In their new book, Susan Sheehan and Howard Means present 42 individual profiles of collectors and extreme hobbyists. Aside from a perfunctory introduction, the authors offer little in the way of analysis, but instead let each individual get to the heart of their lives in generous-sized monologues. They include a man restoring a steam locomotive in his backyard; a woman so fascinated with marbles that she has paved her driveway with them; a philatelist who describes finding a rare stamp from Alabama as being like “climbing Everest”; a 50-year-old patent lawyer whose devotion to rollerblading down the hills of San Francisco remains passionate despite the 27-stitch scar on his chin; and a man who is well on the way to his goal of eating at every McDonald’s restaurant franchise in the country.
Those of us in the business often joke about people whose love of collecting has gone beyond normal. In Britain they are often called trainspotters or anoraks, and their encyclopedic knowledge, singular focus, and endless talking about their hobby often make them bores to be around. So it is, one suspects, with some of the individuals in this book. One couple collects toy Noah’s Arks and has given over their sunroom to one that is over seven feet tall. They refer to some of their arks as “pieces of history” for which they are “chosen protectors.” In the Fifth Avenue penthouse of another collector, Leonard Lauder, CEO of Estee Lauder, there is a Picasso leaning against the wall, but his true passion is for postcards; he owns 200,000.
The book features not only those obsessed with collecting things or seeking thrills, but individuals whose peculiar passions are focused on posterity or other people. There’s Ted Furley, who has spent more than a decade compiling information on Patrick Charles Keely, an Irish-born architect who built 700 Catholic churches and parish buildings. Furley waxes lyrically on the importance of churches to Irish neighborhoods, describing how some are still centers of community for new ethnic immigrants, and lamenting how so many have been torn down. One suspects that his zeal may save some of these buildings. Then there’s Henry Sakaida, a second-generation Japanese-American who, as a favor to an acquaintance in Tokyo who had flown Zeros during World War II, tracked down the American pilot whose plane he had shot down. That favor became a calling, and he has since arranged other “reunions” between former U.S. and Japanese adversaries from World War II, bringing a sense of closure to both.
It’s easy to label such people as eccentrics. But I know from my own experience that, whether they are collecting radiator caps or pursuing their own genealogy, such people tend to be genuinely happier than the average American. And in a country premised on the pursuit of happiness, this is no small thing.
George Glastris, of Skinner Auction Galleries in Boston, is co-author of Miller’s Collecting Science & Technology and appears regularly on PBS’s Antiques Road Show.