Susan Schwartz
Collecting: A window on others' worlds and our own. 
735 words, 22 August, 2006. 
Copyright  2006 Vancouver Sun

One day in 1975, Marilynn Gelfman Karp found a shopping list in her supermarket cart, left by someone who had used the cart earlier. It was a short list: Clearasil, M&Ms, chips, baloney, orange soda and dog food. "It told a story," she recalled, "and I became a collector of this voyeuristic residuum."

And so the professor of art at New York University, a lifelong collector, added found shopping lists to her 200 or so collections.

Many are of what she calls unloved objects, the flotsam and jetsam of life present and past, overlooked by most people, or dismissed -- bootjacks and hangers, paint-by-numbers pictures and old egg beaters, washboards and licence-plate key tags. To her they are special.

"There is no accounting for why a category of objects has a singular resonance for the collector," Karp observes in In Flagrante Collecto, a book about the impulse to acquire. It's a handsome volume, featuring 1,000 colour pictures and an informed, lively combination of cultural history and memoir.

Among her collections is one she calls poignant repairs -- common objects that have been repaired so they're still usable, like the lustreware teapot with the broken handle. Someone constructed a metal corset, with a handle, for the teapot so that it was still usable.

For Karp, this provided "tangible evidence someone loved this piece before I did."

She was a kid when she started to pick up soda-bottle caps from the dustbin of her corner candy store in the 1940s. She also collected Dixie lids, which covered ice-cream cups between 1930 and 1954, her father's cigar rings, skate keys, Jokers from card decks. Wonderfully eclectic stuff. Quotidian, sure -- but as evocative and emblematic of a time as stamps or art.

Her found shopping lists are part of a chapter called Nobody Cared, which includes such items as air-sickness bags and hotel Do Not Disturb signs.

Amie K., one of several collectors Karp cites, began to collect movie-ticket stubs when she saw Grosse Pointe Blank in 1996 "and realized that retaining the stub from each movie she saw made a tangible and gratifying connection." By 2005 she had 300.

Some collectors have deeper pockets than others, of course, but the real value in much of what we collect is to ourselves.

"Collecting is an act of very personal commitment," Karp writes. "It's about erecting a bond between yourself and an object; it's all about what you choose to be responsible for. Whoever collects understands this."

And many people, when you think of it, collect something, whether it's James Bond books, baseball cards or teaspoons.

Like Karp, I am drawn to the everyday, the commonplace. At museum exhibits I am curious about the linens people once used, their cookware. I love finding old teapots at flea markets and antique shows, crackled from time and heat and use, and old tins that once held tea and biscuits. I love old silver serving platters that show wear.

And I love what I have learned along the way about these things -- where they're from and how they were made.

"Each object has a story to tell, somewhat fleshing out a time," as Karp puts it. Sure, the history is someone else's. Still, they are testaments to durability.

Browsing through second-hand stores or flea markets, I am rarely looking for anything specific, anything particular. It's all about possibility, about what I might unearth, and, as any collector knows, that's exhilarating. The anticipation makes you alert, keen-eyed. You are your best self.

A friend collects old silver christening cups engraved with a name and a date -- she has no interest in blank ones -- and likes the banged up ones best. She likes to look at them and imagine what they've seen.

I used to pick them up for her when I'd see them, but I've stopped. In trying to be a friend, I realized, I was depriving a friend of part of the fun of collecting. The hunt thrills; the moment of the find can be pure joy. And later, as you look at your bounty, you remember how it came into your hands, where you were.

Collecting, like so much else, is about recollecting.