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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 4)

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.


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