by Brett Freeman

Matt Rowell is an amateur “picker.” That is, he attends yard and estate sales, looking for items of value.

And while this relatively new definition of “picker” as a hobby or even profession doesn’t yet appear in dictionaries, many Americans are nevertheless familiar with it due to cable shows such as “Storage Wars,” “American Restoration,” and of course, “American Pickers,” which all revolve around the theme of finding treasure in a junk pile.

By most measures, Rowell is successful at doing this. He has found items of value. He is learning what to look for and developing a good eye. Most important, he has fun picking. But from a dollars-and-cents perspective, Rowell is a dismal failure, albeit by choice, because instead of cashing in on his two most valuable finds – for which he paid a total of 50 cents – he instead gives them away.

The most recent example was after Rowell picked up an old-looking book titled “Women of Worth” at local yard sale. As he thumbed through it, he noticed a hand-written inscription inside the front cover that was dated June 1, 1866, and signed, “A.T. Latta.” Being a native of the area, Rowell immediately recognized the Latta name. His subsequent research has confirmed that the signature is very likely that of Albert Torrence Latta, grandson of James Latta, who built Latta Plantation in the early 1800s.

Rowell says he had the book appraised by a local book dealer, who estimated its value at around $75, $500 if the signature can be authenticated.

That would be a pretty healthy return on his 50-cent investment, but Rowell isn’t going to sell it. Instead, he’s decided to donate the book to Historic Latta Plantation, which has restored the original buildings on the property and conducts tours and other events to show what life on the farm would have been like nearly 200 years ago.

Rowell says it was an easy decision to donate the book rather than sell it.

“It’s just worth so much more to them,” he says.

Last year, he came across a trash bag containing items apparently discarded by former Carolina Panther Kris Jenkins, including his locker placard and the team playbook for the 2004 Super Bowl. Some of the items he kept – Rowell is a big Panthers’ fan – but he returned the playbook to the team.

Rowell admits finding the Panthers items was a fluke.

The book signed by A.T. Latta is more typical of what he’s looking for. He has been a collector – of stamps, of coins – for most of his life, and says his Aunt Glenna Bowen, of Monroe, got him interested in antiques and historical artifacts early.

“She really got me hooked on it because she would give me these books that would say,’One man’s junk is another man’s treasure.’ I’m not really looking for something worth a lot of money. I try to find one-of-a-kind stuff, stuff that has a story. I think it’s a better find.”