Super Picker: Meet Cracker Barrel Antiques Guru Larry Singleton

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Sequestered in the midst of Lebanon, Tennessee, lies hidden perhaps the most fabulous antique store in America, and not one lick of it is for sale.

Take a peek inside the 26,000-square-foot Cracker Barrel Décor Warehouse, and you'll glimpse but a fraction of this mind-boggling stash of 90,000 items that reflects the America of your grandparents' generation.

The Cracker Barrel Old Country Store restaurant chain boasts 640 stores in 43 states. Each site holds about 1,000 items, thus another 700,000 pieces, give or take a few thousand. All are original. Good gravy! That means no reproductions.

Riding herd over this mammoth corral of collectibles sits laidback Larry Singleton, as congenial a Southern gent as you'll ever meet, a man who will take suspenders and blue jeans over a suit and tie any day.

"Not a bad place to have to come in every day," quipped décor manager Singleton, 58, who went to work for Cracker Barrel not long after his brother-in-law, Dan Evins, opened that first store on Sept. 19, 1969, about five miles west of Lebanon at the intersection of Highway 109 and Leeville Pike.

"I started washing dishes and bussing tables when I was 15. When I was 16, I finally got to pump gas at night. That was a good summer job," he said, recollecting back to the early years when Cracker Barrel sold Shell Gasoline and was open 24 hours a day.

Singleton was born in Lafayette, Tenn., when his parents, the late Don and Kathleen (Badgett) Singleton, were running the Cloyd Hotel in Red Boiling Springs. The family moved to Lebanon when he was young. He admits he sort of inherited his job as the Cracker Barrel decor manager since Evins hired his mother and father, who were Evins's in-laws, to fill that first restaurant's dining room and gift shop with antiques.

"My parents started Spider Web Antiques in '67. Dad loved to collect stuff, but Mom was the one who loved buying and selling antiques. When Danny got ready developing the restaurant for business on 109, he contacted them and got them to come in. Mom and Dad had to find 48 feet of floor model and countertop showcases," he recalled.

"They were trying to figure out what they were doing. They were gonna sell gas and food and had a gift shop area where could sell novelties and antiques. Mom decorated that first store. They sold antiques for the first four or five years.

"When they were stocking the shop at Spider Web, they were getting things locally at auctions and making house calls, and they set up at flea markets in Nashville and Memphis. After the second and third stores opened, they got a glimpse [of things to come] and knew they might have to get out and scour the country."

That sent his folks off on buying trips to the Northeast.

"When they went on long-range trips for two to three weeks, I would stay home. I had to go to school," said the 1976 Lebanon High graduate. "But after '79, when my Mom got sick, I started going on trips with Dad. He was obliged to show me where all these places were, all the big flea markets all over the country."

That included antique extravaganzas held in such places as Brimfield, Massachusetts; Adamstown, Pennsylvania; Atlanta, Georgia; and Canton, Texas.

"Cracker Barrel had two company cars. We would drive a station wagon up there and then rent U-Hauls and Ryder Trucks and load them up. As it evolved, we had a tractor-trailer set and had 'em delivered back here."

As for the marvelous menagerie of antique items packed from row to row and from floor to ceiling in the warehouse, it might be easier to list what's not here than what is. The collection encompasses vintage metal advertising signs, barber poles, lard cans, Coca-Cola vending machines, oil cans, glassware, old tools, sports equipment, radios, calendars, magazine advertisements, gumball machines, wooden barrels, framed photographs, coffee pots, crock jugs, wash boards, toys, mantel clocks, wagon wheels and on and on.

When new old items are delivered to the Décor Warehouse, they are restored if needed, then cleaned, prepped and catalogued and placed on shelves in the front section of the Décor Warehouse until they are pulled and sent to new stores.

When Cracker Barrel picks a location for a new store, the Décor team, who form a blend of antique doctors, history detectives and archivists, will research the town and dig up information about its people, businesses and agriculture. They use those facts to assemble a batch of items to reflect the community.

"We predesign every store. We come up with a design for the walls of the dining room and front porch and put it together here. Then we photograph each little section and disassemble it, and then we load it out to the store. This one," he said, standing in the middle of a mock-up, "is going to Snellville, Ga."

Singleton, who has been to at least 200 of the Cracker Barrel sites, noted, "I started here in '79 [in the warehouse], working hourly with Daddy. I went from hourly to salary in '81 so I've got 35 years officially."

As décor manager, he said, "The biggest thing is overseeing the department, procuring and buying. By doing all this for years, I built relationships with dealers across the country. So now they'll get in touch with me and see if I'm interested, but I still go to auctions and flea markets."

He currently works with four or five pickers across the U.S. but has dealt with as many as two dozen.

"The first time I heard the word picker was in upstate New York from a fellow named Glen Smith. He said, 'I'm a picker,' and I thought, 'What an odd phrase.' He was really proud to be a picker and had it in his obituary that he picked for Cracker Barrel," said Singleton.

Asked to select five of his favorite items inside the gargantuan antiques storehouse, he ticked off these pieces: a 1916 Coca-Cola banner, Dr. Daniels veterinary cabinet from the 1930s, an Orange Crush bottle cap sign, a reverse glass Peters Shoes sign and a Jeep pedal car from the 1940s.

"I kind a lust after it every time when I pass it," he confessed of the latter item.

Singleton, who has lived in the same house for the past 50 years, the same place from which his parents operated Spider Web Antiques, does a bit of collecting himself.

"I like advertising and any unique country store pieces and anything early from Lebanon and Castle Heights (Military Academy) memorabilia."

When not handling nostalgic goodies, he enjoys going to the beach with his wife, Pandy, and he likes creating oversized guitars from old barn tin. He just completed a 6-foot-tall Les Paul electric guitar, and he has a 10-foot-tall metal guitar in the lobby of Carter Vintage Guitars in downtown Nashville.

"What I've enjoyed most about my job is getting to know the people I've bought from and working with the people here. And I still love uncovering old dusty treasures," said Singleton, himself a treasure trove of knowledge of Cracker Barrel's 47-years of operation.

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