A co-worker surprised me Monday morning. She’d just been to Disneyland, and, motioning to my desk, said she’d be bringing me a gift “for my collection” later in the week. What was she was talking about?
I looked at my desk after she left: Okay, there are the two Littlest Pet Shop dogs, a metal pencil sharpener motorcycle, a chomping Scooby Doo head that rolls, a wind-up jumping alligator, some oddly shaped pig that spins, a squishy green dragon, a chomping Finding Nemo shark, a spinning flower (I rescued that one from the garbage), a rainforest frog with big hands, a gigantic skeleton pen (come to think of it, also destined for the garbage), and a SpongeBob happily riding on a jellyfish. Does that sound like a “collection?”
I also have approximately 60 stickers that I’ve removed from apples and adhered to the underside of my desk. Is that a collection too?
I’m really not so sure, in part because I used to have a proper collection of miniature grand pianos. I was so into collecting them that even my wedding cake was in the shape of a grand piano. I would’ve added it to the collection, but the wedding guests ate it. To me, the pianos warranted the “collection” term because it was a group of like things, because I actively searched for additions to the collection, and I was very particular about what I added. An upright piano simply did not fit, as delightful as it might be, nor did a miniature banjo. I was unhappy if there was no bench to go with a grand piano.
Collections are serious business. The odds and sods on my desk, on the other hand, are simply a pile of toys, and I a lowly consumer, not a collector.
To my way of thinking, a person must be engaged in the act of collecting to be a collector. I ceased deserving the title when I stopped purchasing more pianos and stopped receiving any as gifts. But with my colleague’s new light cast upon my desk assortment, I had to ask myself: do I actively pursue items to add? And the answer was Yes: at a garage sale I had purchased a smiling, monkey-like character, that spins around on the end of a pencil, and added it to my menagerie. And the day after the pile of odds and sods on my desk was termed “collection,” I discovered the new addition from my co-worker: a Shrek bobblehead. He fit right in.
Suddenly I realized: my co-worker saw these random tactile diversions on my desk as a toy collection. Of course. Yet after the miniature pianos began taking over my living space, I swore I would no longer be a “collector” of anything. So at what point do we consider a person a “collector,” a group of things a “collection,” or the act of purchasing, “collecting?”
I decided to consult an expert. Chris Hamilton, a Canadian children’s entertainer, artist, and art educator, is a collector of Star Wars memorabilia. Hamilton received his first four Star Wars figurines (Chewbacca, Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker, and R2-D2) at the age of four as gifts from his parents returning from a trip to Toronto. He didn’t even recognize the characters. Thirty years later, his original and now wiggly Chewbacca has been joined by over 300 other figurines, along with vehicles and playsets.
Hamilton says collecting has a hunter and gatherer element to it: looking for the item at flea markets and yard sales for the best possible price is a large part of the fun. He readily admits to being a collector, though lately he has slowed down his acquisitions. “After doing the math,” he explains, laughing, “I got depressed how much money I might have spent.” He adds, “I bought two [figurines] in the last year. I haven’t been too thrilled with the ones they’ve been putting out since the movies ended.”
He knows what an authentic collector is not, too Someone buying a bunch of somethings off the internet without having to search for specific items doesn’t meet the grade, nor does someone who pays top dollar for a new bunch of items. And the number of items has some importance: if it’s a group of Cadillacs, 10 are a collection. But for children’s toys to be considered a collection? Hamilton says it takes 50 toys that are somehow connected. I find that reassuring.
Collectors collect all sorts of things. Bandaids, carrots, toast portraits of famous people, coat hangers, barf bags, and navel fluff stand out among the weirdest. Why do we collect? For Chris, it’s the nostalgia, the thrill of the hunt, the stories that accompany each piece in the collection. Now, why someone would collect navel fluff is a mystery to me, but then, I’m not a collector. When the whimsical, tactile diversions on my desk begin to take over my work space, perhaps then I’ll admit I’ve returned to the world of collecting. Until then I’m going to blithely eat my apple a day, add to my stickers, and play with my toys.