A Nation Held in Thrall by Life's Flea Market


He hurtles toward you, unleashing a stampede of verbs and nouns. He is talking product, talking art. "The art of regular people!" he booms, finger jabbing alarmingly eyeward. His face squinches into a raisin and reinflates as he ascends the onramp of rant. This is his favorite subject, and by golly, you're going to listen.

He's talking America--rocket-shaped vacuum cleaners and Skippy peanut butter and go-carts and Farrah Fawcett-Majors throw pillows and boxes upon boxes of Tide.

Alex Shear knows about it all because Alex Shear has it all.

Like so many of us, he is a collector, though he despises the word. Others collect one thing, maybe two: baseball cards, cookie jars, railroad memorabilia. But this guy, he collects everything--more than 100,000 items over 30 years, 11 storage spaces in three states, fistfuls of money spent cutting swaths across the flea-market belt.

He's on a mission, this wild-haired man who peers up, up, up to the pinnacle of our era and sees, right there on top, the Juice King juicer.

"I'm putting together America like a great puzzle," Alex Shear enthuses.

They speak to him, these objects. They tell American stories-- of families and generations, of war and peace and ingenuity and capitalist ambition. The same things that whisper to the rest of us, except to him they are shouting.

We are three generations into being a society of products and things, defined by what we buy and how we interact with it. We are filling up our houses--and ourselves.

Over the years, the wise, wacky human being that is Alex Shear realized something. With each piece of the puzzle, he is collecting one more bit of himself.

And in smaller, quieter ways, so are we all.

When Marie Egleston died in suburban Philadelphia earlier this year, her son knew she kept salt and pepper shakers, but what he found amazed him: 725 sets, including praying hands, lightbulbs, even a mother kangaroo with two joeys in her pouch.

"My father kept building racks to hold them after the three china closets were at capacity," said her son, Jim. "Then the bedroom drawers became filled."

Around the same time, in Atlantic City, N.J., Harry Mehlman III put up for bid on eBay some sand "scooped from the beach mere hours before being sent to you." A Palm Beach, Fla., woman bid 99 cents.

"I said, 'Why are you buying sand? Don't you have enough?' She said she has sand from all over the world," Mehlman said.

The collectors are your neighbors, cousins, colleagues. Folks like Fay and Jimmy Rodolfos of Woburn, Mass. (Dionne quintuplets memorabilia), Robert Ouellette of East Longmeadow, Mass. (chain saws), and Ben Guttery of Fort Worth, Texas (airline barf bags; more than 900). Members of the National Cuff Link Society or the Blow Torch Collectors Club or the Roy Rogers-Dale Evans Collectors Assn.

That collecting has become big business goes without saying; just watch the "Antiques Roadshow." But the diversity of exuberant acquisitiveness shows how American capitalism and American collecting have spent much of the past century walking hand in hand through technological innovation, a manufacturing golden age, a disposable culture and a baby boom that initiated a national craving for postwar childhood trappings--everything from boomerang-dappled Formica tables to "Brady Bunch" lunch boxes.

"Since we don't have any battlefields we want to talk about, we have commodified our adolescence," Joe Queenan writes in "Balsamic Dreams: A Short but Self-Important History of the Baby Boomer Generation."

So we have shopping as an activity rather than a means to an end. We have the Franklin Mint, which produces collectibles-to-be for every interest--from medieval dragons to miniature John Deere tractors.

And we have the master, Alex Shear, collecting his way across the land. Or, on a recent day, across southeastern Pennsylvania.

An Antiquer's Nirvana

Take the Pennsylvania Turnpike west from Philadelphia for an hour, then pick an exit--21, maybe, or 20. You'll roll into a region that bills itself as America's antiques capital. This is the land of Alex Shear's childhood.

Straddling the turnpike are dozens of antiques shops, shacks, even gas stations purveying yesterday's itemry. Amid this clutter, the 60-year-old Shear finds nirvana.

He is fairly vibrating as he walks the aisles of the Mill Property Antique Mall. Yet there is a peace about him, too, as he loses himself in the jungle of cheese graters, rusting marjoram tins and postcards from vacations long forgotten.

"I own about 500 potato mashers," he says to no one in particular.

Think for a moment, and his enthusiasm becomes understandable. That Fiestaware plate--a mother probably fed her child on it after World War II. That Tasty-Flake potato chips tin--a bunch of buddies reached into it, perhaps, while watched the Philadelphia Eagles on their new RCA color TV in 1968. American life unfolded, and these objects were part of it.

And what drives Shear to collect is what drives many of us--memories of a safe childhood world that crackled with possibility.

One grandfather ran a department store; the other worked in the grocery business. His parents were toy distributors. "Every dinner," Shear recalls, "love came through stuff."

While his twin brother, Ted, became a food wholesaler, he trained as a marketer and became a product developer. Once, in 1970, he "went out into the fields of America to take back the American kitchen" (he doesn't say who took it away in the first place) and collected 1,000 gingham curtains to develop a line for J.C. Penney.

But in the early 1970s, something short-circuited. A lawsuit stole his mojo and some of his money (a lot was left over from astute investments, which funded his years of obsession), and he got out of the world of inventing products and into the world of collecting them.

"I lost my way," he says. "No! I found my way!"

Kitchenware was the first obsession, stacked in his mother's cellar so high that his twin brother worried for his sanity. Thousands of dollars--squandered, some said; invested, Shear insists. He began to visit flea markets and watched the people.

"It was like going to a chiropractor for them. They walked out straight up--the posture! And I wanted to collect these people."

He had to settle for their things.

History Written in Tchotchkes

Amid Upstate New York's rolling hills and lakes sits one of the most famous collections in the land. In Cooperstown, at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, you'll find Honus Wagner's uniform, Ty Cobb's spikes, even the five-seat block of Griffith Stadium where nine presidents threw out the first ball of the Washington Senators' season.

It's the perfect town for a collecting confab, and that's what happened a few months back when academics, curators and stufficio-nados convened to consider why they--and fellow Americans--can't stop gathering. "Collecting the Late 20th Century," they called it, as if you could.

"We need artifacts to tell the stories we've chosen to tell," offered Nicholas Ricketts, a curator at the Strong Museum in Rochester, N.Y., which collects everything about American daily life after 1820. Ricketts, it's worth noting, has a drawerful of souvenir soap.

Just as museums tell sweeping tales, isn't each collector telling a more personal story? Is it such a stretch that a professional woman of 2001 who collects 1950s kitchen and laundry-room products might be trying to figure out the tension between family and feminism?

"When you pick things out of the stream of life and put them in your life, you're making a statement," says James Havener, director of the Milford Historical Society in Milford, N.Y. "We're determining who we are and who we aren't."

Judging by our stuff, then, who are we?

Before 1900, collectors were primarily wealthy; stuff wasn't as available. But when mass production started cranking out objects, possessions multiplied. People accumulated them. Collecting grew more democratic.

Now, a few generations on, rare is the object that isn't considered "collectible."

Collect old Boo-Berry boxes? There's a Web site. Coca-Cola Olympic pins? Join the club. Pez dispensers or cigar bands or dirt "from Elian's play yard"? Head to eBay and start bidding.

But when anything can be viewed for free on the Internet, why collect it? When millions of Pokemon cards are produced, where's the rarity? And if you're collecting what everyone else is, what individual statement are you making?

To the Franklin Mint's marketing director, Lewis Checchia (who can say "precision die-cast model" with alarming fluidity), it boils down to common experience. Kids who collected Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars, he says, are now the adults buying $200 scale-model Chevys in four easy payments. The memory and the collectible have grown up.

"American culture," Checchia says, "has become a consumable commodity."

What distinguishes Alex Shear is not just the size of his collection, but how he sees it. He has turned his acquisitiveness outward. He's lent some of his stuff to museums. He's helping Americans learn their history, he says--through the items that they know so well.

"With this stuff, I can teach black studies, women's studies--everything about this country," he says. "Imagine what people could learn."

Alex Shear learned. One afternoon he was sifting through paper stacks in an antique stall when he spotted some invoices. The handwriting was that of a local toy distributor: Paul Shear, his father, dead since 1969.

"I can touch my father," he says, eerily subdued. "This is no different than going to the cemetery."

Maybe we're all trying to figure something out, those of us who collect. We don't become Alex Shear, blocked by stuff from entering two of his bathrooms. Few people go that far.

But perhaps you have a tin of deco jewelry stowed under the bed. Or a shoe box of 1950s baseball cards that you've moved into polyethylene-paged albums. Maybe you bid for a chunk of the freshly demolished Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh. Maybe, like thousands of others, you went straight to Wal-Mart to buy a T-shirt when you heard Dale Earnhardt had died.

In our mass-produced world, this is what Americans do. Fewer of us hunt, but we certainly gather. Is it too much to speculate that we're historians in miniature, unearthing our pasts from life's flea market, and we don't even know it?

Alex Shear knows it--enough to contemplate his addiction, albeit in his own unique way. In his hallway, on a crowded rack, sits a cap, one of 10,000 things that jam his home.

"Protect me from what I want," it says.

"You know something?" he says. "I never wear that."

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