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The Nostalgia Broker

Alex Shear's Obsession with consumerism Has Created a Mirror of Modern America
Melissa Milgrom
From the Print Edition:
Denzel Washington, Jan/Feb 98

(continued from page 3)

"There's a gallery in everybody's home that displays this popular art," Shear says, referring specifically to a shelf of 500 popular brand radios that mirror grocery products. The transistor radios were promotional giveaways in the 1960s, '70s and '80s and turn his study into a virtual 7-Eleven. There are radio replicas of Hunt's Manwich sauce, Diamond Crystal Salt, Pepperidge Farm Stuffing, ScotTowels, Avon's Skin-So-Soft bath gel and Adolph's Meat Tenderizer, not to mention generic cheeseburgers, hot dogs and bananas. Then there are Heinz Ketchup flashlights and Hershey's Chocolate Milk telephones. "It's on the television set, it's in the pantry, at sporting events and picnics. You can't get away from this onslaught of consumer brands," he says.

When Shear kneels and opens a 1959 salesman's sample suitcase with a miniature Plexiglas-enclosed above-ground swimming pool, post-Levittown suburban life emerges. Here, in dollhouse size, is the swimming pool, the inflatable raft, the lawn, the topiary. A second case has a pull-down aluminum awning for a car port. A third one contains eight 1950s miniature AT&T phones in "new-fangled" colors. As Americans filled their suburban homes with gadgets, labor-saving appliances and convenience products, the door-to-door salesman, while inefficient, was not yet obsolete. The 50 salesman's sample cases in Shear's collection--13 of which feature above-ground swimming pools--reflect this golden age of consumerism.

Shear's mind wanders from the backyard pool parties to the frontyard aluminum car port, where there's a turquoise '57 Chevy convertible parked next to a 1950s ranch house. Without pausing for air, he dashes into his study and fumbles in the dark for a turquoise vinyl dinette chair. He drags the chair into the living room, plops into it and demonstrates how the kitchen became an extension of the automobile. "You went right from your Chevy into the kitchen and had dinner at the wheel," he explains. "All of your appliances enabled you to never leave your '57 Chevy. Mom was all dolled up to sit in the shotgun seat. Dad began to look like Elvis. Your entire life was ''57 Chevy'."

In the year 2000, Shear will turn 60. He was born in 1940 into a conservative Jewish home in rural Lancaster. His grandparents were Eastern European trade merchants who had immigrated through Ellis Island and instilled in the family a love for merchandising. As seven-year-olds, Shear and his twin brother, Ted, spent every Thursday night at the Lancaster city auctions, watching their mother, Sarah, buy china, glassware, and, of course, hat pin holders, and their father, Paul, buy old tools. However, Shear's early passion for Americana actually began in what was once an old brick cigar factory. (At the turn of the century, Lancaster was a major cigar-tobacco growing region.) Here, Paul Shear, a true fad forecaster, ran a wholesale warehouse that distributed toys and seasonal goods. Shear credits his passion for pop culture to growing up in a warehouse full of the latest crazes, such as the slender polyethylene tube that was all the rage in 1958--the Hula Hoop. A steady stream of yo-yos, early Shmoos from Lil' Abner, Betty Boop dolls and Flexible Flyer sleds fascinated the young Alex.

Aside from his baseball cards, Shear was never much of a collector as a child. His desire to collect would later come from a yen to recapture the thrill he felt as a teenager delivering The Lancaster New Era to the surrounding new suburbs on his Schwinn Panther. "I used to go into these suburban ranches and see this 'world of tomorrow,' " he says, referring to the excitement that he experienced as an outsider.

Still, the best way to know Shear is to accompany him to Lancaster and neighboring towns, a pilgrimage he makes at least twice a month to scout the flea markets and antiques shops.

We are in Shear's 1996 teal Chevy Astro on a buying trip that he calls "an icing-on-the-cake mission." He has no agenda, but Mafia memorabilia is on his mind. So are baby items. As we drive past green hills and lush Amish farms, he gestures with his hands for emphasis, sometimes lifting both hands off the wheel and waving them as if he were an orchestra conductor. His latest line is what he calls his Goo Goo Goo and Ga Ga Ga: A Celebration of the American Baby in the Twentieth Century. It started the previous weekend on a similar buying trip, when he landed a trophy from the 1938 Ocean City, New Jersey, Baby Contest. "It hit all the marks! It was a 10!" he says excitedly, letting the car drive itself for a spell. He points to a grain silo that has a weathered, hand-painted Cadillac 5-in-1 Dog Food advertisement on it, and it is clear that this also "hits all the marks."

By 10 a.m. we arrive at our first store in Morgantown, Pennsylvania, just as the manager opens the door and hangs out a flag that says Antiques. The nostalgia consultant faces the stucco facade and white lace curtains of this quasi-strip mall and says, "This is known as a scan. I will scan this place rapidly." He's off.

He knows every booth in detail from years of shopping here and pauses occasionally for a moment of silence to mourn the booths that have given way to "folk art creations"--stuffed-bear footstools, candles and papier-mâché fruit. He loathes the cloying smell of potpourri. He detests it when dealers "bow-and-gingham" everything, but he remains unfazed. Lately, the fields have been drying up, and it's become harder and harder for dealers to buy wares, prompting him to expand his range into West Virginia, Indiana and other parts of the Midwest. "Morgantown is picked," he says nostalgically, but you never know when "these ladies will empty a house and there may be a pink Mixmaster still in the original box. A lot of my Desert Storm memorabilia comes out of these places."

He makes his way through knicknacks and bric-a-brac, summing up the personality of the dealers by their displays like the armchair anthropologist he claims to be: "This booth is too researched"; "This lady has an unexciting eye"; "You don't want to go fishing in an aquarium." Finally, his eye zeroes in on a Handyhot Whipper for making meringue. "This country is totally immersed in whippers," he says with a sigh. He rocks on the balls of his feet, holding up the small precursor to the blender like Lady Liberty's torch. "No, it doesn't speak to me," he says. A 1940s whipper may be something most people would disregard, but to Shear, who owns 15 Sunbeam Mixmasters in every pastel, including his favorite '57 Chevy turquoise, the whipper speaks spades. He smiles widely, his eyes sparkle and his mind wanders to his mother's 1940s kitchen, where he licked icing out of the bowl.

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