The recent Rolling Stone article about Ben Schlappig and his pretty extensive efforts to outwit the airlines and collect enough air miles to support a transcontinental lifestyle, had me thinking about the evolution of the art of collecting; not just what is collected, but how it’s collected. While there has been some dispute over the veracity of all that Rolling Stone reported in that piece, there is no arguing that dedicated collectors take their work pretty seriously, even if that collection is of something as intangible as air miles. Those not inclined to collect “things” have a hard time understanding just what this practice is all about.
There are those who collect stamps. Philatelists. Those who collect old coins. Numismatists. And others who find joy in collecting bottle caps, Pez dispensers, or baseball cards. Unfortunately there are no cool monikers for them. I even knew a man who saved every one of his five children’s baby teeth! Each of these collections in certainly unique in its own regard and as such possesses its own merit, but the art of collecting has been transformed in the digital age.
An activity that used to spurn spontaneous road trips down the interstate now occurs mostly on the information superhighway. Although the desire to collect may not have been diminished, the means through which one curates a collection today certainly has, and I would argue the pursuit has become less interesting and a lot less adventurous. Save of course for Mr. Schlappig whose collection has allowed him to circumnavigate the globe 16 times. But for the average Joe, goodbye neighborhood garage sale strolling, hello online yard sale trolling courtesy of Facebook.
A quick search of #collector or #collecting on twitter reveals just how large the online “collecting community” is and just how varied the items being sought. There are posts seeking first edition books and old rare dolls. Calls for vinyl records or political campaign buttons of elections long lost. Collecting provides one with a sense of accomplishment and perhaps a special connection to one’s past. It can be a way of remembering something fondly, arresting the passage of time momentarily while you revel in isolated memories that these objects you deem to collect conjure.
Serious collectors had always been fascinating creatures to observe. But now collecting has become more of a private affair with the ease and anonymity of websites such as eBay. It used to be that collectors would go to extraordinary lengths and implement some rather unusual strategies in their quest to procure their collectible booty. True collectors would languish for hours in a hotel lobby with pens poised, lugging around duffle bags filled with baseball paraphernalia while waiting for a glimpse of and opportunity to procure a signature from a favorite player. Some would drive for hours in response to a newspaper ad placed by someone claiming to have vintage soda bottles for sale, even though the address listed did not exist on any map. Where are these interesting souls, who were willing to sweat a little and get creative in their hunt?
I myself have accumulated quite a collection of autographed Sports Illustrated covers over the years - although I’m not sure I have gone to the lengths that serious collectors do to obtain a most coveted item. My love affair with the signed SI covers began innocently enough. I was given a my first cover for my birthday - a Tom Seaver beauty that dated April 18, 1983 that boasts the headline “You Can Go Home Again.” It was colorful and alive. The signature was bold and crisp. I was hooked. Since then, covers with names like Rose, Bench, Brett, Aaron, Ripken, Jackson and so many others have found their way on the walls of my office. All have been obtained the traditional way - at the ballpark or at public signings. Well, all except one. My Nolan Ryan cover was obtained in a rather unorthodox manner. But reports of me dressed as part of the wait staff at the hotel he was staying at are pure conjecture and have never been substantiated.
Despite what some non-collectors might say, or the judgment passed from those not in the know, it is healthy to indulge ourselves occasionally. Well most of the time. When speaking of air mile collections, Randy Peterson, the founder of Flyertalk.com said, “He who dies with the most miles wins.” Hmmmm. That doesn’t sound much like winning. Nevertheless, each time we “find” something that is special to us, we somehow manage to grab hold of our past, and relish, no matter how fleeting, the sweet smell of success.
Any time devoted to collecting your favorite item, even air miles, is time well spent. It is just time spent a little differently these days. The only way for a skeptic to truly comprehend the value of collecting is to become a collector. Wish the newbies well, and pray that they don’t choose your collectibles, or at the very least that their Wi-Fi connection is faulty.