Collective consciousness

Mar 22, 2006 at 12:00 am

I'm guilty of looking at a couple of them like they're freaks in a funhouse. Upon visiting one home, I couldn't hold back a crack about the ritual room in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Teetering over the boxes, bags and bins, I wondered: How can he live like this?

It's so tempting to try to figure out the psyche of a collector. Is she obsessive-compulsive? Does he have a love addiction? Does that married couple have a fear of empty space? If our homes are a reflection of who we are, then it would seem anyone who personalizes their surroundings by packing objects in corners, cabinets and closets is attempting to validate their existence, making damn sure to mark their territory. Hello, ego.

But if you've spent time with a genuinely arduous collector, you know differently. If you can take your eyes off all the stuff lying around, it's easy to see what's really going on by the look of sheer exuberance on his face: Here's someone who has figured out how to make his own soul sing.

Lewis Mumford said, "A day spent without the sight or sound of beauty, the contemplation of mystery, or the search of truth or perfection is a poverty-stricken day." Maybe it's the rest of us who have lost our way. We're accustomed to venerating artifacts behind Plexiglas and on pedestals, but we've lost sight of why we're supposed to care. True collectors surround themselves with used things and new things because they speak of who we are — or perhaps more to the point, who we want to be.

The people featured in these pages have thousands of things. They live with all of it, and I mean really live with it — sleeping with leaning towers of books on the bed and cooking on a stove with barely enough room for a single saucepan. Some of them amass one type of item, like piano rolls, and others have a passion for a particular genre, like African-American arts. Still others are curators of a certain sensibility, gathering objects with a dark humor as complex yet compassionate as they are.

People around town collect Edison cylinders and motorcycle toys, wooden balls and dead bugs, pinback buttons and Vogue Company picture discs, old cameras, old Victrolas, black angels and black cat coffee creamers. What's so great about some of these particular men and women? They have their own community, a group of surveyors who go garbage-picking together and phone each other about upcoming estate sales or golden eBay finds. They're part of an extended network of mutually admiring hobbyists, known to come upon something great and hand it over without regret if it fits better in a friend's collection.

To them, whether it's a bag of old bones or a first-edition print, there's a tale to be told. Of course, it matters that the objects are valuable, but the stories are priceless. These hoarders are actually quite generous. They're scouting the fields, sleeping with the past and saving our history for each of us. —Rebecca Mazzei

Eric and Susan Murrell

Eric and Susan Murrell got fed up with buying toasters that would break every few years. The old motto "They don't make 'em like they used to" applies here: The Berkley couple found a toaster from the 1930s at a flea market and bought it for daily use. It still works to this day.

That was the spark that ignited the couple's obsession with collecting bread-browners.

The obvious question: Why toasters?

"First of all, we really like toast," says Eric, a jovial architect with a gray-flecked goatee and cherry-red Converse. The two have a healthy sense of humor about their admittedly eccentric hobby: Eric says, "Is it warm enough in here for you? I'll turn up the heat so it's nice and toasty."

After their 1930s Toastmaster score, the couple discovered a catalog of vintage toasters, and from there it was off to the races. They now have more than 300.

Eric is the editor of The Saturday Evening Toast, a newsletter for the Toaster Collector's Association (as editor, he does a "breaditorial" each issue).

There are actually quite a few toaster collectors out there; the Murrells routinely battle with them (in a friendly manner, of course) to score rare vintage toasters on eBay. Some have sold for as much as $10,000.

Their oldest piece is a Victorian toaster, a simple iron contraption that holds the bread while you toast it in an open fireplace. Some of their quirkier pieces include an eight-slice commercial toaster that weighs almost 75 pounds, a conveyer belt toaster (the Toast-a-lator), and beautiful 1920s art deco toasters with intricate porcelain detail. There's even a toaster engraved with a spider web design. As the couple gives a tour of their stylish home, their fat gray cat, Captain Dustbunny, leaps onto a display mantle and curls around a priceless toaster, casually nudging it toward the edge when he decides he's not getting enough attention.

Like many collectors, the Murrells specialize in one niche, but collect other things as well. Their small side bathroom is drenched in Michigan regalia from up North, including wood carvings, nature plaques and photos. Eric collects vintage hats — from war helmets to a fez — and Susan recently started an antique button hook collection.

"It's really the thrill of the hunt," Susan says of the collecting bug.

"I think it's a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder," Eric laughs.

As they pose in front of their collection for a photo, Eric mentions a Mercedes Benz commercial that ran a few years ago. After a photo of a flashy sexy sports car, this slogan popped on the screen: "Nobody poses with their toaster." Obviously, Mercedes Benz has overlooked a small but enthusiastic subculture.

Jay Levine
African-American arts

"'My goodness,' I sometimes think. 'It's unbelievable what I have in this house!'" Jay Levine stands surrounded by his collection of African-American cultural history, a personal museum of books, artwork, prints and playbills, curiosities and rarities that number in the thousands and cover nearly every surface of the retired educator's Detroit home. Typed transcript pages from Alex Haley's 1963 Playboy interview with Malcolm X (signed by both men) are framed next to a line of autographed headshots featuring divas from TLC to Diana Ross. Across the way, Billie Holiday gazes at Stevie, Prince and Jimi, and a peek into a bedroom finds at least 50 binders full of more signatures. There are gorgeous vintage movie posters of Lena Horne in Bronze Venus and Paul Robeson in Emperor Jones, and a corner devoted entirely to Negro League memorabilia; in the kitchen, the stern visage of Frederick Douglass looks down on a card table stacked high with newly acquired items waiting to be filed.

And that's just the upstairs.

Levine leads the way down the steps, where his home seems like a used bookstore. Books are everywhere, from contemporary fiction and vintage Donald Goines to a dog-eared copy of Princess Pamela's Soul Food Cookbook. Just how many titles are down here? "I usually say about 17,000," Levine says. "But it might be closer to 18,000 now." Books are where his collection of black culture began. Levine taught at Kettering High School in the early 1970s, and started using the work of his favorite authors and poets in class. Already a devotee of poets like Gwendolyn Brooks, Sonia Sanchez and Nikki Giovanni, Levine discovered that the work also inspired his 11th graders, and he went on to foster forensics, creative writing and scholarship programs throughout the Detroit school system.

Of course, the more books he brought in for study, the more he found himself collecting, and through auctions, book signings — Brooks once sat and politely signed "a suitcase full" of works Levine had lugged with him to Chicago — word of mouth and a few lucky coincidences, his incredible collection continued to grow. "I know the history of each piece, the how, where and when of getting it," he says, pointing out a gorgeously decorated African bench he discovered at a local art fair.

Touring once again through the framed pieces on the walls upstairs, Levine describes how he has to fit things physically in certain places. But his collection forms a cultural timeline, too, from the work of his African-American poetry heroes through sports, music, film, politics and literature. There's so much joy here, both in Levine's enthusiasm as a collector and the sense that he'll keep doing it for as long as he can. There are tentative plans to donate his homebound museum to Wayne State, but if the 20 thigh-high stacks of recent acquisitions in the living room are any indication, Levine hasn't quit yet.

Carla Hankins Krzysiak
Antique chicken furnishings

Carla Hankins Krzysiak makes and sells beads from her Pleasant Ridge home, and sells them at But she has another fascination: chickens. Krzysiak was friends with Tim Caldwell and Giles Rosbury back in the college days, when she used to go scavenging with them. It was then that she picked up her first chicken — not a real one, of course.

She now has about 75 pieces, most of which are on display in her sunny white kitchen. As she bounces her gurgling, grinning, brand-new baby girl Stella on her hip, she points out her favorite pieces, a chicken rendered from pine cones. Like many collectors, Krzysiak feels she inherited the bug; her aunt was an avid collector of all things owl, and, as a young girl, Krzysiak was fascinated with the "owl room." But unlike many collectors who shell out big bucks on their sought-after treasures, Krzysiak comes from the garbage-picking school — the cheaper, the better. Free? Ideal.

Plus, she experiences the phenomenon that so many of her peers do; once your family and friends figure out your obsession, they give you appropriate gifts for every holiday. Krzysiak is now showered with chickens on Christmas, her birthday, anniversaries. It's part of the reason she no longer aggressively pursues her collection. Her advice to potential collectors?

"Pick something you really like. That way you'll always be surrounded with things that you love."

Beth Morgan
Perfume bottles

Beth Morgan was raised by a collector. Her mother adored art nouveau and would take her daughter with her to scout resale shops and flea markets. At 11 years old, Morgan decided she wanted to collect something too. She settled on perfume bottles. One turned into 10, then 10 turned into 30. Now, at 39, she has nearly 600 of them, mostly vintage, displayed in her Berkley home.

"When I see something really unique I'll buy it," she says, "but now they're really expensive. When I started it was a dollar or two for a bottle; now some of them go for hundreds of dollars."

Most pieces in her collection are atomizers, but she occasionally buys manufactured bottles when they're striking; like the perfumes of Jean Paul Gautier, who designs all his bottles in the shape of a voluptuous female torso. One of her best scores? A factice, a store display bottle that can go for hundreds of dollars; she found one in an antique store, marked for $1 — and it was 20 percent off. She's displayed her collection at the Troy Museum and at the Detroit Historical Museum.

"That was one of my dreams," she says. "I just wanted other people to see my collection, so they could appreciate the beauty and the art of it, because most people don't think of perfume bottles as art." She comes from a family of artists, but isn't an artist herself, per se. "I do art in different ways. I refinish furniture, I collect vintage perfume bottles. Art comes out in different ways; that's my way of being artistic."

Giles Rosbury
Medical and mortuary supplies

Someone once ran into him on the street taking a machete to a dead dog. Once, he showed up at Small's in Hamtramck with a bear — not a beer — in a garbage bag. He's been known to pull over while driving and investigate roadkill. "Oh, look, it's a farm-fed turkey," he supposedly said once, pointing out the feed spilling from its gut.

These may be hearsay, but one thing's for sure: Giles Rosbury, artist, collector, former fire-eater and one of the last traveling sideshow carnies, lives life like it's something out of Edgar Allan Poe.

"I remember once, he had his hands full with God knows what," says friend and fellow collector Tim Caldwell. "He twisted the lid of a jar with his mouth and accidentally took a swig of formaldehyde, which expanded the capillaries in his tongue. It was hilarious. If nothing else, at least he's preserved his tongue."

Giles Rothbury says he finds and keeps "the remnants of other lives," everything from surgical and mortuary equipment (new, used and always arcane) to stuffed animals and teratological specimens, otherwise known as "pickled punks." A favorite punk is a double-headed baby shark in formaldehyde that really is sort of sweet- and sad-looking.

The living room of Rosbury's home on Fourth Street in Detroit is neat as a pin. The walls are plastered with horror film posters: "You won't believe your eyes" ... "The worst hasn't happened yet" ... "Pose in the nude or I'll kill you." In large and bold graphics, one eerily inquires: "Who will survive and what will be left of them?"

In the front closet are old educational films — "ephemeral films" as collectors call them — many made by the legendary Jamison Handy. Aside from a pull-down anatomical chart, a few dangling beaver pelts and a cattle skull mounted in his dining room, there's not much alluding to the sideshow of surgical science below.

Down rickety wooden steps, ghosts of past lives fill Rosbury's crowded cellar. A pelvis and string of vertebrae dangle from a wood beam like a morbid party streamer; jars both large and small, filled to the brim with cloudy fluids, line a back shelf. The most haunting artifact in the claustrophobic space is a pair of children's braces hanging from the low ceiling, two rusting rods attached to the tiniest pair of saddle shoes. He found them in New Orleans.

Rosbury has everything from plastic morgue sheets to metal instruments and mortuary makeup tables. He keeps his embalming needles and forceps in his oddball version of a junk drawer — an old baby incubator.

Rosbury, who's in his 30s, has been collecting since he was 18. He says his parents inspired him. "My dad's a still-life artist, and always had the house filled with antiques." Like dad, he goes for anything old, and really enjoys digging it up himself.

There's no denying that someone who owns gruesome crime scene photos and had John Wayne Gacy as a pen pal (he has the Christmas card to prove it) is interested in the macabre. But Rosbury's passion for death is bound with his reverence for life. He moves some snakeskin out of the way on his working table to admire a piece of wasp's nest that looks like a tiny platform. "These always work great in my sculptures because the wasps already built in this beautiful little pedestal on the back. Isn't it amazing? It just requires a single dot of glue."

Brad Duncan
Communist paraphernalia

Standing in a room crowded with radical books, bundles of revolutionary posters, and piles of political tracts, Brad Duncan calls his hoard an "amateur historical archive." It encompasses thousands of books and newspapers, hundreds of pamphlets and about 100 posters, all dealing with popular liberation, radical politics and socialism.

"Growing up in metro Detroit, with race and class the way they are, from an early age I saw that something about all this didn't work, but I didn't come to any conclusions. That all changed with the Detroit newspaper strike in 1995. For the first time, I saw open combat between Gannett and working people trying to defend themselves. Something clicked."

Then a senior in high school, he thought he was going to go to college to study creative writing, but by the time he got to school in Amherst, Mass., he was so radicalized by the strike he found himself studying straight politics, economics and history, bursting with questions about race, class, imperialism, feminism and black liberation.

It wasn't a mild epiphany. "It was a full-on religious conversion," he says with a laugh. "I was like, 'Take me to your leftists.'"

He started amassing caches of socialist papers at rallies, prowling rural bookstores, once finding 30 Soviet posters in a flea market. It became an obsession that Duncan says "felt like forensic or detective work."

"It really got going when I joined Solidarity and met other lefties. The group was an intergenerational bridge."

Duncan jokes that he quickly built a reputation among older leftists as "that twentysomething guy who wants all our old newspapers."

The tracts and posters are an alphabet soup of leftist insurgencies, protest groups and anti-imperialist organizations: MPLA, ALSC, PLO, VVAW, FMLN, IPSG, INLA, SNCC, including such titles as The Call, Iran Liberation, Resistance, New Dawn, Worker's Tribune, Truth, Red Worker, coming from Iran to India to Ireland, offering a picture of a consciously international movement. The posters are a cavalcade of images: armed peasants and trumpets, children and barbed wire, rifles and people looking out with plaintive expressions. They're in styles ranging from collages to woodcuts to expressionistic charcoal drawings on paper so old it crackles — and they're done by everyone from German antifascists to the Cuban international solidarity organization OSPAAAL to the San Francisco Poster Brigade.

"I felt a kinship with those who've struggled with injustice, wanting to learn more about my forbears, wanting to know their history. In a very real way, I've thought of myself as building a family album."

Wallace Peace
Opera records

In 1958, Wallace Peace was a 15-year-old African-American kid in Raleigh, N.C., when opera found him. He read a profile of Italian soprano Renata Tebaldi in Time magazine and was fascinated, sound-unheard.

"So I went to the classical music store thinking maybe she had a record," he recalls of that day nearly 50 years ago, relaxing his 6-foot, 5-inch frame in a well-worn recliner.

"Well, she put out a new one every month!" he laughs.

That introduction led Peace to a lifelong love affair with opera. His collection of recordings now numbers — if a glance around his West Bloomfield den is any indication — well above 10,000 recordings, including a significant number of historical recordings dating to the very first recorded music in the late 1800s that marry his profession (history professor) with his passion. The records were a window to a world that didn't exist in 1950s Raleigh.

"When I went to college, I discovered something — used record stores," he says, his eyes widening. As his collection grew, he started making opera converts (or "my victims" as he cheerfully calls people he's turned on to opera) while at Howard University. His opera evangelism has guided the growth and use of his library. After serving in Vietnam, he moved to New York City. "Believe me, I got my money's worth!" he says, recalling living within a fan's distance of opera mecca — the Met.

In 1981, he moved to Detroit, unsure about the city's opera community. He soon discovered the joys of digging in the crates at stores such as Car City Classics, Encore and Solo Records.

Simple fate led him here. A student of his at Lewis College of Business, where Peace worked at the time, happened to be a volunteer at the Michigan Opera Theatre and had heard him playing opera records nonstop in his office. Introductions were made and the MOT's Karen DiChiera asked him to give a talk about the theater's production of Richard Strauss' Salome.

"They asked me to focus on the plot, but I was interested in the performance. I'm most interested in historical performances." This, of course, makes sense for a history professor. "So I ignored the plot altogether and focused on the performances," he laughs. He played DJ and historian, mixing audio samples from his library and the crowd ate it up. He's given a pre-performance talk for every new MOT production ever since, putting his collection to use drawing connections between performances past and present. "Opera fans, you see, are no different than football or basketball fans," explains Peace in a tone that is half conspiratorial and half professorial. "We test each other and swap trivia, stats, performances."

That obvious joy in creating camaraderie radiates from Peace once he starts talking about opera. So it makes sense that this is the same man who once encountered an opera neophyte in a used record store and made a firm suggestion not to buy a recording of M. Butterfly with Pavarotti, but rather an opera featuring Tebaldi. He offered to meet the younger fan back at the store the following week to take the Tebaldi record off his hands if he wasn't sufficiently blown away. The kid bought both records and met Peace the next week, flabbergasted at Tebaldi's performance.

"He said, 'How did you know?'" Peace knows.

Mike Montgomery
Piano rolls

"This is my lab," says Mike Montgomery. "This room isn't for entertaining. You couldn't fit anyone in here to entertain!"

The back room of this otherwise unassuming Southfield brick home is packed floor-to-ceiling with rows and boxes of piano rolls and other artifacts of pre-World War II music, relics from a time when people would gather in parlors around the player piano and play and sing along with the songs of the day.

The room smells sweetly of old pipe smoke and despite his proclamation, the 72-year-old retiree does entertain as he expounds on his 50-year journey collecting piano rolls. He sits at a 1910 Steinway piano, explaining the workings of the machine's bellows and levers, telling stories about the nearly 100-year-old ragtime, blues and popular songs that stream past the Steinway's reading mechanism.

Occasionally he hoots like a thrilled kid at a stride piano passage, plays "air piano" and glances over to gauge the reaction of his audience of two. Montgomery is both an intense fan of the music and an internationally known expert in this specialized field. He's given talks at the Smithsonian, published papers and offered up parts of his piano roll collection to respected labels like Biograph and Nonesuch to use in the creation of archival recordings and transcriptions of such well-known artists as Fats Waller, George Gershwin and numerous artists otherwise lost to time.

Last year, he loaded a 15-foot rental truck to the gills when he sold a large part of his 8,500-plus piece collection to a friend and fellow archivist in Pennsylvania. "I didn't know if they'd all fit!" he marvels.

It all started in suburban Chicago. The young Montgomery had been collecting guns and stamps for some time. "I had a gun collector on one side and a stamp collector on the other," he recalls of his neighborhood.

But it was in the barn of his neighbor Idyl Nipper that he stumbled upon scores of piano rolls. He had been interested in ragtime and blues music for some time already. But this discovery struck a chord in him.

"My friend climbed up into the barn and started reading off these titles of rags and blues and I thought, 'My gosh!'" So he traded Nipper a collectible Saturday Night Special for the stash and he was on his way.

"I think I got the collector gene as well as the history gene," says Montgomery of his compulsion toward collecting. Des Plaines, Ill., was all-white at the time. So the music and information on piano rolls became clues in discovering a new culture for the young Montgomery.

He started to make connections with other collectors through an informal network of fellow enthusiasts. But his collection kicked into high gear when he bought an entire collection from a 78 collector in Columbus, Ohio, while visiting a friend in 1956. He paid off the purchase in installments from his Army pay and has never looked back.

"The information is what you're looking for," explains Montgomery of the allure of the rolls. "That's what's interesting." In this way he connected music to culture, culture to history. And that kept him on the trail of the stories and music.

So he sits on a gray weekday afternoon in front of the Steinway's pumping bellows. He summons the spirit of a bygone age, sharing its stories through its music. There's an alchemy between the physicality of the piano, the exuberance of the music and Montgomery's storytelling that makes it feel like the ghosts of the blues and jazz artists whose music he plays must certainly be smiling down on their legacy so lovingly preserved.

Tim Caldwell
Retro space toys, pulp fiction, horror films and books, Detroit memorabilia, etc., etc.

"I'm not a collector," Tim Caldwell says, before handing over a scribbled sheet detailing precisely what he "doesn't collect." The page-long list is merely a vague rundown of categories.

"I'm also not a picker," he cautions, even though he just spent hours sifting through his home, easily recalling the day he discovered each object, where it came from, and what it means to the world. He may be relatively young, but he's like the granddaddy of Detroit collectors.

What Caldwell actually means is that he's not one of those guys who's precious about his stuff, living with monomaniacal tunnel vision. His collection is best characterized as a moral barometer of the early to mid-20th century. Caldwell's enamored by anything that's above and beyond ordinary human power and experience.

He stockpiles horror, sci-fi and fantasy books, films and memorabilia, pulp magazines, crime and risqué paperbacks, Halloween party paraphernalia, sideshow photos, ominous-looking cabinet cards and cartes de visites, crackpot religious extremist trinkets and pamphlets, and, last but not least, retro sci-fi toys, including robots, rocket ship models and ray guns.

And then there's all this other cultural ephemera that doesn't quite own a spot in history, except at his house — piles of rusted pomade tins with colors that still pop, old bottle cap openers arranged on a counter in an arc and camera equipment he's reconstructed into funk art robots.

Visiting with Caldwell, you realize it doesn't take much to view the world as extraordinary, just a subtle shift in perception. He pulls out a children's toothbrush from the '50s that he keeps propped against the rear wall of a crowded medicine cabinet. The green toothbrush is shaped like a plastic toy gun. "Look at this," he says. "It's crazy. If a kid brushes his teeth, he's sticking a gun in his mouth."

Near the toothbrush sit a few small porcelain objects that he's ironically arranged in the cabinet. One of them is a small figurine of a toddler sitting on the edge of a tub, reading a book called How to Make Love. Next to it, Caldwell's positioned an old ceramic perfume bottle shaped like a woman's torso, designed so she's squeezing her tits, lactating perfume. By his smile, you can tell he prizes that piece as much as his $1,000 first-edition Frankenstein novel.

To him, Detroit is home of the extraordinary, and he's gathered binders full of local R&B nightclub promotional items, burlesque photos and articles, and hundreds of other clippings from Detroit's entertainment industry. (He recently retrieved Berry Gordy's datebook from the streets while the city was demolishing Motown's old offices on Woodward.) Caldwell also owns boxes full of soul, funk and rock records and dozens of autographed photos, ranging from Stevie Wonder to Bo Diddley to Josephine Baker.

By trade he's an artist, so his home is immaculately curated. There's a city living atop his fridge — a population of thimble-sized plastic figures found on the streets that he's staged as if they're enacting mini-vignettes. A lot of the stuff in Caldwell's Hamtramck apartment looks like cinematic props, such as the spanking paddle from Marquette prison. In fact, his whole place, from bathroom to bedroom, looks and feels like a stage set, like he's living life in a movie. Aside from the clutter, that's not a bad way to live.

So where does he get his inspiration from? This is where Caldwell does indeed stand out from the crowd. Some of his space toys were his brother's when he was a kid. But other than that, it's hard for him to say why he collects. When you ask him, he acts as if he doesn't have time for that. He'll shrug his shoulders and whip around to show you his cast-metal atomic disintegrator. He'll spout off for a half an hour about its social significance, throwing in some trivia about the atomic bomb, before he scratches his head, crinkles his eyes and moves on to introduce you to another toy nearby.

Edited by Rebecca Mazzei and written by Rebecca Mazzei, Sarah Klein, Michael Jackman, Chris Handyside and Johnny Loftus. Send comments to [email protected]