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Seashell people

IF you don't happen to know what an African olive is, don't let it ruin your day. Nobody in Africa knows what it is, either. Well, practically nobody. And if you can't describe a ``true tulip'' or a ``left-handed, lightning whelk,'' you can still pass yourself off as a perfectly normal person living in a reasonably normal place. Kansas City, for instance.

But one shouldn't push ignorance, however excusable, to the point of smugness. There is always the chance you might not stay in Kansas City forever. In a moment of confused indiscretion you could wander into a travel agency and end up on a Florida beach. If that happens, it would be to your advantage to have a modicum of education, whelkwise, tulipwise, and olivewise.

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For your information, words such as the above are uttered by Florida shell gatherers. To be accepted into the community of those who pick up shells a smattering of the vocabulary is sufficient, because these people are of a gentle and unsuspicious nature. Although acceptance is no great problem, mutual understanding of the language is helpful.

For instance, a couple of friendly, wet-footed beach people might invite you to their house to show you their ``cowry.'' It would be nice if you knew they weren't talking about a place to keep cows. Or if the lady says, ``How do you like my Scotch bonnet?'' it doesn't mean her gull-stained, floppy hat from K mart.

Shellers travel usually in pairs, with almost permanently bent-over heads, giving the appearance of one walking with an anchor hung around his neck. They carry sacks, or just paper bags, and they walk in an aimless fashion, scuffing sand with their sneakers and seldom looking up.

The most unusual aspect of shellers is that it is difficult to distinguish the male from the female, even a short distance away. This is due to a similar roundness of body, tapering to undistinguished legs, and a similarity of costume.

The middle of the person is covered by baggy shorts that were bought on sale and do not fit. On the upper portion there is a loose jacket-blouse, faded in front and back but holding the original color under the armpits. Hats are any contraption that shades a peeling nose from the sun. The same type is worn by either sex.

The confusion in gender, sometimes voiced by strangers, is not considered a faux pas, since there is no particular reason to make the distinction.

Last winter I went under cover to study the sheller's world at close range.

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It can safely be said that shell collecting is not done for profit. The rewards are so small dollarwise as to be dubious. Thus, the activity does not attract members of the Mafia or other organized crime. Usually goods have to be rare to have great value, and rareness is the outstanding quality shells do not have.

Oh, an African Glory of the Sea once sold for $1,200, according to an undisclosed source, but shortly thereafter an oil rig dug up thousands of them and the bottom, so to speak, fell out of the market.

Another shell which is now considered to be in the ``big price'' market is the junonia. I contacted a person who sold one for $35. But then, she admitted it took her six years to find one that good, so that averages out to a return of less than 50 cents a month, or maybe around 6 cents a day. That's not considered good even in Taiwan.

So profit isn't the motive. Apparently it's done simply for the sake of finding an item. After 40 million years, you are the one who picked it up. Or else it is pleasing to look at -- though not always. Many shells could be returned to the ocean without great loss to the art world.

But some people are big collectors. They might have shells numbering in the thousands in cases around their living rooms. Suddenly walking into this plethora of calcium knickknacks can be awe inspiring.

But then, not all displays inspire awe. Take the display of one large Florida horse conch on the coffee table. It could be there for its rarity, its size, its color, or just the fact it was found on a 40th wedding anniversary.

In one case, an item (Florida murex) was displayed because the wife had knocked it off the shelf by sneezing in a shellcraft store, and had to buy it. The chip end was hidden by adding a plastic base, which brought the total investment to $29. Something not to be sneezed at in shell economics.

I have concluded that the value of shell collecting is not in the shells. It is in the people who collect them. They are beautifully sweet people who love even the scuffy passer-by. Even I have succumbed to a small shell display. I have three albino spiny cockles (chipped), two angel wings, a sea urchin, and four shark's teeth. Value? Seven cents. But a three-year-old gave them to me in exchange for my drawing a picture of her.

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