LookIn: Death of a Salesman
Come "look in" at what happens before the curtain goes up. Walk into the private world of rehearsal and learn about the creative process of the director, set designer,
When Mike Wolfe bought his house in Leiper’s Fork, it might have been the first time in his long career as a “picker” that he didn’t try to negotiate the price. Unlike most of the “rusty gold” he seeks out on his History Channel show, American Pickers, the 5,100-square-foot gem, which sits on 32 acres of woodlands, was priced just right.
That’s not to say that the house was in perfect shape. “Every inch of it needed paint, a lot of it needed flooring,” he says, but structurally, he saw the beauty in the details. “When I looked at this house, within like five minutes I go, did Bill Powell build this house?” he says, referring to William Powell who owns an eponymous home and garden store in Franklin. “He’s been dealing in antiques since the 70s and started buying property. Now he’s one of the area’s most prominent builders,” Wolfe explains. The two have been friends for years, buying and selling antiques together—the fact that Powell built the house sealed the deal.
Wolfe is an intense talker, quick to tell a story, just as he does on his show, jumping from a recording session he was recently thrown into with Emmylou Harris and Ricky Skaggs, to the custom-made screen doors he’s installed throughout the house. Careful to self promote in all the right places, he’s also the kind of guy you want to sit and have a few beers with just to hear more. “I always wanted to tell stories and give items a voice. That’s why I started the project,” he says about his show. “I was so entrenched in my idea and my passion that I never thought it would be the success that it is.”
But success is what he got. The show fetches more than four million viewers a week and syndication has made it the number one show in Asia and given them a huge following in Europe; the History Channel also recently launched the franchise Australian Pickers. At the Nashville outpost of his store, Antique Archaeology (the original is in Wolfe’s hometown, LeClaire, Iowa), about 200,000 fans walk through every week. And some of them, the true super-fans, make a point to hit Leiper’s Fork for a glance of the expert himself—even going so far as to knock on his door, which is one of the reasons why Wolfe went searching for this new house a year ago. (He and his wife, Jodi, had been living in a cottage in downtown Leiper’s Fork.)
Set a quarter mile from the road, the 12-year-old house ensures complete and total privacy. “Did you notice? No window treatments. What would you hide from out here?” Wolfe points out during a walk through. Every window has thick, detailed trim, from the standard-sized rectangles in the kitchen to the oval-shaped view near the front door. But there were plenty of other architectural nuances, Wolfe points out. Bookcases hide a tiny office off the library; wide staircases open up the center of the house; and four porches, trimmed with branch-like railings, rim the outside. Nearby sits an arbor that blooms with wisteria throughout the spring (the couple were married under it in September).
Inside, builder Powell incorporated a few of his own antique finds into the structure. The front doors, originally from a house in Connecticut, are 150-years-old. And in the living room, a large Gothic built-in covers one wall and includes small iron gate accents—the gates are from the 1860s, says Wolfe. “I’m saying, this house was built for us,” he stresses.
Part of the allure was the second-floor layout, which Wolfe fondly refers to as “Charlie’s Suite” since it seems to have been made for his one-year-old daughter, Charlie. It includes a built-in bed and a playroom-sized closet. A common area just outside hides a built-in telephone booth, and across the way, there’s a bedroom with a tiny alcove that leads up to a windowed turret. (From the outside, the shingled turret gives the house a Hansel and Gretel feel.) All nooks that will eventually supply hours of playtime for the wide-eyed brunette who was born with a cleft lip and palate. (She had surgery to repair both at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital in early December and Wolfe and Jodi are eager to get involved in Operation Smile as a way to say thanks).
Just as the second floor was made for Charlie, the basement was built for Wolfe. “When I looked at the property, I’m like, a totally finished basement? And here’s a garage door here?” he recalls, lighting up. The original owner was a motorcycle junkie—Wolfe has a collection of 40. “I go, oh my God, I’m taking this house!” he says, chuckling as he points to the barn door that he can open to drive his bikes inside. And just next to that sits a small, fenced-in dog run, complete with the outline of a bone on the door. Wolfe is passionate about his two dogs, a border collie and an Australian cattle dog, and recently filmed a PSA to bring positive awareness to the American pit bull.
Despite all of the home’s personalized touches, the couple says there’s still work to be done. The kitchen, which was Jodi’s passion project, has been updated with marble countertops, a basin sink, and lighting fixtures from Wolfe’s new lighting business, Rustorations (he works with local designer Dave Phillips to outfit found objects into light fixtures). But they still need to paint a few rooms, renovate a few bathrooms, and update their guest cottage, which sits overtop the stand-alone garage.
As they take their time settling in, Wolfe is keeping busy with his many roles: new dad, television guy, and now, author. This spring, he’s promoting the release of an educational book series called Kid Pickers (released in April). “This book teaches them that when they find something, they need to connect it to their local history, to their family history,” he explains. “When you find something, research it. Think about what kind of bicycle is in that photo, who that gentleman was, think about the time period. It will help them dissect things so they can learn,” he adds.
He’s also working with the History Channel to develop an educational curriculum based on the series. A website, Kidpickers.com, is already up and running, offering a social media platform and later this fall, Wolfe hopes to pull together the first local kids’ flea market. “All the vendors will be kids, all the food vendors will be kids. Either they sell stuff that they find or they sell stuff that they find that they make things out of,” he adds. As for the venue, he’s chosen Leiper’s Fork, naturally. No longer a two-city family, the Wolfes feel like they’ve officially found their home in Tennessee.
“I love it,” he says. “When they take me out of Tennessee it’s going to be in a casket,” he cracks with a smile.
William Powell: builder, flooring; powellhomestn.com
Rustorations: kitchen lamp; antiquearchaeology.com
Restoration Hardware: paints (colors include graphite, ash, slate and atmosphere blue); restorationhardware.com
A-1 Home Appliances: kitchen appliances; a1appliance.com
Alexandra Cirimelli, Serenite Maison: kitchen design; serenitemaison.com
Shane Thompson, Thompson Custom Woodworks: kitchen cabinetry; custom-made baby gates: (225) 747-0168
Pat Harris, Harris Door & Drawer (Buford, Georgia): custom-made screen doors; harrisdoor.com
Randy Piper: plumbing; (615) 851-2294