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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 1)

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.

The self-professed steward of American culture, perhaps naively, yearns for simpler times, when America's outward identity seemed less fractured than it does today--a world of bank tellers, not cash machines, human telephone operators and door-to-door salesmen. A boyish grin shines through the silver beard. At another booth, Shear files through a fruit crate of record albums until he sees The General Federation of Women's Clubs Presents the Songs America Loves. "This is America at its best," he says. "In America you can cut a record. In America you can do anything you want. I like ladies like this." He reads the entire jacket out loud, buys it and walks off with it under his arm.

Nearby, a fog horn sounds, followed by the cry of gulls and the crashing of waves. Shear walks into his favorite booth, a small space filled with old lobster traps and toy sailboats. "You get a feel for these ma-and-pa dealers," he says. "My pulse rate lowers in here. I relax here. I love this lady. She buys who she is. I like her through her stuff." He stretches out his arms and breathes in deeply as if he were on a beach inhaling the salt air. He points out items that reflect all the seasons--wooden water skis, picnic baskets, snow shoes. Then he appraises the booth with the eye of the JC Penney buyer he never really stopped being. To the right is the dealer's gardening department. To the left, her seashore department. He praises her extra effort--she has created the illusion of looking out of a window onto a rocky Maine coast by framing a seascape in an old white window frame.

"What would Sotheby's say of this?" Shear says at another booth, holding up a 1960s Lady Schick Consolette hair dryer. He admires the seductive form of the half-globe carrying case and the feminine script lettering of the logo: Consolette. "I love ladies and their vanity! This is American vanity, and it was manufactured in Lancaster, PA. For $10 how can you go wrong?"

As Shear makes his way out of the store, a hair dryer in his left hand, a record album under his right arm, he makes one last purchase--a pair of handmade wooden stilts (he already owns 20 pairs of stilts and 15 pogo sticks)--and proceeds to invent the grandfather who built them. By the time Shear climbs back into the Astro and heads for New York, it is 9:30 at night. He has visited all the significant sites of his life as if they, too, were part of his collection--the old toy warehouse, his mother's 1950s ranch house, his favorite antiques shops, the Lancaster New Era building, covered bridges, Amish farm stands. He even paid his respects to the soon-to-be-defunct original Woolworth's on the last day of its lunch counter. The nostalgia consultant has been on the road for 14 1/2 hours, but he continues to reminisce, pointing out old haunts. An Amish woman in a black bonnet climbs out of a horse-drawn carriage and walks into an enormous grocery store. Grain silos shine white in the headlights. Television sets glow from condos and farmhouses alike. A sign points right for the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the quickest way back to New York. But the nostalgia consultant, his van full of treasures, wants to prolong the trip. He veers left and takes the back roads home. *

Melissa Milgrom writes about American subcultures and regionalism.

Shear America can be contacted at (212) 874-4768.

For Shear's collecting tips turn to page 333. Collecting Shearisms

Alex Shear's approach to collecting involves more than 230 categories. Here are some of our favorites (examples are from Shear's collection):

Can-do An American spirit piece, like a Million Man March T-shirt.

Make-do A useful object that was created out of necessity, such as a fishing lure hammered out of a railroad conductor's brass badge; a trench-art coffeepot made of spent artillery shells; a briefcase soldered out of used lighter fluid tins.

Factory Folk Art One-of-a-kind artifacts, like tin men, constructed of industrial grade materials, including scraps pulled off an assembly line.

Obsession Art /Waste Basket Art/Passions-in-Paper/Recycled Art Creations made from garbage: lamps made of glued Popsicle sticks, wallets woven out of cigarette packages, bubblegum wrapper chains, soda can pull-tab wreaths and matchstick houses.

They-Should-Have-Been-Designing-for-Detroit Art Wooden car models built by assembly-line workers in home workshops.

Precursor-to-the-First-Man-On-the-Moon Art Housewares inspired by rocketry and aviation; flying saucer coffeepots; tubular aluminum rocket-inspired sleds; Buck Rogersesque stainless steel hair dryers.

Twinkle-in-the-Eye Art Objects that make a statement in a humorous, mischievous or scathing way. For example, the 1995 board game "Squeeze the Juice: The Game Where Lawyers Get Rich and Justice Comes at a Hefty Price;" the Pet Wok in response to the Pet Rock; Vietnam War "theater art" denim jacket with an embroidered Snoopy wielding a machine gun.

By-Product Art Objects that appropriate materials, technology or designs from other industries, such as a 1950s Formica purse made by the Mica Purse Company, and a 1946 streamlined toaster with airplane-inspired evacuation chutes that eject toast, designed by aviation engineers who needed work after the war effort.

Recalls/Planned Obsolescence/Products That Didn't Sell Examples include package designs with misspelled graphics; experimental plastic Coke cans with aluminum tops; fragile ceramic toasters; a 1950s child's toothbrush in the shape of a .38-caliber pistol (the child had to insert the barrel of the gun into his mouth in order to brush).

Lost Their Luster Beyond retro; 1950s Coppertone Candi doll that is bronzed and scented; 1960s Krazee Hubs hubcaps with mod-daisy patterns for hippie vans; beauty parlor photos of beehive hairdos with names like Swirl High/Swing Low, Petite Whirl-A-Do, Flutter Coif and Little Miss Caper-Cap.

Knock-offs Items that infringe on or violate copyrights, trademarks and intellectual property (a.k.a. coat-tail riding; ambush marketing). Lite Saver candles and Lead Saver pencil sharpeners that knock off Life Savers' striped packaging. A Swiller beer lighter with a logo that mimics Miller beer.

Just Like Mommy/Just Like Daddy Toys that socialize children into gender roles, such as "The Bride Game: A Make-believe Game for Girls;" toy electric irons; the Kidd-E-Kar-Wash kit ("Shine 'em Up Like Dad Does! Wax! Polish! Clean!").

Tip-of-the-Hat Art Anything deemed worthy of praise. "I am my own Oscar committee and I give my own awards," says Shear.

HOW VALUABLE IS A PET ROCK?

As the third millennium nears, the criteria that distinguish an antique from a collectible tend to blur. The value of many postwar consumer artifacts won't be found in auction records, collecting guides or museums. How, then, do you determine the worth of what hasn't been defined?

* Condition, condition, condition. Items in excellent condition may cost more but are ultimately better investments. Pursue mint-in-the-box objects that contain all of the original parts. Integrity of surface texture is key.

* Be wary of fakes. As antiques and collectibles dwindle, reproductions increase. Know an item's history: the years it was produced; the colors, styles and technology available then; and the manufacturer's markings and logos.

* Go to shows and seek out knowledgeable dealers who use price to organize their wares. These prices will help you gauge the standard of that collectible.

* Forecast the collectibles of tomorrow. You don't need to rush to Toys "R" Us and buy a case of brand-new George Bush or Colin Powell dolls to stow away as an investment. However, reflecting upon trends and significant events of the twentieth century will help you determine the potential value of a current item. An event like the Desert Storm War was brief but significant. For this reason, the production cycle of commemorative items was also short. Ask: Was this a newsworthy event? How long was the production cycle of this item?

* Be an armchair anthropologist. Question what life was like in other eras and is like now for various American subcultures. Some collectors crave books on Abraham Lincoln. Others, like Shear, want to own his toothbrush. "What did they use for dental floss back then, horse hair?" he asks.

* Think design. (Shearism: "The visual part of stopping to smell the roses.") If you're a novice, Shear suggests sitting in every chair in your home to determine which chairs strike a balance between art and comfort.

* Go Roadside. Hop in your car and explore. Seek out garage sales and regional antiques shows, and buy what strikes your fancy. Imagine that the grocery store and your refrigerator are museums of popular culture.


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