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October 23, 2017

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Q+A: Las Vegas’ ‘buy low, sell high’ ‘Thrift Hunters’ search for hidden gems to flip for big bucks


Spike TV

Jason T. Smith and Bryan Goodman of Las Vegas star in Spike TV’s “Thrift Hunters.”

‘Thrift Hunters’ on Spike TV

Bryan Goodman and Jason T. Smith of Las Vegas star in Spike TV’s Launch slideshow »

Thrift Hunters

Rummaging through rubbish, rifling through rejects, digging through discarded items and sifting through shelves in dusty warehouses doesn’t sound like a modern-day, cross-country treasure hunt. But for Las Vegas “thrifting duo” Jason T. Smith and Bryan Goodman, it’s far more than just a day’s work.

They’ve turned it into the new, weekly Spike reality TV series “Thrift Hunters,” and in the three weeks since its debut, ratings are increasing, and industry insiders are abuzz that it will give another rival Las Vegas reality TV hit, “Pawn Stars,” a run for its money.

Spike’s cameras follow the twosome as they hit thrift shops, flea markets and garage sales across the Las Vegas Valley and then cross-country on the hunt for the best-hidden items that can prove very valuable. As they scour America looking for hidden gems among the unwanted, the unnecessary and the useless, they stick to their mantra of “buy low and sell high.”

Once they’ve found their treasure from somebody else’s trash — be it rare old “Gone With the Wind” tickets or 1960 Disney education cards — the real drama begins as they haggle to pay the lowest price only to turn around as fast as possible to put up their strategically purchased items for auction and haggle again to get the best resale price.

It really pays off big time as I discovered talking with them after Saturday’s most recent broadcast:

Is it fun, is it dangerous, is it challenging, is it difficult to spend your lives going through other people’s garbage?

Bryan Goodman: A little bit of all, but being big guys, I don’t think the danger comes into it too often, though.

Well, a vintage typewriter from yesteryear could fall on your feet.

B.G.: That’s true. We’ve found the old Smith Corona typewriters, but they haven’t fallen on top of us yet.

The show has been on a couple of week. Has it changed your life in any way?

Jason T. Smith: I don’t know if it’s changed our lives overnight, but slowly. We still do what we do. We’re still selling online. I think if anything, it’s just brought us more attention. We keep hearing from people who wouldn’t talk to us in the past are all of a sudden finding us.

The amount of friend requests I’ve had in the past two, three weeks has been insane. Friends who we never knew we had. Friends who I haven’t talked with since high school are suddenly like, “Hey, Jason! How are ya, TV show guy?!”

The big difference between your show and “Pawn Stars” is they loan money against things while you actually take possession; you gamble. You make an investment in someone else’s trash and turn it into your treasure. Is that a correct analysis?

J.S.: Very correct, and because Bryan and I do it well, we say it’s gambling without much worry of loss. There are days where Bryan and I have made a mistake and bought one item that wasn’t the winner, but 99 times out of 100 they are winners. So if you know what you’re doing, it’s kind of like gambling, but gambling with a heck of a house edge.

B.G.: It’s not necessarily the best, but the most recent real good return was something from the show that aired this past weekend. I bought a wooden village. Jason thought I was a little out of my mind to even attempt this thing because there were so many pieces, 11 pieces of wood.

I bought the whole deal of an old wooden dollhouse in pieces for $75, a handcrafted item that somebody probably made in the 1950s or ’60s as a project. It was heavy, and I thought maybe I’d sell it locally or use it for a Christmas display or something, but I sold it for $500. I’m very pleased with that.

That’s the other thing I like about what we do. It can be very fulfilling because we satisfy someone looking for something for years and years and years, and we find it for them. They stumble on us, and they buy it, This was just something a little quirky, a little different, a little out of the ordinary.

Well, turning $75 into $500 overnight is a better return than Wall Street. How far will you travel to buy something?

J.S. In December, I drove from Las Vegas to L.A., then L.A. to San Francisco, then back to L.A., then back to Las Vegas. What I do every year is I buy some Christmas music. Most stores just stick it out in their bins, kind of budget priced and not realizing there’s some really rare amount of Christmas CDs. I’ll spend five days on the road buying 200 to 300 CDs and then get them all sold before Christmas and make enough to make a profit and cover the trip.

What on earth got you into this? You don’t graduate college saying I’m going to go out into the world and rummage through rubbish, buy low and sell high. When did the bug bite you?

J.S.: For me, I was 10 years old. My mom and my grandma took me to a community sale in front of one of the local high schools, and I realized with the $20 I had in my pocket that I could buy twice as many toys that were slightly used as opposed to going to Toys R Us.

That’s when the bug bit me. I knew I could get more for my money by just buying used items. I started selling online in the late 1990s; that’s when I really got hooked and made it a full-time career about seven years ago.

So full time seven years ago. Where did you meet Bryan, and how did you partner up?

J.S.: Bryan and I met at an eBay event and started just hanging out and chit chatting one day. We became friends over two years of eBay events. He asked if I’d take him thrifting. At the time, he did not live in Las Vegas; I did. My initial thought was hell no because if I take other friends to my thrift spots, they’re going to buy the stuff I would have bought.

Luckily, I thought better of it because that’s what kind of turned into where we’re at today. We had a great afternoon shopping, and we taught each other what to look for and what to pass on from our individual strengths, and it was a lot of fun. We both said, “We’ve got something here.”

B.G.: As we were shopping from one store to the next, we started talking about how this would make a good TV show. We were having so much fun looking for things and finding things that one would buy and somebody wouldn’t, it just became this thing. This was long before this genre of reality TV shows was even popular. We just thought that this would be something that people would find interesting.

Click to enlarge photo

Jason T. Smith of Las Vegas stars in Spike TV’s “Thrift Hunters.”

Click to enlarge photo

Bryan Goodman of Las Vegas stars in Spike TV’s "Thrift Hunters."

Where did this profession of thrifting come from? I like that name: thrifting. You’re professional thrifters.

B.G.: I think it means different things to different people. There are a lot people who go thrifting for personal pleasure, to take care of their families, to stretch their budget; they’re not doing it for resale. We kind of use the term thrifting as a form of going out and buying things to flip and sale.

That’s what it’s come to mean to us and our members; we’ve got more than 6,000 members in our Facebook group. We help people with their thrifting finds and what to buy and how to list and sell it. So thrifting sort of means a number of things to different people.

Is there any shortage of stuff to flip and sell?

J.S.: That’s a good question because a lot of people think that our show is going to ruin it for the rest of the thrifters. In shooting the show, we’ve realized that there’s more stuff than I could ever buy, and there are more customers than I could ever satisfy, so why not share the love. No matter how many shows are on TV or what articles are written, there’s always stuff being thrown out.

Not everybody knows how to do it or wants to do it but I never leave a thrift store without a full cart. There’s always such good and different stuff. Las Vegas is a particularly great town because people move in and out all day everyday, and there’s always good stuff in the stores here. Thrifting never ends.

Are you on a never-ending scavenger hunt?

J.S.:Absolutely, and you’re right, we like the hunt. To me, it’s about the fun of it. I want to make sure I’m at a point in my life that if I’m working, I’m enjoying it, and I enjoy every moment of what I do right now. It pays the bills, but I like that hunt.

You never know what’s around the next corner. Like in our first episode, I sold a limited-edition jacket from the 1986 cult film “Rad” for $700. If I didn’t go to the thrift store that day, I wouldn't have found it.

Now Jason, obviously when you go out scavenger hunting, you’ve got no idea what you’ll come across, but is there actually one thing that you’re really looking for? Ever looking out for something you would love to stumble across and keep for yourself?

J.S.: There’s this one CD I’ve been searching for 20-plus years and two tiki mugs. I’ve been on the hunt for my entire career. They exist, they’re out there, but they’re very rare, so that’s kind of my driving force besides obviously paying the bills. I’m always on a hunt for a CD and two tiki mugs. The CD is of The J. Geils Band. Peter Wolf quit the J. Geils Band in the late 1980s, and they released one more album with Seth Justman, their keyboard, player singing lead.

Most people hate it, I kind of liked it, and it only ever came out on CD for a very short time in Japan. Of course I could just take the record and whip it into the computer and put it on a CD, but I’m a collector, so I want the actual CD. I’ve been hunting for that CD for 20 years now.

The main tiki one is called “The Severed Head,” and if you Google it, you’ll see it. It looks like an upside-down severed head, and if and when they do show up online, it’ll go for $1,000 to $1500; it’s that rare and sought after. Of course I could pay retail for it, but being thriftier, it’s all about the hunt. I’m hoping to find it one day for 50 bucks.

B.G.: I’m not as attached to things as Jason is. Mostly I’m looking for things that I think other people will appreciate world wide, and that’s a big part of what Jason and I do. You don’t just think locally and buy locally. We think about how we can sell our goods and things people want all over the world. The last 10 years or so of the Internet have made it possible for us to really conduct commerce worldwide.

We’ve just finished the fourth episode, and the initial commitment for our first season was eight shows. We’re halfway, and the ratings are doing very well. Spike is very happy with the show, so we’re hoping Season 2 will be announced soon.

I hope that I’m going to make both of you laugh .It’s not said with disrespect, so laugh along. You’re really both very cheap guys!

J.S.: Yes! In fact, it’s a badge of honor. We don’t mind being called that. It proves we’re doing our job — and successfully. Back in the day, I’d love to wander a mall, but I can’t think of anything worse now. I will go to a thrift store all day every day. Hunt for the deal, using my coupons, going on sale day; I love it. I absolutely love what I do.

Are the best bargains really hidden at the back and bottom of everything?

J.S.: Some of the best bargains are on the top or bottom shelf because everybody else is middle-sized. Bryan and I are tall, so we always see the top shelf, and then if we’re feeling particularly active that day, we’ll get on our hands and knees and check out the bottom shelf. Most people just concentrate on just what’s at their eye line.

By day, you have to be professionally cheap, but has it paid off by night so you live the good life? Torn jeans by day digging in the dirt and by night a Rolls?

B.G.:Well, you’re interviewing us! We do have excellent lifestyles here in Las Vegas, but we’re not at that champagne and caviar caliber yet. But we’re open to it!

J.S.:We’re striving for it, that’s for sure. I have a nice car and a nice house and a great wife and three lovely dogs. I’m content. Anything that comes along now is just gravy.

Are your lives a gamble in the sense that every day you go out, some people go to the office, you go sniffing out bargains, but you’ve got no idea if you’ll find junk or trash or something you can resell. Is going to work every day a total gamble for you?

B.G: Yes, but we do this all the time. We have a good backlog of stuff that we’re constantly listing and selling, and we’re not piece by piece going out, buying something, and selling it. We have thousands of items available to sell and list at any moment, and we’re constantly going out and adding to our inventory.

Yeah, it’s a challenge every day. You have some days where you do well and sell a lot of stuff or find a lot of stuff, and other days it’s a little disappointing. But over the long haul, we just love what we’re doing, and it’s satisfying. Garage sale-ing on a Saturday can be real fun if people start selling at the time they’ve advertised. I’ve seen Jason get into fights at garage sales. We’re that passionate about what we do!

“Thrift Hunters” airs on Spike every Saturday at 9:30 p.m. (ET/PT). Cox Cable Channel 29 , CenturyLink Prism Channel 146 and Dish Channel 241.

Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

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