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Stuff-Lover's Heaven

A WHILE back a friend sent my wife and me a Booth cartoon from the New Yorker magazine showing an older couple on a very cluttered front porch "just a-settin' there." Two people are passing on the sidewalk, and one remarks to the other, "He married her for her stuff."

Evidently, our friend thought there might be some sort of connection between the Booth characters and us. How could that be? I don't collect stuff. I collect books. And my wife, well, I guess she does collect stuff. But it is interesting stuff, unusual stuff, often stuff extremely hard to come by.

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She has worked for an airline for many years and has used this position to travel and scour foreign flea markets. She has been to Machu Picchu twice. To Nepal twice river rafting. And to many, many other places.

She has picked coins out of potholes at the top of Iguazu Falls while wading along in the river, the tourist causeway from which these were thrown having long since been washed away. She has a stone figure from rural Colombia bought in a remote mountain village and lugged all the way home, beginning on local buses festooned with chickens and pigs.

When she was in Kenya, her bus had a flat, and she managed to garner a giraffe skull nearby - where she was reconnoitering until the driver reminded her that lions might be around. Her cleaning person used to stand on a carved African chief's stool to dust until I reminded her that a stepladder from the local hardware would work as well as an antique from the ends of the earth.

When I first visited my wife's living room, before we were married, I found myself stared at from every wall by masks from all over, some pleasant, some grotesque. Much later in London she picked up another mask, apparently from Thailand, a long-faced, bearded man with huge ears, under the illusion that it would fit into our luggage. But somehow she got it home.

Some of her collections have remained in boxes for many years, awaiting a mansion large enough to display them - collections of boxes, baskets, rabbit figurines, glass, old bottles, Oriental rugs, all neatly sorted and stored.

Fortunately, under the influence of a button-collecting friend, she has lately taken up buttons, which don't take up much room. It started innocently enough, with her acquiring buttons for her friend, whom she refers to as Button Bette. Now at a flea market, I point out to her booths Button Bette would like, and she searches through rifts and piles of buttons, of which Button Bette may eventually see a few.

On a recent trip to England, we also did some hiking on high fells in spring and found a few sheep that hadn't made it through the winter. So we came home with two very necessary sheep skulls, horns included, that she somehow fit into her suitcase. The customs people never batted an eyelash.

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As a bystander, I do a certain amount of chortling about all this, of course. I pretend to be innocent. We both collect rocks, so that doesn't count. My other collection is books, and I can pretend that all of them relate to my work in some way.

I began that many years ago as a graduate student in Philadelphia with absolutely no spare money. So I used to frequent the used book stores, like the famous Leary's, looking for true bargains in first editions. I found many old second editions. Once in a great while there was a first. And then there were Dutch auctions, in which every book was sold for the same price, and the price was lowered daily. The trick for the impecunious was to decline purchase until a book was an unbelievable bargain, hoping t hat no one else would snatch it away ahead of you.

I once bought volume two of the first edition of James Fenimore Cooper's "Red Rover" that way. Why, I'm not sure. It was irresistibly cheap. So the fact that it was truly useless without volume one didn't bother me. It was, somehow I thought, interesting. The paper and binding were fine. The book was in good shape. I think I may still have it, a part of the more than two tons of books I moved to California eight years ago. Of course many of them are still in boxes.

I keep assuring myself that there is a point to all this. There must be. I mean, other than affording a source of laughter to our friends. After all, I once bought a first edition of the poems of Henry Timrod, laureate of the Confederacy, in good shape, in a furniture store in Newark, N.J., for a dime. And a first edition of Henry Thoreau's "The Maine Woods" for $6.

In fact, I could regale readers with many more stories if I didn't have to build more shelves in the basement. That way, it will still be a while before we have to move to a larger house.

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