By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
These were losses that Orr sustained with good grace. There's an excruciatingly obvious but unavoidable irony in Orr's life: He's a minimalist.
"You get jaded, being in the stuff business," he offers. "I have a couple of cool things I've kept through the years because they had stories behind them that meant something to me, but when business took a dive, I sold them off. My rule is, 'Everything is for sale.'"
No one knows this rule better than Shannon Narron, Orr's 27-year-old daughter. She lived with her dad through her teen years and remembers on more than one occasion coming home to find the sofa gone.
"I grew up in a gallery of constantly rotating furniture and artwork," Narron says with no trace of bitterness. "Nothing stayed long. If he got a good price for it, it was out the door."
She's proud of what her father made of his life, she says. Her childhood taught her to roll with the punches, helped her grow a tough skin. She needed one, growing up in Scottsdale.
"My friends' dads were lawyers and doctors," she explains. "Nobody I knew even knew what a picker was. I couldn't have a sleepover because the beds might have been sold the day before. Or because there was no place to sleep over at, because we weren't living anywhere."
It was embarrassing, she says. But there were good times. "Dad would get a big score, and we'd go out to dinner and have fun and he'd be real happy. Then there were weeks where he wasn't finding anything, and it was macaroni and cheese and hanging around the house. Which was OK too."
Narron remains bewildered, she says, by her father's ability to survive without what she considers essential comforts. "I always ask him, 'How can you not have a toaster?' I go to see him, and he has this great piece of art, but there's nothing to sit on."
"I have always been mystified by the value of things," Orr says. "I've sold quarter-million-dollar paintings to guys who just bought a signature on a piece of old canvas. I've sold valuable paintings to people who have said, 'Can you hold the check until payday?' I'd want to say, 'Are you shitting me? You're spending next week's paycheck on a painting instead of food?' But I'd be like, 'OK. Whatever. I'll hold your check for $10,000.'"
Those days are long past. Earlier this year, one of Orr's most reliable clients, an art collector in Maui, returned to Orr a canvas he'd been considering for some weeks. "The guy loved the painting," Orr says, "but he said, 'I can't buy it because I lost $10 million on the stock market last week.' You know you're in trouble when billionaires are passing on your stuff."
The world's most famous picker is on the prowl. It's nearly lunchtime on a Saturday in early fall; Orr has been driving around the many cities and towns that make up metropolitan Phoenix since before 8 a.m.—practically the middle of the day for a professional picker—looking for posterboard signs pointing to estate sales. In the old days, he'd have left the house before the sun rose. "And," he says, jabbing a thumb behind him at the empty interior of his van, "this truck would have been packed with amazing things. Packed."
Monday used to be Sun City, a retirement mecca on the far west side of the Valley (metropolitan Phoenix); Tuesday he'd have headed to Apache Junction on the other side of the Valley. He drove farther too: to Prescott once a week, to Flagstaff every other week. A weekly haul from Las Vegas always netted him an unusual amount of mid-century modern furniture. He knew on what day each thrift store in Los Angeles and Orange County put out new merchandise. Most shops held items for him, based on what he'd bought from them the last time he was there. Once his van was full, he'd head home.
"When I was pounding hard, I was covering an entire half of the Valley in a day," he says. "There was plenty of competition back then, but if some other guy got something I'd missed, I thought, 'Eh. There's so much crap out here, I don't even care.'"
Today, he barely slows his van as he cruises past the umpteenth north Scottsdale estate sale of the morning. He can tell, he says, whether there's anything interesting inside based on what's for sale on the driveway. "Piles of baby clothes out front," he explains, "means flatware from IKEA in the kitchen."
Orr pulls up in front of a tract home draped with a banner announcing "Susie's Estate Sales!" and disappears inside. The house smells like adult diapers and despair. A cheerful woman clutching a cash box near the door calls out, "We're makin' deals today, fellas!" A handmade sign behind her reads, "Hi-Fi not for sell."
With a little coaching from Orr, it's easy to spot the other pickers: They're quiet, moving quickly through the house. They're not the gals chatting while they paw through a box of soiled linens marked "$2 each, firm!" or the fellow considering the dented cookie press for seventy-five cents. One picker holds up a Fiestaware disc pitcher, and his companion rolls her eyes and whispers, "Repro!" The two head for the door.