WILLCOX — Mary Peterson, a Willcox native and president of the Willcox Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture, has a rather interesting hobby, the kind of hobby that any fan of the History Channel might equate to the two gentlemen of “American Pickers” fame.
This hobby is known simply as junking.
The Herald/Review recently interviewed Peterson for a Q&A about her junking hobby that she shares in common with her fiancé, Bear Carman, a Tucson native.
Bear got his nickname at birth.
“In the hospital, one of the nurses said ‘oh, you’re like a little bear’ and ever since then he’s been Bear,” Peterson added.
Herald/Review: How did your junking hobby start? What do you love most about it?
Mary Peterson: I went up to a market in Tucson and I saw this cool rustic farmhouse, rusty metal kind of stuff and I thought I know what that stuff is. That stuff is all over the Willcox area. I just think that people would see something that could be dismissed or trashed and turn it into something that’s beautiful. I just love the idea of thinking as beautiful things that have a lot of life.
Been through different eras from different times and spaces and to try to find the beauty in those things. It’s a fun process.
H/R: Have you visited any other junking businesses or been to a museum and thought this is interesting?
MP: I kind of grew up (with it). My folks built their house and they built it out of recycled plywood that they got from old political signs. Grew up on new furniture and you sold it at flea markets. So it wasn’t like we were a junking family, but we were definitely a family that used the resources that we had and made the most out of them.
Even if they weren’t exactly bright, there was a way to make beauty and goodness come from what we had available. So I’d say I kind of grew up in this family of resourceful people. That hustled a buck and knew how to make it work.
H/R: How did your junking hobby transition into your opening and running three junking-related businesses?
MP: So I was just getting started at auctions and starting to sell. Kind of had the idea of opening a store and then my life collided with Bear and he’s a third-generation junker. He’s been doing it for a long time and he had just started a store.
So we kind of got to know each other in the early days of hey let’s make this happen. Let’s do this cool thing. Both of us were looking at that as a business. So what ever junk I had on (me) or he acquired at his store we made a go of it.
H/R: How did your love of junking bring you to Bear and his junking business?
MP: He had put an ad on Craigslist for his yard sale and I showed up at his yard sale because I caught the treasure-hunting bug. I guess one of those treasures would be Bear in my life. That’s where we met. He’d roll up his garage and he’d put all of this stuff out. It was more of a pop-up shop than a brick and mortar.
H/R: Why did you leave your position at the maternity home?
MP: It’s a maternity home, essentially taking in pregnant women who are homeless for whatever reason. They’ve been kicked out or their relationship ended or they were already homeless and then kind of find out they were pregnant. It’s really kind of working with homeless pregnant women during just a particularly vulnerable season in their life.
In my 20s I started a home up in Phoenix and then (grew) that organization to hav(ing) multiple homes, multiple programs. That was a big part of my young professional life. Then over the last eight years I’ve been a national consultant for homes, about 400 homes across the country.
I’ve been a consultant to help them start it, grow, thrive and figure out how to be able to deal with things like a pandemic. Cell phone policies or whatever. I’ve really just been a consultant for maternity homes throughout the country.
H/R: Now you’re stepping down?
MP: Residential care has been a big part of my life, but my heart is kind of just saying let’s do local. Let’s focus on Willcox and let’s grow these businesses that have burst at the seams. With my housing situation I had to travel quite a bit.
Yeah, just my heart was saying hey let’s stay home and build here in your community. So I’m pretty excited to do that in a deliberate way. They found my replacement. She’s a great person and she’s out of Texas.
H/R: How long had you been in just that position?
MP: I founded the home. I ran it for about 16 years. Then I’ve been on the national level for about eight years.
H/R: Now that you have more time for junking, how do you plan to use that time?
MP: A lot of what I focused on in the past is organizational development and helping ministries grow from one stage to the next one from a startup to a stable organization. I kind of feel like I have the chance now to run my own business to see if it is a great successful startup and kind of help it with the things that make it more stable and prep it for growth.
H/R: Are you alongside Bear just trying to look for more rare objects?
MP: We love the junking. The thrill of the hunt. Try and find something that someone else thinks is worthless and then you know someone who thinks it’s valuable. That’s the exciting part of the work.
So Bear and I have expanded to have auctions now. That’s the huge part of our business that’s growing. We love going to markets and selling at different markets across the Southwest. We just wanted more flexibility to explore and then help our businesses together.
H/R: Was the vision always to have a brick and mortar?
MP: Bear loves the brick and mortar. He’s really a people person. He really loves the interactions and the conversations that happen by buying and selling. We walk into people’s lives and they’re in a really tough place.
Someone has died and they have to sell the contents or they’re moving and that’s very stressful. So we really get a chance to come into people’s lives when they’re in a time of change or they’re hurting and just trying to put a little love in their life.
The junking world is buying and selling stuff, but it’s also really deeply focused on people. I think people get what they need.
H/R: How have you and Bear seen your customers change over the years?
MP: I’d grown up in Willcox and then I was gone. I left for a lot of years. When I made the decision to come home, that was just like what would it be like?
It was such a joy to come back to the place that I grew up and get to know this community in a new way now and to serve this community.
Each store has its own regulars. Certainly there are auction people who love going to auctions. So really we have a lot of different ways to connect the people and do that over the love of cool things.
H/R: How long have you and Bear owned your shared businesses?
MP: We have kind of co-owned it from the beginning. We were in the initial stages when we met. We started with Bear’s Vintage Thrift about five years ago and then we added Vintage about two years ago and then we added the auction house about six months ago.
H/R: The auction house. Is that to take what you get from the estate sales and then sell it?
MP: So we do a couple of different things. We will sell stuff for people or we will buy stuff and then sell it. The auction house is a little more versatile for us. We can help people if they need to get rid of everything in their house.
Sometimes we just find a great item that would be perfect for the auction and we put it in the auction. It’s a little bit more flexible for us in terms of a way to sell. So sometimes we do auctions at the auction house.
H/R: How were your businesses impacted by the pandemic?
MP: The thrift store business is kind of rain or shine. Not political. Whoever is in office. It’s really a business that is fairly stable no matter what’s going on. We’re really lucky that way. The antique store Vintage, that was really impacted because we were impacted. You don’t have festivals with wine. You don’t have as many wine visitors. That store has been negatively impacted.
We made up for that by starting the auction house and building out a different revenue stream.
All in all we’ve had a great year. We’ve had people moving. They’re moving here. They’re moving out. So people are looking for furniture. They’re looking to sell things. While (the pandemic) has been a terrible thing, we’re still very lucky and we’re blessed to have weathered it well.
H/R: Have either you or Bear watched “American Pickers” and are you a fan?
MP: Yeah. In our downtime we do watch all the junking shows. There’s “Flea Market Flip” and “American Pickers” and there’s one out of England called “Salvage Hunters.”