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Originally published Thursday, August 2, 2012 at 7:34 PM

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Why one person's junk is another's TV obsession

A look at the new TV shows about hunting for treasure in our mountains of discarded stuff.

The Associated Press

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Tracy Hutson wanders through a graveyard of ovens that haven't roasted a turkey or baked a ham since decades before she was born. Picking through their discarded parts, she muses: "The rust on this is just so gorgeous."

Her "Picker Sisters" partner, Tanya McQueen, agrees — yet another item to bargain for, purchase and turn into a high-end piece of furniture on their Lifetime network TV series (http://www.mylifetime.com/shows/picker-sisters/).

You'll find a similar pair of women, the "Junk Gypsies," doing much the same thing over at HGTV (http://www.hgtv.com/junk-gypsies/show/index.html). And these two pairs are not alone.

The list of television shows about hunting for elusive treasure amid mountains of discarded stuff keeps growing like a suburban landfill. At least three new entries are premiering this summer, adding to the already double-digit roster of shows about "pickers" and pawn shop owners and people who bid for the contents of storage containers.

Why, especially when we're so overloaded with our own clutter and junk, are we so fascinated with the search through other people's castoffs?

The rush of remembering

Jordan Hembrough, host of "Toy Hunter," which premieres Aug. 15 on the Travel Channel (http://www.travelchannel.com/video/toy-hunters), believes people love junk-hunting shows because they reconnect us with a time we like to remember as simpler and happier.

We recognize items instantly, from toys to household goods to advertising signage. Previous generations of Americans kept things longer, and there was less to choose from when you did buy new: Many of us had the same CorningWare coffee pot, the same Fisher-Price toys as our neighbors.

Items designed in the 1950s and 1960s "are from a period that consciously looked to the future," says Allen Topolski, associate professor of art at the University of Rochester. It was a time of optimism, and although "we never got the jet packs we were promised," we enjoy revisiting that feeling as junk-hunting TV hosts come across this stuff, he says.

This experience won't be the same for future generations because we replace things so frequently today. Young people are also less likely to have the exact same items as their peers. "More choices means less shared history," says John Baick, associate professor of history at Western New England University, in Springfield, Mass.

So why do even viewers in their teens and 20s watch these shows?

The thrill of the hunt

T.J. Heckman has "been into junk," for nearly all of his 26 years. He, his father and his uncle "used to go out all the time just picking up stuff. I remember when I was 6 years old bringing home a kitchen table on my bicycle."

In his work as a delivery truck driver in the Pittsburgh area, he's constantly scouting roadsides for anything potentially fun or useful. He loves bringing things home, and loves watching these shows for the excitement of scoring something awesome at little or no cost.

"The stuff today being made is garbage compared to the stuff back then," Heckman says. "They took their time and put effort into making it."

Craig Dalen, who coordinates sustainability programs at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa., sees this as a strong explanation for the popularity of these shows. "Many goods now are designed to break down and need to be replaced, and our desires are socially engineered to want more, better, the latest. I think some are rediscovering the value in these goods because of the craftsmanship and the materials."

Heckman says he is happy when a TV host can find and repurpose an old table or chair — revealing its enduring value and returning it to daily life.

Television, of course, reliably delivers those satisfying moments. Through editing, these shows offer "very clever storytelling," Baick says. Something well-made and worthwhile is always uncovered. "Like the hunt for the Holy Grail, in all the accounts it ends up being a humble cup of tremendous value," he says. For viewers in homes filled with everyday items, "this is kind of magical, that you can turn lead into gold" if you have a discerning-enough eye.

Two shows that premiered last month — PBS' "Market Warriors" (from the producers of "Antiques Roadshow") and the "American Pickers" spinoff "Picked Off" — raise the bar by merging the junk-hunting genre with competition. "Picked Off" (http://www.history.com/shows/picked-off) has a $10,000 grand prize, while the "Market Warriors" (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/market-warriors/) winner only earns "bragging rights for eclipsing his peers," according to the show's website.

The desire to DIY

For the "Picker Sisters" and "Junk Gypsies," it's all about what these found goodies can become. These shows, along with sites like Pinterest, offer fresh and sometimes outrageous ideas for affordable do-it-yourself projects.

Whether many viewers actually try their hand at a project is another question. But it's fun to see someone turn a chipped sink into a flower-filled planter rather than tossing it into a landfill, even if you'll never attempt a similar task.

Although the creation and sale of DIY items via sites like Etsy.com is a trend, "we are also creating in many ways a voyeuristic culture where we can consume the data and information," Dalen says. "It's easy to organize and pin it for a day that it would be nice to do it."

The hosts

The last piece of the puzzle — crucial to any successful TV show — is the characters. Junk-hunting hosts and competitors fall into two major camps: the fierce, take-no-prisoners people who bristle with bravado, and the folksy, charming people you'd love to invite over for dinner.

The friction-filled family on "Pawn Stars" can't close a deal without an argument, while tattooed Darrell Sheets lovingly bumps heads with his son Brandon on "Storage Wars." Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz, the stars of "American Pickers," invariably incur the biting sarcasm of their office manager, Danielle.

How long will these shows remain popular? Well, there's an awful lot of junk out there. And our national appetite for a voyeuristic peek into other people's attics and basements seems to run deep. (The evil mirror images of these upbeat junk shows are the shows about hoarding, where only misery comes from amassing so much stuff.)

Craig Dalen thinks that as the rate of change in our lives keeps accelerating, our hunger to look back toward an era of relative stability — "this nostalgic kind of grasping onto what we had" — is only likely to grow.

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