Gone Pickin’

A how-to for finding unique home décor  

You’ve seen them on TV, and read about them in DIY magazines: Pickers — on the hunt for treasures that are full of character and come complete with a story.

These unique finds add personality to everyday surroundings and help make your house a home.

More than just a fad, pickin’ is happening in Western Wake, too. Here’s what we learned when we got in on the action by tagging along with local pickers to score their tips on chasing down the good stuff.

Pam and Mack “MackDaddy” Thorpe, owners of The Rusty Bucket in Apex, routinely brave spiders, snakes and decades-old dirt in pursuit of timeworn “picks.”

“Our family thinks we’re nuts because we won’t stop rummaging through old barns,” joked Mack, who hails from a clan of woodworkers and holds a master’s degree in industrial arts.

An antique cabinet, filled with antique quilts, greets visitors to Twin Gables, the Thorpes’ 94-year-old home.

The Thorpes opened their shop 10 years ago, chasing a pickin’ and retail dream following layoffs from their longtime corporate work.

For Pam, the award-winning shop is an extension of her own decorating style, inspired by her mom and her “Grandma Early,” who repurposed out of necessity before it became stylish.

From the Hoosier cabinets eagerly snatched up by customers at the shop to the 200-year-old farm table inside their 94-year-old home, dubbed Twin Gables, the Thorpes still love pickin’.

Walter Santilli and Nikki Sweet load a dresser into the Cinderwalls van.

“It’s really true that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” Pam said. “We’re always thinking outside the box. We look past the rust and dirt and think, ‘How could I use this?’

“Don’t be intimidated; a can of paint can do wonders,” she added. “And if you see something that’s not mass-produced, grab it!”

The couple uses a restored 1930 Model A truck in their marketing of The Rusty Bucket, and they’ve even entertained accidental shoppers at home, enticed by the literal rusty bucket collection on the front porch of their country home.

The Rusty Bucket’s customers refer to themselves as “Bucketheads,” and the shop is the filming site for History’s Heroes: The Rusty Bucket Kids television show.

The license plate on the Thorpes’ trailer reads “PIC-ERS,” and they’ve developed a “cold call” shopping list just like the stars of the History Channel’s American Pickers.

Left: Cindy Santilli of Cinderwalls grabs a couple of picture frames at one stop.

Right: When cruising garage and estate sales, cash in small bills is a requirement.

“Antiques are more than 50 years old; vintage is 50 years or less,” Mack cited from his ongoing research. “Retro means items from the late 1940s to ’60s, with bright colors and curves. Wide, thick boards spell old. And Phillips-head screws weren’t used till the late ’30s, so that helps you tell the age of a piece.”    

“But if you like it, none of that matters,” added Pam. “Most pickers aren’t purists; they’re usually down-to-earth people who just have a passion for it.”

An object’s true value, she says, is in the answer to these two questions: Do you love it? Can you give it new life?  

“We love something with a story,” Mack said. “I look at a piece and wonder, and it makes me smile.” 

For the next part of our tale, understand this: To go pickin’ with Walter and Cindy Santilli, owners of Cinderwalls in Morrisville, you’ve got to get up reeeally early.

With clusters of local sales already mapped out on a tablet computer, the Santillis usually hit the ground running on Saturdays by 6:30 a.m. 

Walter, a retired light equipment operator, drives while keeping his “eagle eye” out for handmade signs pointing to unadvertised sales. Cindy navigates to those she’s found on Craigslist and other sites.

Cindy Santilli, daughter Nikki Sweet, and Walter Santilli carry finds during an early morning “pick.”

They’ll pick till noon, when it’s time to open the doors to the Morrisville store from which they’ve been sharing picks with customers since 2013. The shop is a family endeavor for these former Rhode Islanders, who moved to North Carolina in 2009.

“This is our fun,” Cindy said during a quick stop for coffee. “It’s the thrill of the hunt.”
Pulling up to an estate sale, the Santillis jump from their cargo van and head decisively toward potential gems.

“One of us goes high, one looks low and under tables,” Walter said. “We’ve got to make decisions quickly, load up and move on, because the next sale might be ‘the good one.’”

Among this day’s finds are a rug, suitcase, plant stand, chest and bullet-shaped lamp.

“What do you know about this box?” Walter asked the seller of a unique wooden piece with brass accents.

“Always get the backstory, and share it,” he advised.

While Cinderwalls offers an array of décor items, the Santillis are particularly fond of wood furniture from all periods, which Walter often spruces up with paint and new hardware.  

“I’m interested, and that’s a fair price,” Cindy said to a seller. At another sale, Walter bundles an old gas stove, velvety blanket and wooden picture frame to negotiate a better deal.

“Always ask them to go cheaper by one or two dollars,” he said. “By the end of the day, it adds up.”

In less than two hours, and with five sales behind them, the Cinderwalls cargo van is full. The sun’s come up, and birds are chirping. It’s time to drop off this load at the store and head out for another round of pickin’.

“Be persistent,” Cindy said. Her husband added, “Snooze, you lose.”

The Rusty Bucket
104-A N. Salem St., Apex
(919) 290-2575

200 Franklin Upchurch Sr. St.,
(919) 889-4975


Tips for Pickers

Best places

  • Flea markets, estate and garage sales. Shops like ReStore, Goodwill and Guardian Angel. Back roads. “You can’t pick on the interstate!” says Pam Thorpe.

Best times

  • Early morning for best selection, or close of sale for best deals.
  • How to find local sales: Websites such as Craigslist, Yard Sale Mapper and garagesalefinder.com.

What to bring

  • CASH, in small bills! Flashlight. Gloves. Measuring tape. Tie-down ropes. Rake for hard-to-reach finds. Blankets to wrap furniture. Boxes to contain small items.

What to wear

  • Hat, for falling dust and debris. Comfortable shoes. Hands-free shoulder bag. 

How to negotiate

  • Ask for the seller’s best price, or bargain for a couple of dollars less than marked price. The savings add up on a daylong pick. And bundle for better deals. “You don’t know unless you ask,” Mack Thorpe says.


  • Ask for the story behind the piece. Be courteous; ask permission to look around, or unroll a rug. Have a plan. “One of us goes high, one looks low,” Walter Santilli said.  


  • Arrive more than a few minutes ahead of posted sale time.

Thorpes’ hot finds

  • 1950s metal yard furniture. Advertising signs. Quilts. Wooden bowls. Enamelware.

Santillis’ hot finds

  • Anything wood, including picture frames. Small tables for balconies and apartments. Architectural and garden items.

Repurposing ideas

  • Industrial work table becomes sidebar. Shutters hinged to old window hang indoors. Washtub as cooler for party drinks. Baby carriage as garden planter.

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