ST. PETERSBURG — At America's Auction Network, company buyers comb the world for unusual collectibles and trinkets not found at traditional stores.
Fossils, commemorative coins, American Indian artwork, vintage military swords, Persian rugs and gemstones — all sold to the highest bidder.
Modern-day treasure hunter Jeremiah Hartman founded the live auction TV show in 2002 as a marketplace for eclectic goods. Sometimes described as the eBay of TV, its customers purchase items through auctions or buy them instantly online.
At a time when other retailers are seeing flat sales, business at AAN is booming. Last year, the network did 50,000 to 60,000 transactions a month for a total of about $100 million in revenue.
And the harsh winter that hurt many retailers? AAN had record-breaking sales the past few months, largely because more snow means more TV watching.
Hartman started the business out of a 3,760-square-foot building across from St. Petersburg High School but quickly outgrew it and moved to its current 30,000-square-foot home in the former First Florida Bank at 289 34th St. N in St. Petersburg.
The collection is an extension of what Hartman loves, from antique pocket watches to Megalodon shark teeth. Everything has a good story behind it, meaning you won't find vacuum cleaners, skinny jeans or antiwrinkle cream.
"We look for rare stuff at great prices," said Hartman, 56, who lives in Treasure Island. "We don't want the stuff that Walmart, Target and HSN has."
Raised in New Mexico, Hartman started out making turquoise and silver jewelry, a craft he says he learned as a teenager from his grandfather, an American Indian. Hartman sold his jewelry to the Home Shopping Network (now HSN) and, at one point, owned 15 jewelry stores and kiosks in Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee, including one at the former Gateway Mall in St. Petersburg.
Hartman joined Jewelry Television in the mid 1990s, selling his jewelry and gemstones as a host and vendor affiliate for the cable show. He closed his last store in 2001 and, seeing a market for auctioning collectibles on TV, started the network.
At first, the show aired for four hours a few nights a week. In January, it went 24/7, with time slots dedicated for specific items and special collections, from Asian art to fur coats. The cable broadcast is available to an estimated 42 million households nationwide.
The network initially sold jewelry but expanded to coins, artwork, antiques and rugs. In 2007 during the housing crisis, AAN added a real estate division, selling up to 30 distressed properties a night in Florida, Georgia, Arizona and other states.
"It can take me 20 minutes to cash a check at a bank, but I can sell you a house in 15 minutes," he said.
Hartman runs a no-frills operation. Most of the building equipment and fixtures were cobbled together from companies that went out of business. The original cubicles for the phone operators were made from old shoe display cases at a store. His brother built the computer system.
"Paying full price is against my religion," said Hartman, who drives a 2008 pickup and shops for clothing at a local thrift store.
His 170 employees, including 10 of his relatives, fill every nook of the two-story building, a hoarder's dream, with merchandise packed from floor to ceiling. The coin team works in an old bank vault. To avoid theft, everyone must pass through a metal detector at the front door.
Items come from many places — art dealers and galleries, estate sales and store bankruptcies. About half is sold on consignment; Hartman owns the rest.
Auctioneers boast that everything sells below retail, often by 70 percent. Many of the customers are dealers who resell their purchases. Last year, one shopper bought $1 million worth of goods.
The company guarantees the authenticity of all items and gives customers 10 business days to return a purchase for a refund, which doesn't cover shipping. Much like the building, AAN isn't squeaky clean.
The company has a C rating with the Better Business Bureau based on 49 complaints filed over three years and isn't accredited through the bureau, which requires businesses meet certain standards. Several complaints relate to the quality of goods or delay of delivery, which can take up to six weeks for coins because of the high number of orders.
Marketing director Jason Tropf said the company didn't pay attention to the BBB issues until recently and has since closed every complaint. It hasn't become accredited because it didn't want to pay the fee for the review, and 49 dissatisfied people over three years is minuscule compared with the overall number of customers, he said.
AAN has been hiring for all areas — phones, customer service, shipping — and recently spruced up the studio area with laminate wood floors and new photo operator stations.
Starting this summer, the network will venture into Hartman's latest interest: gold mining. Customers will be able to buy the mining rights to acreage in Alaska and out West, something Hartman said isn't offered anywhere else on TV. There's no guarantee the land has gold, but all the plots are near established sites. Starting bid prices haven't been set.
Hartman is confident that mining will be a huge hit, based on all the buzz about prospecting. Last year, AAN sold more than $5 million in Alaskan gold nuggets. Discovery Channel's Gold Rush recently was the No. 1 cable show on Friday nights.
Last week, he and a crew were in New Mexico prospecting and filming gold mines.
"I like to be the first person to do something," he said.
Susan Thurston can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 225-3110.