Meet The Kensington Pickers, Matt Melnick and Robert “Buddy” Stewart, who scour the region for the weirdest antiques they can find.
• Picking partnership: “We first met at a flea market at the Piazza at Schmidts,” Stewart said. “I kind of remember it, but they were giving out whiskey that day.”
• Dirty work: “We do run across rats and raccoons while picking,” Melnick said. “You’ve got to get dirty, because that’s where the good stuff is.”
As Matt Melnick and Robert “Buddy” Stewart began driving together around Philly last year, stopping into any garage, junkyard, video store, porn shop, bicycle store, or pawn shop they could find, asking strangers if they could root around their stuff, the owners had one question.
“People would ask us if we’re the American Pickers,” Stewart said. “We’d say ‘No, we’re The Kensington Pickers.’”
In some ways, Melnick, 48, and Stewart, 32, are like the antique hunters on the History Channel’s American Pickers, who scour for hidden gems.
But in other ways, they are decidedly not. The Kensington Pickers are covered in tattoos (so many they’ve lost count); they work at Thunderbird Salvage in Kensington, where they love to razz each other and the regulars; and they’ve got a knack for finding really weird and really Philly stuff, from a 12-foot fiberglass replica of the William Penn statue atop City Hall to classic Wawa store signs.
“If I think it’s cool and he thinks it’s cool, chances are there’s someone else who will think it’s cool,” Melnick said.
Both men grew up picking with their fathers — Melnick with his dad in Roxborough, who raised a family of nine kids as an antiques dealer, and Stewart with his dad in Kensington, who picked on the weekends and sold his finds at the Quaker City Flea Market.
They continued those traditions as adults and often ran into each other at area flea markets. Then, three years ago, with the encouragement of his wife, Glenda, Melnick left his job as an EMT at Jefferson University Hospital after 25 years to pursue picking full-time.
He traded in his beloved 2013 Dodge Charger for a “big, old van” and got a job at Thunderbird Salvage, where he’s a manager.
“It’s been the best decision of my life,” Melnick said. “It’s the most fun I’ve ever had.”
Stewart, a married father of seven, was working at a chemical factory making cleaning supplies when he started regularly dropping into Thunderbird early last year.
Melnick and Stewart hit it off and one day, instead of going to the factory, Stewart went out picking with Melnick instead.
“We’d go by garages and see if people were working in there,” Melnick said. “We’d go up and introduce ourselves and say ‘We’re just looking for old stuff you may have laying around.’”
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When Thunderbird closed amid quarantine restrictions in March, the men picked together every day. And when the shop reopened in early summer, Stewart was hired as a salesman.
“I kind of blended in at Thunderbird and one day I just started getting paychecks,” he said.
Everything the men pick goes on their Instagram page — @thekensingtonpickers — and is put up for sale at Thunderbird Salvage, where they remit a portion of their proceeds to the owner.
The Kensington Pickers won’t name their best picking spots, but they do attend a lot of auctions and flea markets. They also get tips on houses that are about to be cleaned out before heading to market.
But their favorite picks are organic, like when they went to get tattoos at Philly Ink in Kensington and popped into a nearby pawn shop and discovered a Coney Island ticket booth door, which they sold to a woman in the Poconos.
Sometimes, they’ll take back roads to the Jersey Shore and discover old roadside attractions along the way, like an 8-foot wooden Frankenstein. They even went into an abandoned roadside zoo once.
“We didn’t get anything, but we did get 2,000 ticks on us,” Stewart said.
At an old video store in Frankford, the men were directed by the owner to a ladder that led to a hole in the ceiling, where they discovered a fiberglass clown head, which they sold to the owner of Kung Fu Necktie, where it’s now displayed at the bar.
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And when the men went picking at a pornography shop in Kensington, they came away with an unexpected find — a case of small carnival prize mirrors featuring bands like Led Zeppelin and characters like Snoopy, which sell for upward of $45 a piece today.
Turns out, the porn store owner also ran a carnival.
The pickers scored the 12-foot William Penn statue at a movie prop company auction and the two classic Wawa store signs at an old sign shop lot guarded by “the meanest dog in the world.”
“They got a picture of their dog and put it on their no trespassing sign, that’s how mean that dog was,” Stewart said.
The men love ribbing each other about who’s more Philly (”Matt’s got suburban tattoos, I’ve got ones from Kensington”) and just ribbing each other in general. When they find a doll that bears any resemblance to Stewart, Melnick will draw tattoos on it to make it look like his friend (who has his daughter’s name tattooed above his eyebrow, his wife’s name tattooed on his jaw, and an American eagle tattooed on his neck, which covers up a tattoo of his ex-wife’s initials).
It was a joke at first, until a customer started buying the dolls.
“And now he has a whole shrine to Buddy,” Melnick said.
There are some items the pickers keep just for themselves — anything to do with Godzilla or KISS goes to Stewart and anything to do with King Kong or Halloween goes to Melnick.
But for both, the best part of picking is when their items find the perfect home.
“Knowing your customer is getting something cool they love, that’s what it’s all about,” Melnick said.
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