I am what is known in polite circles as a collector. I own 16 children's phonographs, 213 Old Maid card games, 47 LPs by Jerry Vale. Although many people see my endless hunting and gathering of useless ephemera -- century-old bars of still-wrapped soap, 1970s breakfast-cereal premiums, thrift-store paintings of prom queens -- as an illness, I see it as a means of defining myself. Visit my home and you'll know instantly that I am a person who reads old books by the light of antique hurricane lamps while leaning against any number of 80-year-old bead-trimmed throw pillows from Niagara Falls, for example.
Although those unacquainted with the joys of accruing great piles of stuff sometimes mistake me for a plain old pack rat, one of those weirdoes who buys junk just because it's on sale, I am in fact a different kind of weirdo: the discriminating kind who decides he likes, for example, vintage plastic cameras and three weeks later has a roomful of Brownie Swingers, each of them slightly different, and some still in their original packaging.
Certainly there's some deep-rooted psychological reason why I want so much of what I like, but I can't really be bothered to know what that reason is. Who cares why I feel compelled to own every single recorded version of "The Theme From The Valley of the Dolls"? The monkey on my back isn't the kind that has ruined either my bank account or my lifestyle, since I keep my many collections either carefully displayed or gently tucked away, and I pay the gas bill before heading out in search of more '50s bark-cloth draperies or polyurethane Infant of Prague statuettes.
My rut has its drawbacks, however. I might not be slipping out of work at lunchtime to down a six-pack and a box of breath mints, but I have been known to race home from parties or tiptoe out halfway through movies to attend an online auction. I might not be sneaking around on my spouse, but I have been busted sneaking perfectly good winter coats out of the hall closet (and into bags marked "donate to charity") to make room for my mammoth collection of antique Christmas ornaments and 19th-century eggnog cartons. I'm an addict -- a hard-core addict who finally ran out of places to store his compulsion.
Which is how I resolved, a couple of years ago, to stop, cold turkey, this lifelong and nearly life-consuming habit of amassing useless but attractive things. It might, I decided in this damn-the-torpedoes frame of mind, be fun to find out just how much money I had been spending per year on all the dishware patterns, the coffee tins with pretty labels, the apothecary jars -- and exactly how much space I might actually have in my closets and cupboards if I wasn't always reorganizing them to make room for another set of Rocky Horror Picture Show action figures. Not to mention all the hours I'd save by neither shopping so much anymore nor having to explain my purchases to anyone.
(Most people just don't get the collecting thing. One friendship ended when a pal of mine once glanced at the rows of carefully organized hardcovers and neatly stacked Dell Mapbacks in my home library and announced, "You have too many books." And a family tie went on ice when an ex-sister-in-law once took in the wall of antique gilt mirrors in my bedroom and announced, "You must really like looking at yourself.")
I figured I'd start slow. Beginning on January 1 of the next year, I decided, I would no longer scour eBay in search of titles by Maysie Greig, a vaguely popular romance novelist of the 1930s whose books I have no intention of reading but had been collecting because I liked their lusty, color-saturated covers. By February, I hoped to have abandoned my new passion for elephant-shaped ceramic coffee creamers and picture postcards illustrating any corner of the small Midwestern town where I was born. I knew I'd never be able to give up my collection of total strangers' wedding photos, so I resolved to only buy pictures depicting brides and grooms who were smiling -- but not until summer, after which I planned to also stop buying record albums by famous people who cannot sing, but only if I had by then acquired my holy grail: an LP recorded in the mid-1960s called Sebastian Cabot, Actor/Bob Dylan, Poet, because I knew my life would be incomplete without a recording of the late Mr. French interpreting "Like a Rolling Stone."
But I never made it to summer. By mid-April, I had begun to sneak peeks at online auctions of Fiestaware sugar-bowl lids. By May I was secretly buying spent Instamatic flashbulbs to go with all those vintage cameras I owned, and in June I fell completely off the wagon when I came upon a set of 1940s ceramic nun candleholders that played "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" when you wound them up.
It was the little nuns that forced me to rethink this whole New Year's resolution thing -- because attempting to curb my natural bent for hoarding the things I love only dug me in deeper, only served to further inflame my passion for collecting. So I made a whole different kind of resolution last year: to rent a storage unit and move to a larger house with a basement. It wasn't about curing my addiction -- because I don't have to, because it isn't hurting me or anyone else. Rather, it was about making room for it safely and sanely. I'm much happier. Not only do I have more space for all the things that complete me, but I've taken to collecting larger things, besides. My 16 turn-of-the-century pickle barrels look smashing lining my driveway, and I've cleared out our living room for the family of ivory-handled coffins that will be arriving any day now. Happy New Year!