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From Trash to Treasure

How Barby Harms became a picker
    Picking is the age-old trade of finding valuable items in other people’s junk. With the debut of American Pickers on The History Channel in 2010, the profession experienced a resurgence. That year, the show was the Number 1 non-fiction series among television viewers.
     The popular show follows two men as they scour the country — and other countries from time to time — visiting garages, basements, barns and all sort of spots where treasures may hide. Along the way, viewers learn a little history.
     Some take it a step further. We’ll call them transitional pickers. These overachievers see potential in what may to others look like junk.
     Barby Harms, owner of the Mermaid’s Cottage in Port Republic, is a Chesapeake Country picker. She combines her artistic skills and her background in interior design with picking. 
     After more than 20 years as an interior designer, Harms began painting furniture and selling it piece by piece. The economy had taken a downturn. “No one was hiring interior designers,” Harms says. “In the 1970s, when I was just starting out, I stripped furniture. In 2013, I started painting it.”
      She found she was a natural. “I get my creativity from both my parents,” Harms says. “My mom was a quilter and a seamstress. My dad taught me to use every tool we had.”
     Harms soon started selling her wares in Gypsy Faire, a Lothian shop that holds monthly sales of repurposed pieces.
     When the Ogden store was listed for sale, Harms saw her chance for independence. Opened in 1890 and operated as a country store until the 1970s, the building had fallen into disrepair.
      Saving a local landmark with a storied history appealed to Harms. She can point to the spot where the old Coca Cola cooler stood, thanks to a shopper who frequented the store. “Many people come in and share stories from times past,” Harms says. “I get to hear about the days when people would gather on the porch on rocking chairs. And how the Coke cooler was frequently broken, so the sodas were almost always sold warm.”
      Harms purchased the store in 2016 and set to work creating The Shops at Ogden’s Commons. The Mermaid’s Cottage is one of the shops located in the complex. “I’m always looking for new vendors,” Harms says. 
     Destination shopping in a restored old country store adds to buyers’ feeling they’re coming across buried treasure.
      The Shops are open the second weekend of every month, selling items ranging from unique furniture to handmade décor.
“Being open one weekend a month allows me to spend all month searching, painting and building,” Harms says.
Every Treasure Has a Tale
     And search she does, with Harms and her sister, retired teacher Peggy Denton, traveling near and far to find hidden treasures. And, just like on the show, one of the two often has to rein in the other. “My sister sometimes has to remind me, no more tin,” Harms says. “She holds me back in a good way. Everything I see that has potential, I want.”
      As she considers a potential piece, Harms looks closely at how it was made. She makes sure it’s solid and has good bones. “If parts need throwing out, that’s okay,” she says. “I may find a rotten dresser, but the knobs are worth keeping.”
      Many of the pieces in the shop have been creatively pieced together. In a corner sits a bookshelf featuring repurposed shutters. An old dresser repainted teal now sports colorful knobs in the image of mermaids.
  “When I see a piece, I see what it was and then my imagination just goes wild,” Harms says. “Maybe not the whole piece, maybe just part, maybe not instantly, but I’ll buy it and sleep on it until it all comes together.”
     Harms and Denton’s discoveries return to Maryland, where Harms sets to work transforming them one by one. Part of the old barn on the property has been — you guessed it — repurposed as her workshop. 
     In the workshop, Harms sands, paints and repurposes. She has trash bins filled with table legs and molding. Her well-organized space is divided into areas: Dressers, tables and even a wall where chairs hang.
      By the second weekend of each month The Mermaid’s Cottage is full of Harms’ reimagined finds. Now it’s your turn. You’ll find that business is brisk. “By Sunday evening,” Harms says, “the inventory is pretty wiped out.”
Appraisal Roadshow 
      Here’s your chance to find out if your own pickin’s are treasure of just trash.
      Appraisal Roadshow is coming to Chesapeake Country September 15. 
      Experts will be on hand to evaluate items including jewelry, silver, porcelain, china, artwork, coins, statues, sculptures, historic memorabilia and more.
Sept. 15, 11am-2pm, Friday’s Creek Winery, Owings. $10 per item appraised. Cash or check only. Proceeds benefit the Calvert American Antiques Arts Association: