Lancelot had his Holy Grail; Indiana Jones, his Lost Ark. And, for many years,  I had The Record.

Not just any record, you understand. The object of my quest was an album entitled Somethin’ Else, recorded by The Kingston Trio and released by Decca Records in November of 1965. 

I’ve been a fan of the Kingston Trio since I was a small boy. Between the two of us, my father and I had managed to collect every album that the Kingston Trio ever recorded… except this one. So I spent close to half my life searching for a copy. And finally, just a couple of years ago, a friend and co-worker stumbled upon a copy entirely by accident and, God bless her, bought  it and gave it to me for Christmas that year.

I could have cried. I'm secure enough in my manhood to be able to admit that. And I figure if I don't admit it on my own my wife will tell everyone anyway, so...

Now I will be the first to acknowledge that not having this particular recording for all those years did not in any way lessen the overall quality of my life. And I don't know that finally having a copy has ultimately given my existence anything in the way of added meaning. But I was bound and determined to have it anyway, and I was not willing to rest until I did.

Lunacy? Perhaps. 

But I am not alone in my affliction. I know that there are thousands more like me out there who understand, who have similar tales of their own to tell.

We are collectors. And we are legion.

-      -      -

From Small’s Lexicon of Bafflegab, 1996 Edition: “Packrattery (noun) - The art of surrounding oneself with various and sundry items which may appear to be of no real value whatsoever but in fact represent a record of human history and thus are actually incredibly valuable. Or something like that…”

-      -      -

ITEM: In March of 1995, a copy of Action Comics No. 1 - the book which introduced Superman to the world in 1938 - was sold to an anonymous buyer for a then-record $137,500. 

Over a decade later, in November of 2011, another copy of Action No. 1 sold for $2,161,000. Earlier that same year, a copy of Amazing Fantasy No. 15 - featuring the first Spider-Man story - sold for $1,100,000.

All three originally sold for only a dime. 

And your mother said comic books were a waste of time...

-      -      -

After considerable thought and a quick peek inside my closet, I have come to the conclusion that many Americans are probably better off financially than they may think. All they have to do is look at what they’ve got stashed away inside their own closets, or attics, or garages.

See that little item over there in the corner, the one covered with cobwebs? Been hidden away in here for quite a while, hasn’t it? You’ve even thought about throwing it out with the rest of the trash once or twice. And why not – after all, it’s just junk, right?

Don’t you believe it. Chances are that there is someone out there who will be willing to pay some pretty big bucks for that old junk you’ve been taking for granted all this time. (Any lingering doubts I might have once had regarding the veracity of this observation as been cast aside once and for all by the popularity in recent years of such television programs as American Pickers. )

Everybody, I would hazard to guess, collects something. For years the big rages were coins, stamps and (among pre-adolescent boys who hadn’t yet figured how much fun girls could be to have around) baseball cards. Salt and pepper shakers and ceramic figurines have long been popular items, as teddy bears, dolls and other toys.  After sex, collecting is probably Man’s favorite hobby - and some people have even found ways to combine the two. (I’ll let you use your imagination there…)

Collections can be as eclectic as the individuals who treasure them. I’ve known fellows who collect old beer cans and treat them with all the care and reverence of the Crown Jewels. Some folks spend a lifetime – and a fortune – hunting down such diverse items as 19th-century farming tools, political campaign buttons, or old firefighting equipment.  Others prowl around Hollywood, Nashville and other entertainment meccas with their Polaroid One-Steps, hoping to capture their favorite celebrities on film.

And no matter how odd the rest of us may think someone’s collection may be, there is always somebody out there who shares that person’s passion. I used to think that my dad was a bit off for collecting business cards… until I read someplace that a collector had paid a couple of thousand dollars for a card embossed with the name of a certain well-known filmmaker.

-      -      -

ITEM: Cereal boxes - something it never would have occurred to me might be saving, let alone selling - have been known to fetch prices of up to hundreds of dollars. I once saw an original Cap’n Crunch box from 1963 for sale at a flea market for $250; I made my debut in 1963, too, but I’ll bet I wouldn’t fetch that much in an auction. 

Cereal boxes.

Yeah, I know. I laughed at first, too...

-      -      -

So where does this passion to collect come from? There are at least as many answers to this question as there are things in this world to collect.

For some, the possession of a single item may result in the formation of a new hobby; a college classmate who received a piece of art by a particular sculptor as a Christmas present was soon scouring the stores for more of that artist’s work. Other times, fans of particular television series, movies or other forms of entertainment express their interest by collecting related memorabilia. And still other items attract collectors’ attention just because they are interesting to look at when displayed properly.

Over the past couple of decades, as members of the so-called Baby Boom Generation have started paying greater attention to their own mortality, collecting has moved beyond the mere accumulation of interesting and unusual little trinkets. It’s become a way of reliving the past… and a means towards investing in the future. 

I once read of a father who paid for his daughter’s kidney transplant by auctioning off his vintage collection of old science fiction novels. A friend of mine has literally thousands of dollars tied up in comic books, baseball cards and other artifacts left over from his own childhood; he plans to sell them sometime in the next decade and put the proceeds towards his son’s college education.

Still other collectors profess even loftier reasons for their hobbies. Newscaster Jim Lehrer, himself an avid collector of bus depot signs and related memorabilia, once wrote: “Remember, please, that it has been the collectors and the pack rats among our ancestors who have preserved the little things of our history… items of personal life that now hold positions of honor in the Smithsonian and other museums of American life.”

-      -      -

ITEM: Old lunch boxes seem to command a respect all their own, no matter how geeky or dorky they may have seemed at the time. 

A vintage 1978 Six Million Dollar Man lunch box can set you back almost $100.  A 1968 Beatles Yellow Submarine lunch box is available on eBay right now for $1,199 (or best offer). And who would have thought a Mork and Mindy lunchbox might one day go for $75 to $100? 

-      -      -

Of course, there are some of us who collect just for the fun of it. And the knowledge that we can’t take it with us when we go does not take away from that sense of enjoyment.

For some, it isn’t even the collection itself that provides the joy. It is the thrill of the hunt, and that incomparable moment when we finally close in for the kill.

It's a moment that will often leave you at a loss for words and feeling as if your stomach just kissed your toes.  After all, your own Johnny West action figure – complete with cowboy hat, holster, pistol, coffee pot, skillet, vest and rifle – was five times better than the one staring at you from behind that locked glass case. But yours is long gone, and now you've just got to have this one to replace it, even if it does cost $1,000. You'll find the money, somehow.

I personally have never spent more than about $150 on reclaiming a lost childhood treasure. (And I had to beg and plead with my wife to do that.) But I’ve experienced that moment of discovery many times. We all have. You’re looking across a shop or a room or a yard or a catalog page, and suddenly you spy it: the one item that the collection just won’t be complete without. 

Such moments usually involve a sudden intake of breath, sometimes accompanied by a sweaty upper lip, tears of joy or a light-headedness caused by failure to let that breath back out.  

In my case, such discoveries are very often punctuated by a sudden and uncontrollable spasm of giggles, at which point my wife usually grabs her purse and hurries off in the opposite direction...

But she doesn’t begrudge me my moments. As a collector herself, she knows that such moments are to be savored, to be treasured as much as the discovered item itself. 

We know such things may not mean much in the grand scheme of things; but, at the very least, they can sometimes form the foundation upon which pleasant memories are built.

And for some of us, that is enough.

As any number of so-called experts will no doubt point out, it's impossible to tell exactly which of today's trinkets will be considered tomorrow's treasures. It's a gamble that collectors take, whether their passion is toys, stamps, baseball cards, or comic books. But there is also great satisfaction in discovering that, after years of diligence, toys saved from childhood have both a monetary and intrinsic value that cannot be compared.

-      -      -

ITEM: In 1967 my parents spent a whopping $7.99 for a Captain Action action figure (boys play with “action figures,” never “dolls”) in order to meet my Christmas demands that year; a few years back I saw a vintage 1967 Captain Action figure for sale in a comic book/toy store in Texas for $800! A quick check of eBay as I write this reveals that a 1966 Captain Action Lone Ranger accessory kit is available for - get this! - $4,999.

I would have taken better care of mine if I had known...

-      -      -

There is, of course, a downside to collecting.

It’s called Moving. 

And thereby hangs a tale…

-      -      -

Just over two decades ago, when we first moved to Oklahoma from Illinois, the wife and I rented a quaint little two-bedroom home that we thought was plenty big enough for two adults, one small boy and assorted piles of valuable junk..

Shows what we know.

By the end of our first year in Tishomingo, the continued growth of both the assorted piles and our young son (I kept trying to talk him out of it, but he kept growing up anyway) had necessitated a move into somewhat larger digs. Fortunately we had stumbled across what seemed to be a suitable dwelling over on the other side of town.

Did I say “fortunately?” Well, yes and no…

Yes, because between the boy’s insistence upon growing up and the continuous additions to our various collections, we were slowly running out of space. All right, maybe not so slowly; every conceivable nook and cranny had been filled to the point that there simply wasn’t any room for us anymore. We were being overrun by things that one or both of us had decided had cost too much money or had too much sentimental attachment to just throw away.

No, because moving meant that we now had to somehow find a way to gather all our things up, move them out of one house, and then move them a mile or so down the street and around the corner into a new house, while somehow managing to keep both our collections and our sanity intact. And if you think that’s easy, either you’re not a collector or you just haven’t moved much in your life.

Or maybe you’re really just better at this sort of thing than I am and I’m too darned stubborn to admit it…

-      -      -

The first real sign that there was going to be trouble came when we dismantled the bed. It was then that I discovered that my dear wife had at some point been named curator of the Oklahoma Wing of the Imelda Marcos Footwear Museum.

I didn’t take the time to count (I’d still be there now if I had), but I feel reasonably safe in assuming that there were more shoes under that bed than there were feet in Johnston County to put them on. I saw shoes hiding down there that I’d never seen before… which is no small feat (feet?), considering that we’d been a part of one another’s lives for over 15 years at that point.

With the greatest of tact - because that’s the kind of guy I am - I asked my beloved if it were really possible for any one human being to go through that many shoes within the span of a single lifetime. At which point she proceeded to snarl her bottom lip and attempted to change the subject.

“Well, what about all those books of yours?” she asked. “They take up more room than all my shoes.”

“Yeah, they probably do,” I countered. “But books serve a useful purpose. A person can learn from reading a book. Don’t you want our son to have the most well-rounded education possible?”

“My shoes serve a useful purpose, too,” she shot back, ignoring my query. “Don’t you want me to look good when we go out?”

“Sure,” I admitted. “But how good are you going to look when all your shoes are back home hiding under your bed?”

My memory of the rest of that morning is a bit hazy, although I do vaguely recall being pelted by a barrage of high heels…

-      -      -

Maintaining the integrity of one’s collections while moving has been known to create more stress than trying to squeeze a great big sleeper sofa through a little bitty living room door.

Watching my relatively small - but much-loved and well-maintained - collection of Coca-Cola memorabilia being divided into about 12 or 13 separate boxes was almost enough to induce cardiac arrest. And the unpacking process proved even worse as my wife and I - two reasonably intelligent, college educated people who stood side-by-side peering over one another’s shoulder while packing those artifacts with the greatest of care - suddenly developed a mutual case of amnesia as to what items had been packed in which boxes.

HE: “I thought you told me that you packed the miniature Coca-Cola bottle dispenser Christmas tree ornament in the same box as the plastic Charlie Brown baseball figurine and my toy replica of Luke Skywalker’s landspeeder.”

SHE: “No, those things were packed away with the Dr. Pepper commemorative Desert Storm bottle and the autographed lithograph of Archie, Betty and Veronica at the Chok’Lit Shoppe. Your stupid ornament is in that box over there, with the glass Donald Duck music box and the videotape of foreign television commercials. If you’d pay attention once in a while you’d know these things.”

Insult is often added to injury when a lack of cardboard boxes leads to the use of more creative collection conveyances. Even after all this time I’m still pretty sure that rattling noise I heard when I opened the baby’s diaper pail to discover a neatly stacked pile of my old Edgar Rice Burroughs novels contained therein was old ERB himself, spinning in his cremation urn…

But the worst aspect of transporting a houseful of collectibles, even across such a relatively short distance, is the time element involved. Because no matter how hard you work, or how many hours you devote to working that hard, there are just never enough hours in a day (or a weekend, or a week…) to complete everything you’ve discovered must be accomplished within that allotted amount of time.

And no matter how many trips you make from the old house to the truck to the new house and back again, it seems that there are still just as many more yet to be made. There always seems to be just one more thing that you forgot to pack.

Of course, there is a certain thrill to be had in finally locating something you’d thought lost forever while packing, or in coming across some artifact that you’d forgotten you’d ever had in the first place. 

The thrill lasts about 20 seconds, which is the average time it takes for you to realize that it’s just one more thing you have to find room for in the back of the truck.

-      -      -


Once the moving process was finally behind us, I amazed myself and everyone who knows me by suggesting to my wife that perhaps it was time to go through our mutual collections with a fine-tooth comb and weed out the stuff we just absolutely do not need to keep. Maybe we could sell some of it in a yard sale. It’s a hard process, I know, but sometimes it just has to be done.

“You’re right, I know,” Melissa said. “But I don’t know where to start.”

“How about all those shoes?” I suggested.

I don’t remember anything else that happened that day…

-      -      -

So we moved into the new house and had plenty of room for all of our stuff. For about a year. Then we bought a house of our own several miles down the road and, again, had enough room for a while. But only for a while. 

We failed to take into account that we might continue to pick up new additions to our various collections. Of that the young son we had at the time would be joined by a younger brother within just a few years - and that both boys would inherit their parents' proclivity for packrattery. ESPECIALLY when it comes to collecting books. Earlier this summer I watched my 16-year-old pretty much wipe out two used book stores' entire stock of Louis L'Amour paperbacks; his older brother, not content to wait until I've shuffled off this mortal coil so he can claim mine, is building his own collection of the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs. My wife says it's all my fault, and I readily - even proudly - plead guilty. Even if we have reached critical mass.

We need a bigger house. But the only way we'll ever be able to afford it is to sell everything we own. And that would kind of make it a moot point, wouldn't it?

On the bright side, the wife and kids should be able to put together a pretty decent estate sale after I'm gone...

(Copyright 2012 by John A. Small)