May 7, 2022 — The Evolving Obsessiveness of a Serial Collector

“I’m a collector of beautiful things / I capture and keep them and pin down their wings.” — Daniel Romano, “The Collector”

What is it that drives otherwise sane people to seek out, acquire, catalogue, organize, display, store, and obsess over the ephemera of life? Why, in other words, do I — and yes, I am all too implicated in this matter — and so many others collect?

A 2014 article in The Guardian noted that around a third of UK residents collect something, and unless there is a truly unusual concentration of eccentrics in the British Isles (admittedly, regular listeners of As It Happens on CBC radio may insist that this is very likely the case), that estimate seems entirely possible. Any number of reasons for this have been put forth: to maintain a connection to a specific region or place (objects representing a hometown or ancestral region); to express loyal fandom and devotion to a sports team or band (memorabilia of every sort); out of genuine intellectual curiosity (books on a specific theme, self-mined rocks and gems); as a potentially lucrative and prestigious investment (rare antiques, paintings, stamps or coins)…

Perhaps the process of organizing and categorizing items can provide a sense of being in control of one small and possibly very specific element of life, when the headlines more often indicate a spiraling-out-of-control globe afflicted by viruses, degradation and violence — “a way of relaxing and retreating into a private world.” In a similar vein, Cosette Schulz’s Exclaim review of Daniel Romano’s 2016 album Mosey, which includes the song “The Collector,” notes Romano’s theme of “grasping at the greatness of past works,” perhaps to combat “the sense of confusion and loss that exists in today’s culture.” Evolutionary theorists have even suggested that collections helped men to attract potential mates by signalling their ability to accumulate resources. (And really, who among us hasn’t been wowed by the sight of boxes containing thousands of postcards, or possibly every O-Pee-Chee hockey card issued between 1976 and 1991?)

Reflecting on the ‘why do we collect?’ question, as I sit between a cabinet filled with 2,000 vinyl records and shelves displaying an array of Expo 67-themed items — most prominently, a trio of vintage posters, presented to me by a former neighbour and then beautifully framed by my ex-wife (“Rendezvous a Montreal: Bring Your Camera! Apportez votre appareil!”) — it strikes me that, in my case, the sort of obsession which has translated into the piles of stuff which is inexorably filling my house has evolved as I’ve aged.

It started with young love — hero worship in the form of hockey cards. Ken Dryden. Wendel Clark. Pelle Lindbergh, the Flyers’ goalie whose star glowed so brightly but tragically burned up in a fiery car wreck. And, of course, Guy Lafleur, who so sadly passed away this month, prompting an outpouring of sadness and reminiscence (not to mention renewed airplay for his 1979 spoken-word-with-disco album Lafleur!) Packs of cards eagerly purchased on Saturday mornings from Cam’s Restaurant in Chesley, the statistics pored over and memorized, the stale bubble gum snapping in half like tasteless pink peanut brittle.

But in the way that young love initially burns so brightly only to fade away once one’s attention is captured by the newer and flashier, acquiring sports cards lost its appeal as I was finishing high school and the league began to expand throughout the sunbelt. (At the time, coincidentally, I became focused on finding ways of expanding my travelling to countries near the equatorial belt.) Not for me the high end cards of today, packaged with gimmicks such as inserted bits of autographed jerseys, presumably to increase their appeal as an investment item. If I was in the accumulation game to make money, I’d be buying limited edition coins from the Mint, or perhaps some of those new-fangled non-fungible token files of digital art (probably not a perfect fit for a late adapter such as myself).

A long engagement with objects can transpire by chance. A set of Centennial glasses admired in a thrift shop led to a plastic Expo 67 candy dish, which over time morphed into me happening to have a partner who had the time to find a vast cornucopia of 1967-themed finds in the land of eBay. Expo salt and pepper shaker set. Centennial cufflinks. Expo sombrero. Church of the Expo 67 candles (made “entirely of the same pure beeswaxes specially collected from all parts of the world for making the candles used at the altar…”). And so it goes. Years later, she rued the eccentric array of souvenir items, the gifts which keep on giving by continuing to fill a lot of space in Rubbermaid containers in the basement.

Is it a gender thing? Anyone who has spent time in a used record shop — or even simply read or watched the film version of High Fidelity — would say yes, for they often appear to be the last bastion of socially sanctioned single-sex space, with women far scarcer than 1980s K-Tel collections (“Hit Express!” “Chart Action!”) filed unceremoniously in the cheap-o milk crates stuffed under the bins containing music which customers might actually wish to purchase. (When my friend Dave from Whitehorse — possessor of many thousands of records, coins, unusual lamps, books on the Klondike Gold Rush, etcetera, etcetera — first met my ex-wife, practically the first question he put to her was “what do you collect?” Abashedly, she admitted to being strangely insusceptible to amassing stuff for the sake of… having stuff.) But truth be told, I have happened, on online dating sites, upon more than one female profile which highlights a love of vinyl collecting. But still, does the irrefutable evidence that the great majority of vinyl aficionados are not women correlate with a similar majority of male collectors writ large? Inquiring minds want to know.

Over the past few years, I’ve embraced my inner deltiologist (impress one and all by using this ten dollar word at your next social gathering) through Postcrossing — an online postcard exchange forum through which individuals swap postcards with random people throughout the world. Having always been a postcard fan, learning that nearly 11,000 other Canadians (over 805,000 worldwide!) share this interest enough to send snail mail to people that they will, almost certainly, never meet, came as quite a revelation. Sign me up! And so a new obsession began, one that, this time, is decidedly tilted in the other direction, gender-wise — over three-quarters of Postcrossing participants are female. So much for the women-don’t collect theory. Back to the record store (um, drawing board) — it would appear that I still haven’t found what I’m looking for. (For the record, The Joshua Tree is part of my collection.)

Why, now, after years — decades, actually — of casually saving postcards received from friends, have these small images of distant locales become my latest accumulation obsession? Is it a wanderlust-inspired result of the pandemic having precluded the ability to actually travel? Or more about the fact that the unassuming pieces of thick paper share, with vinyl, a certain retro cachet which, admittedly, I gravitate toward. But it’s more than all that.

I’ve concluded that the appeal isn’t so much the postcard (literally) vistas on the front, but the window which the written message (and the corresponding profile on the Postcrossing website) provides into the life of a random, ordinary, decidedly not famous person residing in another part of the globe. As one Canadian participant so perfectly expressed it, the pastime “is about communicating to the world and being part of humanity. Take the time to handwrite something either serious or funny, happy or sad, important or trivial.”

Take the time to participate in the world. Take the time to fill a corner of your den with 2,000 records, a shelf of glassware trumpeting Canada’s Centennial and several boxes of colourfully stamped mail which arrived par avion from all points on the compass. Take the time to clutter, amass, jumble, accumulate…

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