“Beginning a collection is like dropping a pebble in the water—the concentric rings expand and expand,” explains my friend and neighbor Roger Hurlburt. A professor of art history and former movie reviewer, Roger was a child prodigy in the collecting business, starting with birds’ nests, arrowheads and marbles when he was 8. Now 51, he blends his knowledge of fine art with appreciation for some of the quirkiest ephemera in America. In the house that he and his wife, Susan, built around their collections, Big Little Books line an entire wall of the family room. Susan’s wedding cake figurines live happily on a living room shelf. Toy ray guns from the 1930s share wall space with kitchen cabinets.
In the library, wide walls of books bristle with signed movie star photos and lobby cards. A plaster cast of the original Maltese falcon used on the movie set perches on a bookshelf niche. In a corner, a spin rack holds thousands of old postcards. On the huge antique table that serves as Roger’s desk, his computer is dwarfed by antique and modern bronzes, toy tops and antique fishing lures. You learn about one thing, says Roger, and that leads to another and another.
Things. As a college student, I was suspicious of things and people who collected them. Like Emerson, I felt we needed to care less about things and more about people. Now I know that caring about things can help us connect more with people.
The late Stanley Marcus, a friend and mentor, once told me how collecting had given meaning to his travels, especially after he retired from Neiman Marcus. Mr. Stanley, as he was affectionately known, joyfully gathered together several collections over the years, only to donate them later. He gave his collection of pre-Columbian folk art to the Dallas Museum of Art. His superb collection of miniature books is now at Southern Methodist University.
“There’s more fun in the hunt than the having,” says Roger. And de-collecting can be as rewarding as collecting, whether you donate your collection or sell it.
Roger once paid for a first-class trip to Europe for Susan and himself with the sale of his last remaining and exceedingly rare baseball card. Another friend made the down payment on his house with the check he received from selling his Wahl-Eversharp fountain pens. But you shouldn’t collect for the money, advises Roger. Go for what you love, even if it’s of no monetary value—like seed pods or bottle caps or smooth pebbles that form concentric rings in water.
Howard and Judy Gale, photographers at Levenger by trade, are lifelong antiques collectors. Their tiny cottage in Delray rises to grand heights with no end of artfully arranged collections. In their kitchen, a variegated cast-iron ring about 12 inches in diameter hangs from the ceiling. Once a display ring for buggy whips, today it holds Judy’s collection of buttonhooks that were used to fasten high boots and long dresses. These two now-obsolete species, one holding the other, were like two ancient ballroom dancers performing a tango for old time’s sake. They were also tactile connectors to Howard and Judy’s grandparents, links with the everyday lives of a far-off era.
To find products for our own company, my wife, Lori, and I began going to antiques shows. While our mission was finding things to reproduce, along the way I gradually became a collector myself.
I now collect 20th-century globes, along with pencil sharpeners and inkwells. These collections are business-related, but others are not. I’m drawn to strange old toasters and vintage bugles, and have a piece of trench art from World War I.
Over the years I have come to view collectors differently from what I presumed during my youth. I know now that all kinds of successful people enrich their lives through connections born of collections.
Collectors discern value where others just see stuff. They have a passion for learning and ideas, two things they’re more than willing to share with others.
One might conclude that the golden age of collecting is over, since there are now so many collectors of so many things. Yet there has been no slowdown in the production of goods that I can see.
What new objects do people take for granted today that may become tomorrow’s treasures? What objects make you smile and cause you to wonder? And what do you want to preserve for some young hands to connect with a century from now?—Steve Leveen