I met him on his 86th birthday. Allen Woodall sat behind a desk, surrounded by his rambling antique store. The gray-haired man in a plaid shirt smiled when he learned I had driven two hours to tour his museum. Behind him, the entrance to one room in the shop was covered with a red curtain. As an employee popped out from behind the velvet, I caught a glimpse of the place I had come to see.
I asked Mr. Woodall how he got started, and he confessed that he had been a collector all his life. That was all he needed to say to connect with me because I have been the same way since childhood. I love everything about collecting — the thrill of the chase, the spirited haggling over prices, the pleasure of seeing vintage items neatly lined up on a shelf, the satisfaction of crossing one more prize off a want list.
I would never make it as a minimalist.
I come by this mania honestly. My parents filled their home with antique furniture, glassware and pottery. My aunt had a house even more full, plus her own antique shop. Another aunt and uncle lived in rooms ticking with vintage clocks. My grandmother’s china cabinet was stuffed with teacups. When my other grandparents replaced their antiques with new furniture in the ‘60s, there was widespread disapproval in the family.
The drive to collect comes from many sources. For me, a transformative experience at the movies when I was five began a decade of intense “Star Wars” mania. A geology lesson in science class briefly fueled my hunt for rocks. A love for Saturday morning television inspired a bookcase filled with cartoon character toys. My failed teenage attempt at becoming a professional magician led to a zeal for seeking out old magic books and posters. A craze for the late actor Harry Anderson — famous for playing Judge Stone on “Night Court” in the ‘80s — made me want to dress like he did; that’s why I packed my closet with sport coats and vintage hand-painted ties. In a house filled with my obsessions, there is barely room for me.
I should point out that collecting is different from hoarding. Collectors carefully arrange and organize their comic books or Matchbox cars or Japanese swords. They know where everything is and can find any one item to show off to an admiring guest (even if they often must wait for months between visits from admiring guests). Unlike hoarders, most collectors do not need to carve a path through piles of junk mail just to get to the kitchen. Granted, I have a friend in California who does have to move a stack of books in order to eat breakfast, so the line between the two disorders can be thin.
Yet many of my best friends are book collectors. One pal in Chicago once walked by a barber shop and saw a small tower of books in the window. Right in the middle of the pile, a rare title peeked out. My friend did not need a haircut, but he went in and got one anyway, waiting for an opening in the conversation to ask the barber if any of the books in the window were for sale. As he left with the prize in hand, he felt he had accomplished a rescue. There is a certain nobility to collecting, we tell ourselves.
So, Mr. Woodall and I talked like old friends, fully aware that the vogue for what we do is fading. He told me he was searching for a buyer for his museum, someone younger to take on the mantle. But I can’t help but worry. The urge to accumulate is not one shared by many under 40. Young people these days are more likely to cringe at grandma’s prized Hummel figurines or at dad’s boxes of old fishing lures. The idea of being tied down by an estate filled with brown furniture or pink Depression glass turns them off. Enchanted by van living, tiny houses and Marie Kondo’s mantra of tossing whatever doesn’t “spark joy,” many in the 30-and-under set tell me they want “experiences, not things.”
It may be futile to point out that sitting pretty atop an empire of collectibles is, technically speaking, an experience.
Anyway, that’s why it may be hard to find someone who wants 2,000 old lunch boxes (To be continued).