The Nostalgia Broker
Alex Shear's Obsession with consumerism Has Created a Mirror of Modern America
From the Print Edition:
Denzel Washington, Jan/Feb 98
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"Something went off in my head," he says emphatically, remembering his favorite childhood pastime--sneaking up on girls and smashing into them in bumper cars. "I'm going to graduate from hat pin holders! I saw the beauty of nostalgia here in front of me. I saw culture in everything I did, and it was all out of Lancaster, Pennsylvania." For Shear, bumper cars embodied both America's mania for cars and its love affair with amusement parks and roadside attractions. Bumper cars from the 1940s symbolized postwar prosperity, when the emerging Levittowns and new highways placed the American Dream within the grasp of the middle class. What's more, these bumper cars were from Lancaster County, where Shear was born and raised, and they evoked his childhood in such a visceral way that they could be likened to Charles Foster Kane's Rosebud sled. "Stuff" was fast becoming "iconography." Shear recalls, "My entire life went past me. I had this calling to chronicle the America I knew in the twentieth century. This was the beginning of my dream to someday build the Museum for Regular People."
It takes a certain audacity to make the leap from collecting hat pin holders to chronicling twentieth-century American popular culture, but Shear is an intense kind of guy. At the time--the early 1970s--he was working as a housewares buyer for JC Penney, building what he says was the store's first kitchen shop, although Penney's had developed a full-fledged kitchen department as early as the 1950s. Finding no suitable reference materials with which to study consumer trends, Shear began cultivating his own reference base, not with a camera but with a checkbook, obsessively buying the best examples of the twentieth-century American kitchen. Soon he had acquired a collection of the most stylish and innovative toasters, mixers and coffeepots ever produced in this country. He knew that he was building what he claims is the only kitchen archive in the country, but he saw no connection between his work as a buyer and the bumper cars.
Since Shear had no room in his Manhattan apartment for a bumper car, he couldn't buy one, but in his mind a collection had begun. Of course, it would take another 25 years of amassing tens of thousands of artifacts, or as Shear says, "building lines," for the housewares buyer to evolve into a product designer with his own firm, Alex Designs, and then into his present profession. But who becomes a nostalgia consultant overnight?
On a humid July morning at Shear's apartment, the bearded 57-year-old nostalgia consultant sits in his living room, reclining in a futuristic yellow chair from the 1962 Seattle World's Fair that was originally designed for the Space Needle's restaurant. He wears a short-sleeved denim shirt, pleated khaki trousers and large tortoise-shell eyeglasses. Suddenly, he looks up from his datebook and says matter-of-factly, "This is not about accumulating stuff." His expression shows no irony, no hint that he is in what was once a six-room home and is now a six-room museum with a bed and a sink. His kitchen is too cluttered with diner memorabilia, newspapers and old juicers to be of use. His study contains shelves filled not with books but with industrial paperweights, model cars and old food tins. The long entryway has so many promotional thermometers, rocket-inspired sleds, work shirts, wooden manhole covers and chest-high stacks of board games, such as "Capital Punishment--for 2 to 4 Adults" and "What Shall I Be? The Exciting Game of Career Girls," that you almost have to wade through it sideways.
Although Shear is serious, his roommates are all smiles. A life-sized cardboard Coppertone woman in a white string bikini grins seductively. A bust of Farrah Fawcett with a string that can be pulled out of her head to make her hair grow stares blissfully from a pink plastic pedestal. Seven-foot-tall tin men, once used as trade signs at auto-repair shops from the 1920s through the 1950s, line the living-room wall. There are men made of galvanized steel and men made of plumbing pipes. Men made of radiators and men made of baked-bean cans. Men with air ducts for hands, electrical-outlet boxes for stomachs, taillights for eyes, upside-down funnels for hats, motor oil cans for necks and gutter pipes for arms. "This is a certain love affair, a passion," Shear says, sharing a smile with a tin man.
Nearby, on a streamlined 1960s Boomerang sofa, Shear's son, a 15-year-old wearing a Mobil Oil work shirt and green army shorts, thumbs through an issue of Popular Mechanics. He leans on what appears to be a grocery shelf of pillows--Chef Boy-ar-dee, Aqua Net Professional Hairspray, Tootsie Rolls and Oreos--and orders catalogues from the back of the magazine that he has no intention of buying anything from. "I just like to look at stuff," he says. What kind of stuff? Phone-tapping equipment, government surplus, beer-making supplies and tools.
When I ask the teenager what has invariably been an awkward question for the Shear family to answer ever since Shear's collection overtook his 9-to-5 job--namely, what his father does for a living--he pauses for a long time before blurting out, "He's a corporate exhibit designer who has thousands and thousands and hundreds of thousands of items. He also has a marketing business."
In fact, Shear has one of the most extensive private collections of American popular culture in the United States. With more than 55,000 artifacts that document the twentieth century (including more than 10,000 postcards), his holdings are more numerous than those found in many museums. Two-thirds of the items reflect postwar consumer culture, including everything from classics of industrial design by Raymond Loewy to Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf dolls.
The collection is Shear's passion and his art, and he has managed to combine his eye as a buyer, his background in marketing and his penchant for interpreting American history through material goods into what is perhaps the only marketing company that boasts a museum-quality collection as one of its credentials. His company, Shear America, uses his vast resources to help other companies package the American Dream through traveling exhibits, displays and advertisements.
Shear's unique take manifests itself in a variety of job descriptions that are well suited to the upcoming fin de siècle celebrations. He calls himself a retro marketer, a millennium planner, a corporate curator, an exhibit designer, an armchair anthropologist, a fad forecaster and, of course, a nostalgia consultant. His long-term vision is to establish his own museum, The Museum for Regular People, but he'd gladly host PBS' "Chubb Antiques Roadshow."
Ever since he contributed items to "Great Stuff," a 1992 exhibit at the Children's Museum of Manhattan, Shear's collection has been in demand. He has exhibited his tin men--actually, steel-dipped-in-zinc men--at a congressional meeting of the American Zinc Institute in Washington, D.C., and his industrial paperweights at an American Iron and Steel Institute meeting. He's been featured in The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. The History Channel filmed a segment on 100 years of the American home, using many objects from Shear's kitchen archive. (He had 24 hours to rummage through his five cluttered storage facilities outside the city for the best of his 60 coffeepots, 60 toasters and 25 vacuums.) And if he has his way, Good Housekeeping magazine will launch an exhibition of items that didn't get their seal of approval, such as a 1980s-era .357 Magnum Hand Gun Blow Dryer.
Still, Shear's high point in terms of credibility was when the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York, which is the National Museum of Design of the Smithsonian Institution, included objects from his collection for its 1993 exhibition, "Mechanical Brides." The show featured household objects specifically designed to make housework alluring to women, to show the gender-based division of labor from 1920 to 1960. Many of the items were lent by Shear: miniature 1950s AT&T phones in pastel colors; "just-like-mommy" electric washing machines for girls; five rare Corning "Silver Streak" Pyrex glass irons that took Shear 20 years to collect, at around $800 each. Today, the jewel-like irons, made mostly of glass during the Second World War because of the metals shortage, are nearly impossible to find due to a fatal manufacturing oversight. Use them too often and the gem-like colors--ruby, emerald, cobalt--turn as brown as a Sylvia Plath mood ring.
Unlike a museum curator, who must adhere to certain directives and social obligations, not to mention established organizing principles, Shear serendipitously buys from instinct. "You see, this is so personal from my eyes," he says. "A curator in a museum setting is given an assignment to cull, to develop a whole collection. That is different from building an arcade of products from the heart." To bolster his claim, he produces a letter that Rodris Roth, curator of the Division of Social History Domestic Life Collection at the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution, wrote to him in 1993: "None of us has or can gather objects to the extent that you have or display them in quite the way you do. As you know from having lent to 'Material World,' our exhibits provide an index of sorts to our collection--as well as what we may lack!"
By collecting everyday consumer artifacts such as hair dryers and coffeepots, Shear has built a time capsule that reflects and records daily American life. While curators and auction-house buyers were acquiring exceptional, one-of-a-kind artifacts from the past--such as paintings and fine furniture--that reflected a limited segment of the population, Shear was building an archive of mainstream Americana for mainstream America. As such, his collection offers broader insights into the average American's life during the twentieth century, from Depression-era ingenuity to postwar materialism to 1970s disco culture.
As we cross into the next century, Shear's collection provides us with a fantastic window into who we are as a culture. "Alex has created an invaluable resource for serious scholars by seeking the things that people did not value, which is what great collectors do," says Ellen Lupton, a curator of Contemporary Design at the Cooper-Hewitt. "As a museum curator, I'm interested in the social and aesthetic value of material culture, but you can't study that without the objects. Alex has the actual stuff."
It seems that as we near the millennium, nostalgia has never been more cutting-edge. Everyone, particularly baby boomers, is buying items from the 1950s, '60s and '70s; the word "retro" has replaced "cool"; and Shear America is fielding calls from museum curators, television producers, corporations and trade associations, discussing possibilities ranging from traveling exhibitions to a television series. It seems that everyone wants a hand in documenting the twentieth century. "There's no question this is overwhelming," Shear says, referring to the immense scope of his ambitions versus the two years until the millennium. "I see myself as a pilot with an overloaded 747 trying to lift off a short runway."
Shear believes he has a patriotic mission to communicate through his stuff, which for him means focusing on the struggles and the triumphs of the common man. This is why he won't buy, say, one of Andy Warhol's Little Red Riding Hood cookie jars--or any cookie jar, for that matter, unless, of course, it is in the shape of Famous Amos. (The self-made cookie entrepreneur is one of Shear's heroes.) Or why he'd pass up the ruby slippers that Judy Garland wore in The Wizard of Oz , which are now behind glass at the Smithsonian Institution. Shear yearns to understand and celebrate the regular guy, the working stiff who had to put milk on the table, not the celebrity. "Through these artifacts I might better define who we are as a people," he says. "This is about this country's social mosaic, its problems, its hopes, its desires, its unfairness. I celebrate America. I'm a patriot who does not wave a flag."
To demonstrate the point, Shear reaches two shelves below "Brook Shields: The Most Glamorous Teenage Doll" and the "Music for Washing and Ironing" record album and grabs a foot-tall ceramic ashtray in the shape of a nuclear cooling tower. The ashtray, which was mass-produced, has a thin brown-and-white glaze like a coffee mug that you might find at a tourist-trap gift shop. The tower says "Three Mile Island" in brown block letters and has turret-like cutouts on top. Rest a lit cigar in one of them and the plumes of smoke suggest a nuclear meltdown. Although highbrow collectors would dismiss the ashtray as mere kitsch, the piece is the equivalent of a Rembrandt to Shear. It forms part of his Duck-and-Cover/Fallout Memorabilia, which comes under the heading of Atomic Bomb Memorabilia. He owns 62 items in this category, from a low-budget board game called "Reactor: A Radiating Experience" to a first-run fallout shelter sign.
"There's a collective response from average folks that I'm interested in hearing," he says. "You have The New York Times and then you have this, the popular response." When Shear gets going it's hard to cool him down. "This is America at its best," he goes on. "This is the Three Mile Island disaster that they are covering up. This is our Chernobyl. They don't know what they are doing! This is scary. This ashtray is, in a sense, the middle finger to the whole thing."
Conversely, when you browse through Shear's collection you are, in a sense, looking at his life. During the 1979 Three Mile Island accident, he had to evacuate his mother, who lived 15 miles from the reactor, a task that, incidentally, he has some training in. During his military service he was trained in decontamination techniques with the U.S. Army 318 Chemical Corp. By the same token, his collection of miniature brides and grooms began during his divorce eight years ago. And in the 1980s, after a line of drinking glasses he was mass-producing was copied by competitors, Shear entered into a seven-year copyright infringement lawsuit that inspired him to collect knockoffs. He owns 40 bottles of 7UP-like derivatives with names like 7-Down, Upper-Ten and Upside Down.
The longer it took the court case to be resolved (he eventually won), the more Shear began to see business as a type of warfare. Not only did he show up for court dressed from head to toe in khakis, but he expanded his collection into trench art--items crafted by soldiers out of spent artillery shells and cartridge casings during lulls in the fighting. He bought sleek coffeepots, a hurricane lamp, a rug-hooking kit, a 1942 field officer's mug and dozens of other items, all made by soldiers during wartime. He refuses to buy guns or other weapons.
Shear grabs a wooden swagger stick from a shelf of trench art and becomes a squadron commander on an aircraft carrier stationed in the South Pacific in 1945. "We are going to take a run into Iwo Jima at night. Now MacArthur is going to send in Jimmy Doolittle. They're going to drop the big bomb here," he says, cracking the swagger stick on an imaginary wall map and finishing the briefing.
Shear's off-the-cuff, anecdotal style has been compared to that of Sister Wendy Beckett, the bucktoothed nun who hosts a series of art programs on the BBC. He speaks in long tangents, linking items to legends, history to billboards, fathers to basement workshops. During the course of the interview, he often asks himself the questions, answers them and comes back with his own follow-ups. One way in which he engages people in his collection is by spinning stories about what he wishes had happened, a distinct advantage that a nostalgia consultant enjoys over a museum curator.
Although Shear craves recognition for his efforts, he's reluctant to invite people whom, as he says, might not "get it," to see his collection. Especially women he is dating. They may not understand his enthusiasm for, say, hair spray or bathing caps. Take Collection 159: Vanity in America. On a high shelf is a stack of 1960s plastic bouffant wigs for little girls who wanted to look "just like mommy." Next to the wigs are several bathing caps (he owns 50) that appear to have grown out of a coral reef--one, an "Aqua Original Exclusive Mermaid Millinery Creation," has a platinum-blonde wig attached. Soon he's strutting around the living room in a Buck Rogersesque aluminum welder's helmet that is actually an E. Fredericks Hair and Scalp Treatment Vaporizer from a 1930s beauty parlor or, as Shear calls it, a compression chamber for an Art Deco lady.
The subject of hair inevitably triggers Shear's childhood regret of never having had the perfect 1950s flattop haircut. Flattops were as popular in the 1950s as jeans with rolled-up cuffs. "I wanted my hair to be as flat as an aircraft carrier. I used to jump around to barbers who had steady hands. I liked my flattop flat, not listing, and I'd tilt my head three degrees to compensate," he says with a laugh, waving a 1950s Miller "Level Head" flattop comb, complete with an attached carpenter's level. "It would have changed my life if I were the lucky user!"
Shear is a baseball card collector who actually chews the bubblegum. He buys from the gut, using his own criteria of value rather than consulting collecting guides or experts. (Ironically, it's the curators who often come to him for items.) He avoids auctions, preferring the thrill of the hunt. His collection comes largely from flea markets, garage sales and regional antiques stores. Although he once had to dip into his pension fund to buy an eight-foot-tall wooden roller skate for $4,000, most of the items are not costly. On the other hand, the uninitiated may find it odd to spend $10 on a 13-year-old box of Wheaties. But then again, not all collectors have a thing for gymnast Mary Lou Retton. "I like her perkiness. I like her can-do. I like her gold medal," Shear says, beaming. "She's an icon of the '80s." Shear's approach involves anywhere from 230 to 500 overlapping categories, depending on which day you ask. One category is electric lunch boxes (they worked like toaster ovens to make hot meals). Another is five-and-dime-store toys. Still another is roadside memorabilia.
When asked if his collection has ever been appraised, he seems a bit put off and responds, "Can you appraise Andy Warhol's eye?" Ever considered selling the collection to a collector or a museum? "Would the Smithsonian sell its archive?" he retorts.
Shear would never buy a repainted object or a reproduction. The surface must have integrity. It must be well designed, too, exhibiting common-sense ingenuity over technological prowess. Novelty items inspired by fads (such as 1950s vacuum cleaners in the shape of rockets) and products resulting from planned obsolescence give him a thrill. Humor, spontaneity, honesty and his sense of can-do are key. His shelves of Shaker-quality Depression art (funnels, lunch boxes, toys and musical instruments soldered out of used tin cans) reflect American resourcefulness in the face of poverty. His boutique "line" of obsession art handbags and wallets meticulously woven out of thousands of cigarette wrappers by prison inmates shows how the wastebasket, and lots of free time, can inspire art.
Shear never buys just a label, whether it's a designer shirt or a status car. He bought a 1972 Frank Gehry Easy Edges chair because it was constructed of corrugated cardboard, not because it was designed by a famous architect. He prefers what he calls factory folk art and finds standard folk art, such as weathervanes and quilts, respectable when they aren't "art directed," but boring. Nearly all of Shear's items are consumer-oriented and useful, even if they are absurd and silly.
"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.
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