STEUBENVILLE - Joe Matuska was an "American Picker" long before the lifestyle was splashed all over TV screens.
Matuska, now 62, started buying and selling items that intrigued him more than 40 years ago, back when he was 16 and still in high school. Turns out he was good at it, and for more than 30 years actually made a living picking through other people's cast-offs and collectibles.
"It's hard to explain," said Matuska, a Steubenville native. "Going to the flea market, it's such a high ... it'd be like somebody else, a gambler, going to a casino. It just makes me feel good."
COLLECTING THE PAST — Steubenville resident Joe Matuska, a local collector, has an eye for old oil cans, among other items. -- Linda Harris
There are no hard and fast rules to picking. Rather, it's a question of sifting through mountains of old items in search of those that might be of interest to collectors. Sometimes it's just a particular type of memorabilia that catches the eye; other times it's the scarcity, how other people react to it or even just plain old gut instinct.
Above all, it takes a good eye, something Matuska has always had.
"I started collecting things," Matuska said. "I'd buy two or three things, keep one and sell the other two. It ended up being a full-blown business, I realized other people wanted the same stuff."
His first big-ticket buy was a 1931 Model A Ford when he was 16. He followed that up a year later with a 1930 Model A.
"I just kept buying things and cars, probably drove my parents crazy," he said. "I remember that '31 Model A sitting in their garage and my dad's new car was left outside."
After graduating from Catholic Central High School in 1967, Matuska enrolled at what was then the College of Steubenville.
The following year he got a full-time job - one he didn't much like - in one of the local steel mills.
"One day I just decided I didn't want to work in the mill anymore, I'd been there 12 years. I just quit and started the shop here (in Steubenville). I had enough stuff (in storage) to sell here. Years later I bought the house next door, too. After that I built a warehouse in back, then I bought another building, an old hobby shop," he said.
These days Matuska has four storage buildings, all filled with assorted memorabilia. Though he only opens his storefront now by appointment, he still spends time each week buying things that interest him and selling those that no longer do, usually at auction.
His taste currently runs to old service station signs and logos (he has more than 400 of them) as well as old oil cans (more than 500 of them), pedal cars and old metal toys he keeps in warehouses around town. He also has a collection of hard-to-find Coca-Cola memorabilia and is actively seeking vintage Volkswagen buses and just about anything else that catches his eye.
"I collect stuff for so long, then I don't know whether it's that I get bored, but I sell them or put them in the auction," he said. "Then I start all over again."
But even he says it's not as easy as it used to be.
The Internet age has made hard-to-find items common, "and it's affected the value of everything."
"People are over-educated with the Internet," he said.
"Years ago people would call me to come in and make an offer, now they're getting their information on the Internet but they're not always getting true information."
Most of what he buys now he takes to auction, because with the high price of gas people aren't quite so eager to drive to a brick-and-mortar store on the off-chance they'll find something they like.
"You make money on some, you lose money on some," Matuska said. "Somebody once told me, 'If you're not losing money on things, you're not buying enough.' You've got to buy and buy. It's just a crapshoot: One week something will do good at auction, the next week it won't. Some of the pieces I got 10, maybe 20 years ago are probably worth about half what they used to be because of eBay and the Internet. I sold a sign a couple months ago for about half what I'd paid for it, but I didn't want to gamble."
Matuska, though, said it's as much a lifestyle as a vocation. Many of the people he met 20 and 30 years ago when he was breaking into the business are still doing it today.
"If I were to go to Rogers (flea market) today I'd see the same people I saw there in October and November," he said.
"People always say they're going to retire and open an antique store - I've been doing it all these years and there've been good times, there've been bad times but it's always a lot of fun. It's not like you're working."