When the economy took a nose dive, the idea of buying second-hand and consigning goods for additional income became more of a necessity than a hobby. However, before the idea of digging for used gold swept the nation, one local woman was trailblazing the world of professional digging.
Jennifer Townsend is known for being Ocala’s picking pioneer. Before a multitude of thrift shops and consignment stores popped up county-wide, Townsend was already in the business of buying and selling some of the most unique and amazing used goods around. Her storefront, The White Elephant has become a household name, known for its wonky hours, eclectic inventory and show-stopping sidewalk displays.
The expression “white elephant” is a nineteenth century phrase attached to “white elephant swaps” and “white elephant sales.” According to wikipedia.org, “church bazaars held white elephant sales where donors could unload unwanted bric-a-brac, generating profit from the phenomenon that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” This concept holds strong today through estate sales, yard sales, online resale groups, thrift stores, etc.
For over ten years, Townsend has made a living collecting rarities from all over the place, both in and out of town. Some items she finds roadside. Some items she buys from auctions. Some pieces come from other thrift stores and estate sales. Anything that pops out at her, Townsend takes it! She has an eye for novelties – one-of-a-kind pieces that tell a story or are deserving of a new home where they will be cherished and loved. In Townsend’s display window, she has an old green door that a friend and local artist painted a white elephant on. It brings such a tasteful imaginary to the store – at least until it sells.
On a typical day, the first thing Townsend does is unload her truck at her downtown shop. Her morning routine looks something like this; she pulls up, unlocks her door and heads straight for the thermostat. Customers may have to weave through inventory in her tiny shop, but they are going to be comfortable doing so. Next, Townsend heads back outside to her truck, which is typically filled with old chairs, iron pieces, chippy frames and some of the most amazing lamps and fixtures you’ll ever see. At the time of our interview, her pickup had collected a few vintage items to include two side tables, two withered tree stands, two neat chairs, a wooden toddler chair and night stand and a little tricycle sitting in the forefront. With a now empty truck, Townsend can move along to the next day to day process.
It’s display time! Every night, at close, Townsend pulls everything she keeps on display outside back into her shop. There are times when she nearly traps herself in amongst a maze of strategically stacked chairs, antique windows and chandeliers. Each morning, the same items she stacked and puzzled together get pulled back out for another day of display. This laborious task is part of the day to day operations which is why moving items is so exciting. Not only does it put cash in Townsend’s register, it frees up the space necessary to add something new to the collection.
When buying used items or discovering a curbside gem, there comes the potential for a repair. From a piece of broken glass to a blown speaker, there are times Townsend has to employee the help of someone who can make an item good as near-new for resale. For example, in the midst of this interview, Townsend discovered a loose wire on one of her chandeliers that needed a quick repair. Being handy herself, Townsend went for the surgical tape and with a few quick wraps, viola! The chandelier was up and running and ready to find a new home.
Finding the perfect little spot for each item is another step in this picker’s day. With limited floor and wall space, Townsend has to consider every possibility, high and low. For example, where would she hang a medium sized heart-shaped mirror? There is always a place! Along the hallway wall, Townsend saw another smaller mirror that could use a neighbor. Perfect!
One thing Townsend doesn’t do is tamper with the looks of the items she collects. She likes for them to be as original as possible. I must say, her creativity is rather fascinating. She definitely knows how to work her space. It didn’t take me long to figure out the layout she prefers for her shop. Townsend doesn’t like putting high priced items with lower priced items because they compete.
When customers come into The White Elephant to shop, Townsend greets them and introduces herself. She likes to ask her customers what they are hunting for, if for anything in particular, so she can put her finger on it. In some cases, if she doesn’t have what a customer needs she can find it or direct them to another shop who does. And let’s say a customer pops in and falls in love with a cabinet too big to take home in a small car, Townsend will deliver!
Having been a business owner in Ocala for so long, Townsend knows the best places to shop or have lunch. Maybe a customer isn’t in the market for used goods, but rather hungry for a delicious burger. If food is what her customer wants, Townsend will point them in the right direction to some of her favorite downtown eateries.
Because she is closed on Monday, Tuesdays are one of Townsend’s busiest days of the week. Her phone constantly ringing from open until close. Customers will come in with anticipation of the newest finds Townsend has uncovered over the weekend. From nifty little tchotchkes to artifacts, art work, purses, and dressers; head boards; mirrors; and so much more. Because her inventory comes from all over, the finds are never the same.
People are always asking Jennifer what it is that she looks for. Her response is, “Something I have never seen before.” Some of her favorite items to find include crazy, funky lamps, designer pieces and, as she puts it, “just plain old unusual items.” Jennifer says, “The funkier, the better!” She also loves nostalgic pieces that not only take her back to her childhood, but pieces that take her customers back to theirs.
Jennifer’s picking locations are somewhat disclosed as she has hidden gems she dare not share. However, it is safe to say that her options are far and wide. To get the full picking experience, I hopped in to her big red pickup truck and we headed for Reddick. How could I turn that offer down? It was six o’clock, the sun was starting to make its way south and we were headed down some of the best scenery Marion County has to offer.
Jennifer begins to talk about how much she loves animals and that she has a dog named Bamboo – it’s a boy, a Dachshund breed. Originally, Jennifer wanted to be a veterinarian, but found other interests. She also loves cooking and eventually wants to own a café downtown and spread her business.
In her spare time, Jennifer likes to go to the beach and spend time with her friends and sometimes find junk on the side of the streets. No matter where Jennifer goes, she’s always “working.” Jennifer is always looking for estate and yard sales, thrift stores and roadside treasures.
Jennifer was inspired by her mother to owns a thrift/consignment shop. Growing up, Jennifer’s mother went to a lot of auctions and collected a lot of unique things. You can say Jen’s “knack” for collecting and picking comes quite naturally. Another thing she enjoys, whenever she is out picking or shopping for new inventory, is to always keeps an eye out for the people she knows as well.
Jennifer has many loyal customers of whom she has narrowed down their personal tastes. When Jennifer spies something she knows one of her regulars will adore, she makes a call and lets that person know what’s up for grabs. Nine times out of ten, it sells before ever hitting the store floor.
Back to picking.
It was now a little past 6pm and we were pulling into a woman by the name of Cynthia’s yard. It was a mobile home that looked a little boring from the outside, however inside the home, it was very similar to the store Townsend owns. The finds were plentiful, but it’s unrealistic for Jennifer to buy it all. She has to make a determination as to what has value and what will sell – fast! Based on years of experience, she knows what is coming home with her and what is best to leave behind.
After picking for about an hour, Jennifer bought a colorful stained glass ceiling lamp and then left a deposit on some goods she came back for. We gathered our belongings and hit the road. Still, Jennifer’s day is not near over. She will still sort her new goodies, unload them and plan for a phenomenal downtown display that will catch passerby’s attention.
At the close of each day, Jennifer does all of the opening steps, but in reverse. I helped her bring the things in from outside and arranged them. I turned off the lights while she turned off the AC. The day of this picker has finally ended and she heads home.
Wait! What’s that on the side of the road?…