After watching one episode of "American Pickers," the popular History Channel series, you start to "get" Don Orlandi, the owner of Past Perfect, "a retro-nostalgia store," as he calls it, which recently opened downtown. On the program, the two stars — pickers — scour the country for "rusty gold," as they call it, and turn "trash" into highly collectible treasures that people simply cannot live without. In Orlandi's case, his pickers are auctioneers and collectors.

"They pick up stuff at auction, usually online" he explains, "and if it doesn't work, we refurbish it, repair it and put it on the market where it gets a second life."

Born in Sonoma, Orlandi and his family moved to San Rafael where they opened a body and fender business. After 38 years, it was sold in 2004. Orlandi currently lives in San Anselmo but his claim to fame — and Petaluma connection — goes back to the '70s.

"We restored nine cars for George Lucas' American Graffiti," he recalls. "But I did this kind of work at the family garage when a friend might ask me to paint his Coke machine or to customize a refrigerator. For a while in 2004 I had a store in Novato but the building was torn down and I wound up moving into a warehouse in San Anselmo."

How did he come to open his "retro–nostalgia store" in Petaluma?

"I was restoring a jukebox for the owner of this building (400 Western Ave.)," says Orlandi, "and he told me that this space was being vacated by the coppersmith and that I needed to move in. It was a no-brainer, because we were busting out of our warehouse."

Almost as important as the item itself, is its place in history, its former life and its fascinating journey from "worthless" to priceless.

One of Orlandi's current projects is putting together a rather unusual jigsaw puzzle: an early 1950s Hires Root Beer kegerator, which apparently fell off the back of a moving truck. With help from master woodworker, Petaluma resident Perry Boswell (his electronics maven is Ed Davis), the old-fashioned wooden exterior, bottom slats, elaborate tap, and dented metal innards are splayed out on the floor of a workroom as if for surgery.

Its history is pure Americana. Charles Hires, a Philadelphia pharmacist, created a recipe for a "delicious herbal tea" while on his honeymoon. He introduced the country's first root beer at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition and over the years it became a great success.

Hires was the first U.S. businessman to aggressively advertise his product. The keg/cooler is a prime example of a bygone era and a bygone product. Now to put the puzzle together.

"Nothing comes with instructions," says Orlandi. "We love tinkering, fixing things, finding the parts, and if we can't find them, we manufacture them. If we can't, we go outside and find somebody who can."

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Past Perfect was an eclectic beehive of visitors: People of all ages from Sonoma County and London, England, drifted in and out, oohing and aahing over the rows of reconditioned jukeboxes and console radios, arcade (pinball, video and shooting) games, vintage Coca-Cola machines, Harley-Davidsons, character telephones (Goofy, Marvin the Martian, Scooby-Doo etc.), and other memorabilia.

Skylar Gabany, an 18-year old Petaluma High School student, whispered, "Wow!" a number of times as he took in the bold graphics on a row of arcade games from the 1970s.

"When I was 6 or 7 years old, I had a pinball machine that I played all the time," Gabany explains. "I'm a huge fan of retro games. I still have the original, old PlayStation (1995) and an Atari (1977). There are a lot of us at my age who like the antique games. We love the whole culture."

Clearly, "antique" is in the mind of the beholder.

"The school kids come in all the time and want to play the machines," Orlandi says. "We keep telling them we are not an arcade."

Past Perfect is located at 400 Western Ave. For information, call (415) 847-0905 or visit www.pastperfectbiz.com.

(Contact Bob Canning at argus@arguscourier.com)