Saturday, May 28, 2011

How now?

This is exactly the sort of thing I try to avoid when I go to sales—knickknacks, tchotchkes, bric-a-brac—pick your favorite synonym for dust-catching figurines that clutter all surfaces until you have to start branching out and covering your walls with special knickknack shelves and glass showcases. It's a slippery slope. But at one particularly great sale, when I was already laden down with books and board games and kitschy message centers because it was the kind of sale where they don't trust you to bring in your own shopping bag and you don't trust them to watch your pile in the "reserved" section, I kept circling back to this $1 cow.

I think she—oh god, I'm anthropomorphizing a knickknack!—reminds of Ferdinand, titular character of one of my favorite children's books of all time. But Ferdinand was a bull—a benign bull—and this is clearly a cow, but Ferdinand did have a mother, a very awesome mother, described in a classic backhandedly complimentary way by Munro Leaf: "His mother saw that he was not lonesome, and because she was an understanding mother, even though she was just a cow, she let him just sit there and be happy." Just a cow? Come on.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The holy grail of paperback cover art

I've loved Edward Gorey for a long time, since the first PBS Mystery! with his animated opening aired back in 1980s. But it wasn't until I wrote this review of a Gorey show at the local art museum that I discovered he designed a series of classic paperbacks for Anchor Doubleday from 1953 to 1960. Apparently there are about 200; he actually illustrated and hand-lettered about a quarter of them (some of the others were illo'd by such luminaries as Andy Warhol and Milton Glaser but he was the art director). Read all about it here. Now I have...four of them. So I've got to find about 46 more in order to satisfy the crazy completist in me. Yes, I could start targeting them on ebay, alibris, etc but that would drain all the fun from this endeavor, wouldn't it?

I already had Troilus and Cressida on my shelf (Chaucer's version was the topic of my senior thesis) and am ashamed to say that I'd never even noticed it was the hand of Gorey. They're not signed or anything but I mean, duh, I should recognize that quaking line anywhere! The other three volumes I recently plucked from the chaotic bookshelves at my favorite Goodwill. They were scattered amid all the cheeseball romances, smarmy self-help books, hardcover Nora Roberts, and grotesquely stained children's books but obviously they all came from the same place/donor. That naturally sent my mind lurching down the usual course: Who was this learned San Antonian? And shouldn't we have been friends?

Friday, May 20, 2011

Kid cardsharps

One day I hope to find a book that finally teaches kids how to fix a proper cocktail but this is a good place to start honing their midcentury skill sets.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011


Long before The Office (Brit version), before Office Space (pieces of flair!), before the American Office, there was a Brit sitcom called The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. I credit (or blame—take your pick) that show for forming my sense of humor and for giving me my earliest sense of what it meant to have a job, to work for The Man, to be a corporate stooge. Reggie Perrin is a seething-on-the-inside, sniveling-on-the-outside middle manager type with a classic barking bastard of a boss named CJ. This little wooden desk ornament (what do you call them?) is the sort of thing CJ would've had on his desk, and I only wish I'd found it when I actually had a job. Now it's on the desk of my home office and there's no one to be cowed by it except me. And the kids, when they're on my computer playing games.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Cool beans

Do these look like novelty ice cubes? I think that's just how they photographed. When I picked them up at a really excellent sale last year, I didn't know what they were either. Some kind of rattling baby blocks, a precursor to the Fisher-price peekaboo blocks my kids loved so much. Upon closer inspection, the rattle element appeared to be some kind of seed... Then I realized what it was: jumping beans. Dead ones. I hadn't seen a dead jumping bean since I bought a box of them at the Woolworth's in my town several centuries ago. Of course those were alive when I bought them, two beans in a clear plastic box. They really blew my mind. Then they stopped jumping and I saved them somewhere and I wouldn't be surprised if they turn up in one of my parents' storage facilities one day.

So a jumping bean is not actually a bean but a seed from a deciduous shrub native to Mexico, containing the larva of a moth. Apparently, there's a whole industry around them (okay, industry is a slight exaggeration), but you can buy gimmicky variations on amazon and lots of other places. After I bought these, the first thing I did was try to find some on the internets—there was one person, also a Texan, selling a few on ebay. Mine were in much better shape.

I'm thinking that today these jumping-bean blocks would definitely end up in some kind of major safety recall.

Sunday, May 8, 2011


I bought this at the same sale that had the gnome gnotebooks. It's a pretty awesome copy, you've got to admit. That cover? Yummy. Of course I'm never going to read it. Does anyone ever read the whole thing anymore?

The important thing is that I found it at all here in Texas, where evolution is not featured in middle and high school science curriculums, because this is the State Where A Bunch of Total Morons Dictate Textbook Standards Across the Country. In my part of town, the Jesus fish, the meaning of which I've never been totally clear on (and that's okay), is a very common car decoration, and I would be a little nervous to affix one of those Darwin equivalents on the back of my Toyota. So just knowing that someone else owned this book is like, hurray for the enlightened! I'm sorry that you're probably dead! And buying it I felt like I was rescuing it from a potential book-burning party. You never know.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Gnothing like gnomes

I procured not one but two gnome gnotebooks at a sale which was otherwise gnome-free. I definitely had a gnome phase back in the ’80s—it was all part of my Renaissance Faire/Anne Mcafferty/Stevie Nicks preoccupation—so this was one of those nostalgia-driven purchases. I kept one gnotebook for myself and sent the other to my old friend Anne, who was a dedicated diary-keeper back in the day, an 8th-grade Pepys. She had one of these gnotebooks and instead of addressing each entry "Dear Diary" as most middle-schoolers would, she addressed an imaginary friend--"Dear Courtney."

I wonder if that was a secret.

Anyway, I thought it was pretty imaginative. Anne also used to make up long soap-opera-y sagas about a bunch of attractive young people with names like Tory and Raven. She did this while endlessly bouncing a tennis ball against her garage door. Sometimes she'd type them up on her electric typewriter and read them to friends, with lots of dramatic inflection. If she still has any of the original manuscripts, I'd love to read them, if for no other reason than to remember what the guy character names were. Who was worthy of Tory and Raven?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Tackle box

My parents made me take this tackle box when I moved from NYC to Texas seven years ago. For the nearly two decades I lived in the city they'd been sheltering my childhood detritus and they saw my move as a big opportunity to downsize—or at least to clear one small corner of one of their flotilla of storage units, which for them qualifies as decluttering. The third-grade artwork and moldering copies of Rolling Stone, I wasn't so psyched to see, but this tackle box...? Wowsie.

I’m not sure when I got it or when exactly it became the receptacle of my treasures but judging by the stickers affixed to its sides (Rizzo from Grease, the mothership from Close Encounters, Obi-Won from Star Wars), it was definitely the ’70s. I didn't need to open it to know what was inside: shark's teeth, key chains, those tin clicker "crickets," plastic animals from an old advent calendar, tiny notebooks, sea glass, shells, bits of fur, buttons, gumball machine prizes...I could go on and on—a tackle box seems to have a bottomless capacity for treasure. A dried-out piece of duct tap flaps uselessly where there used to be a lock, but I don't think it ever had one. Maybe that’s how I ended up with it in the first place—who wants a broken tackle box but a 9-year-old magpie?

Nothing keeps Pandora’s box shut, anyway.

Not to get all crazy out-of-control self-mythologizing, but this blog is a little bit of a Pandora’s box I’m opening. Kinda, sorta. When Pandora opened her box (which I believe was technically a jar), only bad shit flew out—greed, hatred, snarkieness—leaving just Hope to pick up the pieces. But this box/blog represents the good and the bad—the human. The human packrat. The Hope that remains is the eternally springing Hope of finding more cool stuff and having a place to put it.

See, like my parents before me—well, my mother really; my dad is mostly the driver/hauler—I have a bit of a problem with acquisitiveness. I am not a hoarder. I want to get that out of the way, right away. But I'm also not a dealer or professional picker—I don't even have an online store (yet).

I am a collector and my collections are always shifting. I am an appreciator of beauty, of symmetry, asymmetry, silliness, whimsy, kitsch and craftsmanship. I am a connoisseur of objects, and a hopeless nostalgist. I love googling my new purchases and trying to put a dollar value on them. I crow victory when I've scored a serious bargain, make immediate plans to flip it on on ebay and then do nothing. I try to buy with a purpose— like "Hey, this is something my kids would enjoy" or "Gee, isn't this just the thing to fill that yawning space over the second couch in the den." I've got two girls who need entertaining, I've got a big ole 1950s ranch house that needs filling—no one can blame me for my weekly haunting of estate sales, my trawling of Goodwills, garage sales and junk shoppes.

Except that sometimes I feel myself evolving from a person who buys stuff she needs—even if it takes a really long circuitous route to justify that need—to someone who just needs to buy stuff. Because it's a compulsion... because it's In My Blood.

I spent the weekends of my formative years not playing soccer or T-ball or being expensively “enriched” at camps or academies. I passed my Saturdays in strange school gymnasiums, airplane hangars and drive-in movie theaters, in the parking lots of stores that no longer exist (Two Guys, Alexander's), in town squares, rehabilitation centers and restored historical villages. I spent the weekends of my childhood on the flea market and antique show circuit in New Jersey.

Fairlawn. Paramus. Lafayette. Becker Farms. Long Valley. Ramapo. Mahwah. Speedwell Village. Waterloo Village. Morristown. Teeterboro Airport. Beach Haven. Nyack. Morris Plains. The junior high school in Sparta. The beloved Newton Drive-in. I have distinct memories of all of those antique shows, but they all started out the same way: The night before, my father would put down the back seat of our bronze Grand Torino station wagon, and we’d commence loading: first the metal folding tables, then the odd bit of furniture (small stuff, like plant stands and footstools), and then the endless parade of tomato boxes (procured from the supermarket, valued for their strength and excellent lids) filled with objects carefully wrapped in newspaper, my mother's inventory from garage sales, thrift stores, flea markets and the auction at the old grange hall in Branchville we attended every Thursday night.

This was the time before ebay and etsy, before Antiques Roadshow, Pawn Stars, American Pickers (I don't think I even heard the term "picker" until a New York magazine profile of one back in the 90s). The time dealers of a certain age wax misty about, an age of innocence when no one knew what they had, no one had any expectations—the countryside was replete with rubes unloading their heirlooms for a song. This was a time before even antique malls. When my mother eventually became a charter member of an antiques cooperative, it signaled the end of an era for us, and my brother and I were rarely called upon to carry a tomato box again. Not sure why, maybe it was because the four of us could no longer squish into the front seat, even in a wide-bodied station wagon unencumbered by carseats, boosters or seatbelts.

I don't know if my brother and I ever questioned or resented our lifestyle. My memory has quite likely gone wobbly and hazy around the edges. I mostly remember drinking hot chocolate in styrofoam cups. Sitting in the station wagon with a stack of comix and watching the planes take off at Teeterboro. Renewing friendships with other kids on the circuit every year. Going on 12 pony rides in one day.

My daughters don't have that warm and glowy feeling about accompanying me on the estate sale rounds or on flea market pilgrimages. They could not be noisier about their disapproval. Nevertheless they exhibit collector tendencies, with their eye for vintage books, Barbie paraphernalia and Vera scarves. They squirrel away precious objects in drawers and in tiny boxes, reminding me of Pippi Longstocking and her magical chest of drawers, of me and my tackle box.

I've already written about my estate-saling obsession here and here. On this blog, I'm going to be working through some issues (am I turning into my mother? did that already happen? am I making my kids crazy hoarders?) while archiving my finds, new and old.

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