Brian McMurray, November 10, 2015

Title

Brian McMurray, November 10, 2015

Subject

New York
The Cooperstown Graduate Program (CGP)

Antiques
Picking

Description

Brian McMurray is a resident of Otsego County, New York. For many years he has operated an antiques picking business. His interest in material culture was sparked at an early age, which he describes in the first part of our interview. Later on in the recording, Brian discusses his lifelong attraction to objects--both functional and decorative--and their social history. He also vividly recounts some of his most memorable antique finds, which have included wood carvings done by a talented war veteran and an eighteenth-century spoon rack. Scholars and hobbyists interested in the antiques business and freelance buying and selling, or “picking,” should reference this interview for Brian’s detailed characterization of the profession.

Brian is also an alumnus of the Cooperstown Graduate Program for museum studies in Cooperstown, New York. In this interview, he describes the wide-reaching and positive impact that CGP had on his life and work.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. Most repetitions and false starts have been removed. Many of Brian’s iterations of the phrase “you know” have been removed as well.

Creator

Julie Hartman

Publisher

Cooperstown Graduate Association, Cooperstown, NY

Date

2015-11-10

Rights

Cooperstown Graduate Association, Cooperstown, NY

Relation

audio/mpeg
image/jpeg

Format

audio/mpeg

Language

en-US

Type

Sound
Image

Identifier

15-013

Coverage

Upstate New York
Mohawk Valley
Cooperstown, NY

Interviewer

Julie Hartman

Interviewee

Brian McMurray

Location

2 Pine Boulevard
Cooperstown, NY
13326

Transcription

Cooperstown Graduate Program
Research and Fieldwork Course (HMUS 520)
Oral History Project
Fall 2015

Interview with Brian McMurray by Julie E. Hartman

Interviewer: Hartman, Julie E.
Interviewee: McMurray, Brian
Date: November 10, 2015
Location of interview: Cooperstown, New York

Archive or Library Repository: Cooperstown Graduate Association, Cooperstown, NY

BM = Brian McMurray
JH = Julie E. Hartman

[START OF TRACK 1, 0:00]

JH:
This is Julie Hartman interviewing Brian McMurray at my home [ADDRESS] in Cooperstown, NY, on Sunday, Nov 15th, 2015 for the Cooperstown Graduate Program’s Oral History Project which is part of the Research and Fieldwork course.
So, where and when were you born?
BM:
Well I was born in 1949 in Pennsylvania--a small, small town--small--a little village you’d call it in New York, down there they would call them a borough--a coal mining town--the hospital no longer is there. That was August 25th, 1949.
JH:
And who else is in your family?
BM:
Uh, my parents. I have an older brother and a younger sister.
JH:
What type of work did they do?
BM:
My brother’s been in sales his whole life--his whole adult life--that’s what he’s done forever. My sister has a couple advanced degrees in nursing specialties. My dad did--my mother was a stay-at-home mom--and my dad did a variety of things, he did construction, masonry work, and then later on, what got me involved, was he started doing demolition in some small cities in Pennsylvania, which I grew to really enjoy because it brought us-- really it kind of brought us together by way of salvaging things.
JH:
Can you tell me about your father’s job in demolition?
BM:
What he would do--he worked for a couple--these are small outfits. And there was no explosive type demolition involved. In small cities who were I think largely attracted to the process of demolition--demolishing certain things--by the federal money which was you know, it’s like a free lunch I guess. And there were many things that he took down or that he was part of taking down that I swear didn’t make any sense to either of us but they did it anyway.

And so in a lot of cases they stereotypically put up a parking lot which was in many cases not very often an improvement but it’s what they did and so by way of that process I learned about the process of how to take down a larger building, not multiple stories, probably less than six stories, most of them. Although there were some large churches--old churches. And in that case how to do it, in what sequence, and salvaging which was a big part of it because there wasn’t a lot of money. When the contract is let, there’s bidders, sealed bids. What you do is submit your bid for the work to be done as per the parameters set up by the authorities--city authorities--whoever is involved in this city as a governing body. And then you submit an amount that you say is required to do that and at that time--this is long enough ago that salvage wasn’t a big deal. It really wasn’t. To a lot of people. But he had a thing for that--he had a thing for, you know, not destroying something that might be saleable or is interesting or is a curiosity or really oughtn’t be destroyed in his estimation. And I cued in on that and agreed and we took out some interesting things. But as soon as a contract is let you have to go to work immediately salvaging. I mean, practically that hour because it’s now your baby and you’re responsible for it. And so making sure you had the access you needed and while you weren’t there on the site oftentimes you had to pay some people to keep an eye on the place and on more than one occasion pay police not to allow people to steal things--that happened, that’s not uncommon. And in other cases there may have been something a little nefarious going on where you would be allowed into the room by way of, you know, providing money to people, the officials in charge, while they opened the bids, and then you got to say what your bid was at the end and therefore the job was yours. I mean, it was crooked. So that’s interesting.

I wasn’t actually part of that but I remember writing--I remember writing two successful contracts for my dad. He unhooded this truck--we had paper and pencil and it didn’t matter what it looked like. What was important to people, there was the bottom line which could be filled in later if you were lucky enough to be on the inside track. And so once that was done, as I said, you had to start salvaging things you wanted to keep because they would start literally at the other end of the building or some part of the building to take it down because time was money. It really was. And so the backfill process which was where if he took down a masonry building that wasn’t such a big deal because what you fill in a void with in a city can’t be something that’ll biodegrade and collapse. It has to be solid material--dirt, stone, brick, you know, concrete, and sometimes it has to be hauled in. So if you don’t have to haul it in and it’s already in the building--enough of it--then you can backfill it and roll it and it’s fine until they know what they’re going to do with it. But it’s very important because time is of the essence so you start immediately taking things out which may be really nice decorative hardware, stained glass windows, beautiful mantels, you know things like that.

Or in the case of this one building, which is near Pittsburgh, it was an eighteenth-century brick building that had been added onto a couple times. But when we took it down we were very careful with the bricks because we could sell them one by one. I mean people wanted those bricks. They had a mark on them. I didn’t understand that at the time but these were slightly misshapen bricks that were considered very desirable because the building had always been there and these people had come out. And we would sell some of the more ordinary items like water heaters, radiators, cabinetry, kitchen cabinets, stoves, because when people--when the contract is let by that time people have gotten the idea that there’s some things we can take and some things we can’t take and we will be compensated for those things which we can’t take like things that are fixed to the wall and some appliances and furnaces. We would take those out and sell them. And then some church groups would come around looking for such things. My dad always gave a really reasonable price on that stuff. He always had a soft touch for like a church which is a good thing I thought. Many times Mennonites or other churches--church members--would come around. But it was a great way to meet people.
JH:
Tell me about some of the standout objects or pieces of buildings that you salvaged.
BM:
Well, one of the things was in this nice little church, I remember were these windows which weren’t huge but they were really gorgeous and they weren’t your typical colored glass windows. These windows had--I don’t know what to say--I think it was something Louis Tiffany called dichroic--which was, if I’m not mistaken--where looking at them without light behind them they’re one color, but when transmitting light it really took on a life of its own. These windows were in this church and we were really working hard to get them out. Because the man who ran the operation and whose equipment it was--those were his trucks and all that--they were coming in the back end and we wanted to get those windows out. And we did. And they were labeled Limoge, France. And so my dad took them home, he and my mother cleaned them up, and they took pictures and somebody in Florida bought them, I don’t know who it was. So they boxed them up, crated them up in plywood, and had a common carrier take them down I believe. I think he had a hard time getting insurance on them I don’t know why today such things are routine. But those things went--they were really beautiful. And there was--they weren’t so overtly religious in theme but they reminded me of some of that stuff--some of those motifs--that other people like, like LaFarge or maybe Tiffany would do--maybe a garden scene--something very bucolic and very nice. But they weren’t Tiffany, that’s for sure. But they were done 100-plus years earlier in Europe apparently. That’s why they had the Limoges, France, label at the bottom. It was like a little tag. Really great windows. They were fabulous.

And actually from that I eventually started to make things from stained glass when I could get nice glass. My efforts were worthless in comparison to some of the things we salvaged, believe me. What I did was almost like a paint-by-number version of stained glass. But it was fun, learning how to cut and so on, like that. So that was a springboard from that experience. Other things included marvelous doors, in a couple cases there were doors with long strap hinges on them, there were wrought iron. It depends on the building and the original application. But also some things you could see were subject to what I later learned at CGP was a later rendition of an earlier style and it would be what I would call “colonial revival,” where it would be a facade suggestion of what the real thing would’ve been, for example strap hinges, sometimes the real hinges were inside of these other things are a suggestion of other things being mounted on the surface. And sometimes it was the real deal. We took out beautiful railings--wrought iron railings--it was really interesting to see. In fact, depending, eventually, the tail’s wagging the dog, because my dad would be much more urgent about salvage than the demolition process because these things were starting to get attention in America. We were headed toward the bicentennial fervor and that really was starting to catch on. And so it became much more relevant and timely to get these things out. And you really had to put them some place safe. So if you were really lucky, there would be an outbuilding on the lot where the other building was--maybe a garage or something--where you could store things you wanted to sell, whether decorative or functional, like ordinary furnaces and stuff that people have to have, of course.
JH:
And so what brought you to CGP?
BM:
Well, as a result of this demolition stuff, I really got focused on material culture. I really got very, very curious about why some designs and what I later learned to be styles came and went. The dominant styles in decorative arts seemed to ebb and flow. Some came and were short lived and others came and were much longer lived. So I was eventually working for--my background was teaching, which was okay, and I did crisis case work, which was okay. I didn’t really care for it much. But this antique thing was becoming more and more dominant in my life. So I would pay attention at auctions and things like that. And I always questioned other people who had been in the business a long time and I came to understand that some of the information I was getting was maybe spot on and some was almost like a glorified rumor or something like that where it was what everybody else said and it must be true and it wasn’t necessarily the case. And I came to understand that I really wanted some organized learning about this stuff. I didn’t want to waste my time listening to people who were perhaps successful dealers but who didn’t always know what they were talking about. I mean, they were a success because they made money. But it didn’t mean that they were knowledgeable per se. So I wanted to learn a lot more about it.
JH:
What were some of the aspects of your CGP experience that you remember or sort of informed your work the most?
BM:
You mean, what influenced me now?
JH:
Yeah.
BM:
Well, you know, I’ll tell you, coming here to Cooperstown was probably the best thing I ever did. I was lucky enough to be accepted, which was almost a surprise, because I came from a really ordinary humble background. Not connected in any remarkable social strata or anything else. But when I got accepted I came here and wanted to absorb as much as I could. I really gobbled it up. And of course, there’s a lot to learn about running a museum or about any nonprofit. But I learned a lot. I learned a lot about do’s and don’t’s of nonprofits. For example, never alienate the public. They are your future and your next generation in that each family is your future. Don’t make them feel stupid for going there, to the extent that one time I was working here on what was a big exhibit for me, and it involved a family in I think it’s Chenango County. I just ran across them in passing, really. I was out looking for places that may have had other forms of glassware like--it was related to a place I found that was near Sauquoit, NY--where they had had an actual glass water pipe with a male and a female end and the sections were a foot long or longer. So on the one end it would bulge and the other end it was small and they would butt against each other. And so from that, I got a tip, and I don’t remember anymore how. So I went over to see this other family who had this farm in this area, in this little valley, for a long time. And I talked to them and they said “Do you see our building over there?” They meant The Farmer’s Museum. And I said “No.” And they said “Yeah, it’s a log barn.” And I said about whatever structure they were referring to, I said “That’s yours?” They said “Yeah, we donated that years ago under the auspices of whoever was involved, it was probably Lou Jones [Louis C. Jones]. I said “Oh, I didn’t know that.” And they said, something to the effect that, they had had an experience where they were not real happy going over to The Farmer’s Museum at the Harvest Festival because they had to pay to get in. Which wasn’t much. I just thought the principle of that doesn’t strike me right. I said, “Well, you donated that building and you still have to pay to get in, basically to see your own building?” They said “Yeah!” I said “I think I can maybe fix that.” So I got members of that family lifetime passes.

I couldn’t believe it, you know? Without a giving nature and a willingness to participate in sort of a communal spirit thing, the building wouldn’t be there. I mean if it’s worth having it’s worth acknowledging both ways. This is a great building, this is why we want it, and by the way these generous people gave it to us. What the hell’s wrong with that? So, I did that. And it taught me a lesson that I would later incorporate, and that is, you get nowhere with people--whatever you’re trying to do--if you make them angry or feel alienated or condescended to. They don’t like it and they don’t forget it.

And years later here I am buying things from total strangers--or trying to--and it’s really important to sort of walk a midline and not condescend to them or make them feel like you’re wasting their time. But it’s also important not to make them feel like you’re playing up to them--like you’re trying to play them like a radio. And you don’t have long to get this across, so you got to do it right, and you don’t want to cross any minefields by launching into religion or politics. God no, don’t do that.
JH:
[Laugh]
BM:
Other people do that, the homeowners may do that. That’s okay with me. Whatever they say, I’m okay with. Usually. But it’s important.

But there’s things that I experienced at CGP, which is such a wealth of information, and hopefully I’ve retained enough of it. I use that every day in what I do. I apply the material culture, decorative arts information. I learned from Gib Vincent and others every day, and I’m happy to share it with people. But it was worth my while because it was condensed learning from somebody who knows--all these teachers knew what they were talking about, and I learned and absorbed it. I use it every day. Best thing I ever did.
JH:
That’s so great to hear [laugh].
BM:
Oh it is?
JH:
There’s this common thread of you receiving “tips” or sending out “tips,” like in the age before internet, that I’m picking up on. I’m really curious how your father conducted his salvaging business and how you kind of were able to find things to put in your exhibit while you were a student at CGP before internet. [Laugh]
BM:
Yeah. It seems like, you talking to me, is like talking to somebody who witnessed the invention of the wheel. But not quite. But you know, I’ll tell you what--it’s about communication and if somebody has something you want, word of mouth is very important because you may not be talking to the primary source from which you can get it, but you’ve got to impress a positive, benevolent, sort of a helpful, harmless way--whoever you’re talking to--so that they will hopefully relate that to someone else. And that happens--in fact, I’m going to see some things tomorrow--and this has been a number of months in the building. I wish you could go. Because I stopped to see a woman I’d never seen before and her husband. He didn’t have much to say but I talked to her. I talked to her about some things she had in her house and she had this really really nice young son. And I didn’t buy anything from her, though I would have. I made her an offer on a pretty good coin that she really should have accepted but I didn’t tell her that. I just made the offer, she said no, and I said fine. But she said I’ll give your name and number to a friend of mine who’s buying an old house. The buyer’s family owned it and they’re leaving a lot of stuff there, I believe. So I talked to her and then that woman, she gave me this woman’s number and I called her, and I said “listen, you might want to talk to”--I can’t think of her name now, the original contact--maybe I shouldn’t say anyway--and she said “you seem like a decent, trustworthy guy,” and I said “I hope so!” and she said, “I’ll be in touch with you but I’m not exactly sure when because my husband’s a contractor and he’s quite busy right now before he can start working on our house that we’re buying with all this stuff in it.” And I said “Great, I’m interested, and I’m available, call me anytime. If it comes down to it, I can meet you any part of any day.” And so her husband called me--this was last Friday--and I went up. There was a lot of things there I would buy. I haven’t struck a deal yet. But I’m going back tomorrow to look at a lot of other things that he’ll gather in one location in this garage so that it won’t be quite the same as traipsing through the house everywhere because he’s in the midst of remodeling and actually doing a lot of serious work there, apparently. So that’s how that came to pass.

After I meet you, and I’m gone, and you’re on your way in your life--all I have to represent me is your memory of me and maybe my business card. If I don’t do it right, it’s not because I didn’t try, but I still have myself to blame, you know? So this is why it’s important not to get into some prickly subject. I mean, there’s a lot of things I believe that I’d be happy to talk with people about like recycling or clean energy, of course. But that’s not the thrust of why I’m there, and so it’s not all that relevant necessarily at that time.

One thing I do find, though, is that the--what is today the elder generation--actually one generation beyond me--are some of the most interesting people I have ever met. They are fascinating people. They are a wealth of knowledge. Sorry to say, as has always been the case, when they die, it goes with them. I’ve learned so much from them. It’s been wonderful, you know, really a wonderful privilege to meet people and to get to know them. It’s such a thrill. It’s like I’m the luckiest guy in the world.
JH:
[Laugh] And so, how did your antiques picking business come together?
BM:
Well, I always had this thing for objects and I related well to objects, I think, although my teachers could probably tell you whether I did or didn’t. But I felt like I did. I connected with them. And I grew to have a really great appreciation, in my own life anyway, of objects--what they’re for, how they remain pre- and post-industrial revolution. And I came to understand that some objects, however ordinary looking now, may have played significant roles in the lives of the people who have them now and who I’m hoping to buy them from.

It’s like, for example, I have a thing for wooden bowls--old ones, big ones, especially, whatever size. And that bowl would have served in its day, when it was relatively new, a variety of purposes for somebody. To hold things, store things, for food preparation and storage, especially preparation, when they would use it for chopping, mixing, not so much curing, but in the days before refrigeration, put it in a bowl, put it in a cool place, and if the bowl didn’t cause it to go rancid it was an important thing, and so they took care of them. So it was one of those things that perhaps at one time was a “go-to” housekeeping kind of a gift. Today I suppose it’s a gift card to Ikea but at one time, these things were much less pretentious. Although that eventually changed after the Industrial Revolution, where these objects, which still may have been important to somebody, weren’t necessarily hand-made. I love the objects and I relate to them and I really--I really--am in awe of the people who have had them and used them and cared for them and now they’re actually going to give it up to me. I don’t know if it’s because I really love them, but again, you have to be able to offer enough money to make it seem worthwhile. Sometimes you can’t offer enough, you can’t be bothered. And other times they’ll reluctantly sell it. Once in awhile somebody will call me and--I’ve done business--one woman comes to mind. I bought everything I wanted from her place, she made no bones about it, she needed money. And so it wasn’t that long ago, she called me, and said “there must be something here I can sell you.” You know, it was a tough situation. There wasn’t anything else I wanted but I told her, “Look, you know what I’m looking for. If you can send me to somebody else where I can buy something, I’ll pay you for doing that.” And she did. And so I paid her a finder’s fee, actually overpaid her, frankly, but it may have made her day. I bought a few things at this other house that she referred me to and I hope to buy more. But I paid her. I made sure I did. I said, “I was over to see whoever this woman you sent me to, I bought some things from her, I owe you a finder’s fee, and I wanted to be sure you got it.” So she remembered that and she liked that, which is only fair because I delivered on what I said I would do. That’s very important. Because there’s a lot of people who are in this business who, for one reason or another, don’t always have the best, or leave the best impression on people. While I’m hardly a paragon of virtue, I try to keep my word. You have to do that. It would be like, since I was coming here today to see you, if I just blew it off and went and had a six pack somewhere. And I didn’t invite you.
JH:
[Laugh]
BM:
It’s really important to keep your word if you can. Does that help you?”
JH:
Yes, it does. All of this is so helpful and very affirming. How does tourism to Cooperstown or the Cooperstown area affect the antiques market around here?
BM:
Well I’ve had the opinion for a long time, prior to the economic downturn in about 2008, that most of the people who came to Cooperstown were baseball-curious or enthusiasts, [START OF TRACK 2, 0:00] or people who wanted to bring a mom and dad and a child or two, or three, and go to the Hall of Fame, and they were looking for a quick reasonable place to get a lunch, and maybe be on their way or go back to wherever they were staying and come back again the next day. They were not what I would call an ideal target family to buy antiques. In many cases, some families are stretched to come here and they don’t--when they hear about the luxury of buying antiques, it’s not what they’re into. Or it’s not why they’re here, so they don’t focus on it. Yet some other tourists do. I had a friend who had a successful shop on Chestnut Street. He did pretty well. Eventually he closed and moved away, and a lot of shops since the downturn--economic downturn--they’ve closed or retired or passed away or moved South or something as they get along in years.

It just depends on who you talk to and what their experience has been, whether the effect of tourism in Cooperstown has been good or bad for antiques. Maybe the net effect is a gain because tourism of people coming through Cooperstown aren’t all looking for baseball--maybe more so than it used to be--I don’t know, I’m not in a position to say. But in the end you have more exposure to the people coming in who are maybe just curious, maybe they want something bad, saying “I’ve gotta have this,” maybe “I don’t care about baseball.” But if they don’t come to the village and you have a shop in town, if they don’t come here you can’t sell them anything, you know? They have to see it. It’s like my brother once told me, who as I said has been in sales a long time and he knows a great deal, I believe, about that whole process. He said: “The only thing you guarantee by not stopping to see somebody is that you will buy nothing or sell nothing. If you don’t try to make it happen, if you don’t do your best, you stand zero chance of doing some good by buying something. I mean I’m not proselytizing to people, no thanks. But if you don’t try, you never know. So, by having a shop in the village and it’s open and you’re getting exposure from people who have never been here before or who have been here every summer, you may do some good. But as an aside, tourism today, which still involves--it’s mostly family focused--I mean you hear about the Dreams Park people all the time, for better or worse. But a lot of the antiques market today I think suffers in general--be it tourists or whoever--because a lot of young people who are twenty-somethings, thirty-somethings, they’re not into antiques, you know? They’re not looking for that stuff to buy. I mean I was at that age more just enthralled by it, and just amazed that somebody would put up the money--a giant amount of money in the city--as a repository for antiques and objects and even archaeological finds. I mean, wow. What a stroke of luck that somebody did this--a Rockefeller--or somebody who is a real benevolent sort--the Clarks--in all this--to preserve these things. I was just blown away by that. I mean that’s direction, focus, and resources. I was very impressed. But a lot of young folks today don’t care for this stuff. I don’t know what your focus is at the museum. But anyway, are any of your classmates enthralled by objects?
JH:
Oh, yeah.
BM:
Are they?
JH:
Oh, yeah. A significant portion of them are collections-focused.
BM:
Good, good. Well yeah, I mean, there’s so much to do with collections, from gee, display, from A to Z. The things at least that I remember are display and storage and insurance and rotating exhibits, treating them properly, thematic exhibits. What would we focus on here? What’s the point behind this? I mean I love that stuff. And I’m glad they are. Because I think that may come and go with different classes, maybe. I’m not sure. I haven’t been really close with other classes. But I loved the class I was in and I knew the ones before and after me pretty well. They were always interesting people, always interesting kids, I say, because I was older than a lot of my fellow classmates.
JH:
Have you met Cindy Falk?
BM:
Yes!
JH:
She’s, I think, one of the best professors that the program has and she’s from Winterthur.
BM:
Yes! Well that’s a sterling recommendation, I think, because Gib Vincent was one of my instructors and he was a Winterthur alum and I learned so much from him. It was such a treat.
JH:
Yeah.
BM:
Yeah.
JH:
And why did you choose to stay in the Cooperstown area?
BM:
Well, you know, I interviewed for a couple of museum jobs, and I think one of them I could have had, but frankly it just didn’t pay much. I don’t know, I suppose that’s still the case in many places. But you’ve got to live on something. And at around the same time I was visiting an antiques shop that handled a lot of things of the type that I liked. I remember two things about it--one is that they were very, very high priced. And the other thing is the guy who’s going out to see people on what they call “house calls,” I thought, that’s a little bit overbearing, and not exactly tactful. I remember saying to my wife, “Look, if he can do it, I can do it,” because I’d learned way back something about talking to people from my first job, which was in, like, a general store. The old ladies in that store, believe me, they wanted things a certain way and you better not ruffle the feathers. And I took [or] brought a lot of that with me--an interest in and a certain amount of ability to talk to total strangers. And I remember thinking that if this guy who is sort of a jerk can do this, then I can do this. I remember that. It was like a stepping off point. And that’s what started me on the way, which, that’s was a long time ago now.
JH:
Is there a reason why you chose the Cooperstown area?
BM:
Oh, yes, to get back to that. Well, you know, I like the area. I love the history. [Inaudible] we toured places, we went to Canada on a field trip, New England, and so on, and it was a great thrill. But I had reinforcement about this love of objects at every turn and I just thought this whole area’s been settled long enough ago that there’s many generations, potentially, of objects and people and stories out there, and I thought maybe I could uncover some of that, and I did. I started [inaudible] and I did. It was really a treat. It still is. As I say, it’s still a privilege. I was quite sick a couple years ago and I was really [inaudible] so glad to get on my feet again as to be able to go out and darken someone’s doorstep, you know? [JH: Laughter] Not knowing what’s behind door number one--it’s really fun. You oughta try that sometime, you know?
JH:
I would love to.
BM:
Well, you might be really good at it because a young woman doesn’t threaten anybody but at the same time, you have to be careful. There’s some real nut jobs out there. If you get a bad vibe, take off, you know?
JH:
Yeah, thanks for that tip!
BM:
I’m just saying, that’s the kind of caveat you have to know, you have to understand. I’m sure you know--you’re not naive. But you gotta be careful, you know?
JH:
Mmhm. Now how do you pick things to buy?
BM:
Well, it’s mostly based on two things. I buy things either that I like, enjoy, right away and I don’t care if I don’t sell it, or I buy things that I know I can sell. And with the downturn in the economy, that variety of things has narrowed considerably because a lot of things that were strong ten years ago may be on life support now. But there’s signs of life out there. And I don’t know why it is except maybe just local economics and local enthusiasm, if we went due east into Vermont--I go there every year to a weekend of shows, five shows anyway--things sell better there, and for more money, and I don’t understand why. However, it’s just the way it is. So, if I come across something I like a lot, I’ll buy it and not to separate it necessarily from something saleable, but it’s got to be something with a reward at the end. Either I can sell it for a profit or I can keep it indefinitely. Actually, I’ve kept a lot of things. Maybe I’ve kept too many things. Once in awhile my wife tells me that. I’ll bring something home and say “Listen, the only place I can think of this being truly is on your side of the bed.” And she says, “Yeah, in your dreams!” So, I find someplace else for it.
JH:
How do you know they’re going to sell?
BM:
Well, I guess there are some indicators that they’re going to sell. The first thing [if it’s] a total stranger, I’ll knock on the door, when they come to the door, there are a lot of things I don’t do and a few things I do, so if I can get on a decent, even footing with them in about ten seconds, maybe, I’ll mention who I am, where I’m from, and that I happened to stop because I’m looking for things to buy, and that I only offer cash for what I buy and that I would be grateful for a chance to, say, look in a garage or a basement. But I make it--you know, I don’t--you can’t be condescending. Never wear extreme, weird clothes. No tattoos. Some people are offended by that and they may never say it but they are and you never have a second chance. So no tattoos, nothing political, no labels if I can help it. No hair in my face. Down over my eyes. No beard, though I used to have a short, close-cropped beard. No dark glasses. No “Win with Trump” stickers. Some people may say “God, come right in!” and somebody else may say “Get lost!” By walking the mid-line you’re better off than if you take a chance on impressing somebody and it turns out to be wrong and it blows up in your face. So there’s that. I wonder if I answered your question.
JH:
Yes, you did. What are your thoughts on the History Channel show American Pickers?
BM:
Well, you know, I think that, I mean I have some issues with it in that it’s not--that show does not exist in the world that I live in. But if they have it made by what they’ve created, good for them. I don’t know if I told you this but one of their producers called me once. This is two years ago on Labor Day Weekend, and asked me whether I may have had anything. They’d been given my name by a woman in Johnstown, New York, area, and did I maybe have things that they would want to buy on the show? And I said, “I probably do, but I’m not interested.” And I wasn’t interested. But you know, television to some extent is a creation. It’s entertainment. It doesn’t necessarily reflect the world per se that we all live in, just parts of it and pieces of it. I get the end of the episodes where everybody they bought from stands outside and waves goodbye to them. Oh! I’ve been glad to get out of some of those places I’ve been in, thinking “How can I get me out of here?” Because it’s not always a comfy, cozy relationship. No. To me, that’s to some extent contrived. But I could be wrong. I’ve heard other shows, other so-called reality shows, are contrived, and I believe it. But I don’t care about them much.
Do you watch it?
JH:
I did!
BM:
Did you? Did you like it?
JH:
I love antiques. I don’t know much about them, [BM: Yeah] but I grew up watching the History Channel [BM: Oh, God] so it was just one of those shows that made me excited to…
BM:
Oh, God. Well, it’s a good channel. But you know HGTV used to have a much greater emphasis on antiques than it does now. Now, it’s almost exclusively real estate, right? But they used to have a greater emphasis on antiques and I used to love some of those things but they’re gone. And really the only way to learn more is by doing and I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned a lot beyond the things we studied here at Cooperstown. I’ve learned a lot more about other things that are twentieth century and what people love and, you know, a lot of things about successive generations of families where some families have, they hold things in high regard and cherish them for generations, and then all of a sudden one generation decides, “Hell with that! Who needs it? That stuff’s out of here.” You know, I talked to one man and his sister. I couldn’t believe it--they had inherited a large house full of stuff, whatever it was I don’t know, I could never get next to them. But he said, “We made a decision yesterday and everything that was made of paper, we burned.” I thought, “I can’t believe that, you people must be idiots!” But that was a means to an end for them! So I didn’t tell them what I was thinking, of course, but it didn’t matter in the end. I could never get close enough or next to them enough to do business. There was this sort of, I don’t know, sort of hostile--or maybe it was me--you never know.
JH:
Without mentioning any names, can you tell me about some of your clients?
BM:
Well, one woman I know in the Mohawk Valley--nice lady, and I’ve met so many nice people there, in the Mohawk Valley, lots of history--I knew her husband, and he’s deceased. These people were living in their present location for I’m not sure how long. He had retired. He was older than she was, and he died. He went to a nursing home and died, and the house was--at one time it was a really, really nice little cute Cape house. Not old, but nicely done, nice proportions, good staircase and all that. I liked it. But it was extremely filthy. And they had cats that were like, everywhere. The cats, I don’t think, got their litter box changed often enough or were taken to the vet when they may have had problems because the place was really bad. And I bought things from them. But I tried to buy nothing from them that I couldn’t wash. And she had this beautiful kitchen. I remember, all these really nice modern-day, or, you know, thirty- to forty-year-old cherry cabinets, and it was expensive in its day. It would be expensive to do today. And the place was a dump. And eventually--and they were nice people. Real nice. They were nice to me, and the place was bad, but I didn’t--I hope it didn’t let onto them that I thought this place was like, whoa, off the scale. But they let me look and I bought a few things and eventually he went to a nursing home for rehabilitation. And he died there. But before he died, she had a really nice ramp put in so that he could navigate that. And he never did come home and the ramp is still there and the place is not as bad as it was because the cats are gone. I think they all just died. And they’re nice people, you know?

And it’s funny--not far from there is another woman I know whose father-in-law, or let’s say grandfather-in-law, used to carve things. He had been in World War I. He came home, and he carved these things that are like animals and people—small-scale things. And she’s across the street and down and her place is spotless. It’s just a difference in people and priorities. I don’t care, you know? It’s funny, the woman across the street and down still does sales so I bought some from her. About twenty-five years ago, at least, I bought from her relatives. The carver was gone--he had come home from World War I and carved things, and whatever he had to deal with, he died. So his son and daughter in law were living in this house, and they had this funky carved cat standing there--a spotted cat, like a leopard. And so I was able to buy it from them and I still have it. I really liked it. Since then I’ve bought more carvings by the same guy and she still has some things I’d like to buy. But it’s just a difference in people separated by a hundred yards.

Just a matter of what’s behind door number one besides objects. People, habits. But the lady with the really dirty house, which doesn’t smell as bad as it used to, has a lot more things that I would buy and I don’t thinks she’s going to sell them. I saw some really nice jewelry there the other day. And I said--she didn’t want to sell it--and I said, “Listen, I’m never going to rip you off. I’m never going to steal anything from you. But,” I said, “you need to be careful who you let in to see this stuff because it’s too easy to pocket.” She said “Oh, I’m careful, I’m careful.” I said “Good! You need to be.” Because there’s nobody else there. Her relatives are all in the South. So, you know, there we go, I get my Boy Scout badge. [JH laughs] But I just thought it was important to tell her that in case she wasn’t thinking that. Because her husband had died and he trusted me and therefore she trusted me and we got along fine. So she would know, you know?
JH:
And you touched on this a little bit but how has working in New York State, around the Mohawk Valley, around the Leatherstocking Region, shaped your appreciation for material culture?
BM:
Well, it shaped it by way of the things I’ve found and the abundance of things that I’ve found because, as I said, a lot of the things that interested me are of an age that keeps my interest keen and I don’t find them as much as I used to, believe me. But I still find interesting things and I’ve seen wonderful things that I could not buy, no way. They weren’t for sale. But it was such a treat to see them, you know? Within sight of the Mohawk River I once found a [inaudible] spoon rack, which is an old thing, eighteenth- century dowry gift-type thing, you know, along with pinwheels and so on, and it was such a marvelous day because I remember saying to my wife--really about a week before, in a book there’s a picture of a spoon rack. I said, “Oh God, that’s something I’ll never find.” And I found it and I was able to buy it. I was so excited. I walked into this--it was like a [inaudible] on the farm, and I walked in, and this nice man let me do this walk around. And I’ve seen them since because he’s moved. And when I saw that on the wall, I knew it, I said, “Holy shit!” He said, “Is there something wrong?” I said, “No, no everything’s alright!” I was just really surprised. I was shocked. And so it has some, like, wheels from a lawn mower in the bottom box part, and I said, “Is this something you need?” He said, “No, I can put those wheels anywhere.” I was able to buy it from him. But in that case, I was really nervous because I knew that it had had, in some circles, real good value. But I didn’t dare offer him too much because he would take it off the wall, take it into the house, and start asking around. And I would lose. In many respects, it was selfishness. I wanted to buy it. I found it. I don’t think anybody else had seen it. I thought, “If I don’t do this right, he’s not going to sell it. He’s going to keep it.” So I had one chance to buy it. I mean sometimes, in a case like that, you do. Especially if it’s something that they are already aware is on the scarce side. They realize they have something and they’re holding on for the highest price. Sometimes it gets much higher and sometimes it goes back to bite them because they’ll keep something too long and the prices will trickle away and they miss the boat. So I bought that, and a 1900, 1890, or 1900, stick and ball type archway divider. You know, that would come down from the ceiling. It was a low, flattened arch in a Federal Revival-type look. But it had Victorian influence because it was intersecting sticks with balls on them, you know, you may have seen that before. Made of oak. It was very nice. And I sold that to a friend. How I did that was I made him a better offer for the divider--the architectural garniture--then I did the other thing. It was just a way of getting it so I didn’t focus on that [the spoon rack] alone and ring any bells.

I hope it’s okay to tell you that but it’s true. I mean, you have to be careful.
JH:
And how’s business lately?
BM:
Business lately is okay. I’m going to this place tomorrow that I mentioned to you. I don’t know if I can do business with them. One of the things that they have interests me, because I’m not somebody who has an interest in jewelry. I don’t care about it. I don’t ever wear jewelry. But when it comes to precious metals, there is a known market for that stuff. Even though it’s dropped a lot in five years, it’s still there, so you have to buy right. And so at this place somebody had looked at some--at this big pile of jewelry they had--a lot of it was costume, some of it was broken, but there was some precious metal there, and some various carats of gold. Probably mostly 10 and 14. And they had a price tag there, or an estimate, the estimated value of several hundred dollars. Well, I’m hoping to get a chance to see it and look at it and weigh it and just see what the value is now because there’s a man I deal with who pays very well, as well as he can, but it seems high. This was three or four months ago they had this. And it’s been dropping off since. Not long ago, platinum dropped $110. Just dropped. So, it’s interesting. So business is okay. I go home a lot of days with nothing. Absolutely nothing. And some days I get lucky or whatever and find things that I can buy, that I want. Once in awhile somebody will call me and say “Remember this ‘whatever you wanted to buy’ do you still want to buy?” So, you know, business to some extent is luck. It’s also what you make of it by being persistent, not losing faith in what you do, if continuing to believe in what you do becomes too big an effort, or too selfish, I’ll switch to something else. But I love this. I like working for me. I’m too selfish to work for anybody else. You know, I really am. That’s one of the things that sustains me. I have myself to blame if something goes wrong. But at the same time, if something goes right, I have myself to credit.
JH:
Well I think that concludes our interview.
BM:
Oh, boy!
JH:
I’ve gotten through all of the questions…
BM:
Have you

JH:
...That I’ve wanted to ask, yes!
BM:
Oh, my, good Lord, look at that.
JH:
Thank you so much for…
BM:
Well I hope it was helpful, Julie!
JH:
...Participating, it was. It’s been wonderful. So thank you so much.
BM:
You’re welcome so much!
[TRACK 2, 27:17]

Duration

"30:00 - Part I"
"27:17- Part II"

Bit Rate/Frequency

"160kbps"

Files

McMurray_Photo.jpg

Citation

Julie Hartman, “Brian McMurray, November 10, 2015,” CGP Community Stories, accessed December 8, 2019, http://cgpcommunitystories.org/items/show/245.