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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

His singularly focused mind was saying "hat pin holders, hat pin holders, hat pin holders" as he made his way through the market aisles, when he noticed a booth that contained 1940s bumper cars from nearby Hershey Park. The 10 cars were shiny and colorful and stopped Shear in his tracks.

"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.

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