When I was 8 years old, I collected beer cans. Although I didn't know it at the time, it was a brief national trend. For several months, I picked up and rinsed out discarded cans from the teenagers partying at Garner Park across the street from my parents' house and lobbied every relative to bring cans back from exotic places like Cincinnati, San Francisco and Honolulu.
I wasn't alone. Membership in the Brewery Collectibles Club of America peaked in 1978 with 12,000 members, a number that didn't include informal collectors like my 8-year-old self. Beer-can collecting was so popular that several rival organizations like World Wide Beer Can Collectors sprang up and, that same year, a Massachusetts collector launched a Beer Can Museum, which has since accumulated more than 5,000 different cans.
But as specialty breweries closed throughout the 1970s and the remaining macro-breweries like Miller and Budweiser mass-produced generic cans (and increasingly sold their product in bottles), the beer-can collecting fad went the way of Pet Rocks and Rubik's Cubes. When I turned 9, I boxed away the more than 150 empty cans I had collected, and for more than three decades they sat in my parents' basement.
But a month ago, when my mom had one of her cleaning furies, she insisted that I finally get rid of them. After all, they had been doing little but taking up space and gathering dust.
Before simply sending them to the recycling plant, though, I did a quick online search for some of the more interesting cans - a whitewashed Schmidt beer with a water skier mural; several slender Coors cans with odd dual-holed tops; and an oversized "oil can" type from an Australian brewery - and quickly discovered an entire subculture still exists, with dozens of websites and conventions. Some cans trade at more than $100.
It wasn't the potential money that intrigued me, but the rambling community organized around beer cans and a fad that had faded 30 years earlier.
Whether it's fine art, beer cans, baseball memorabilia, stamps, coins or Beanie Babies, collecting is one of America's oldest and most widespread pastimes. It is a hobby that's sometimes derided for being practiced by antisocial geeks more than by cultural historians. Think of the Simpsons episodes mocking the greasy-shirt comic-book-store owner. On the other end of the spectrum, there are the parodies of snotty art collectors, like those lampooned in Steve Martin's recent best-seller An Object of Beauty.
Yet collecting, considered as a whole, is a pastime that more Americans take part in than vote for president. That fact meaningfully links millions of Americans to a shared cultural history - and each other.
Especially in a time when sociologists bemoan that individuals are increasingly disconnected from each other, collecting is a way to connect and form communities. A recent AARP survey found that the percentage of 45-year-old adults feeling chronically alone increased dramatically from, 25% to 35% over the past decade - the same time frame when social networking was supposedly linking us more broadly.
In Dane County alone, it's estimated there are several thousand coin collectors, and 20 million nationwide. That number is dwarfed by the population of stamp collectors, not to mention sports memorabilia fanatics. The Milwaukee-based Wisconsin Sports Collectors Association counts more than 250 families as members, and hosts exchanges with as many as 60 display tables each month.
Although online sites and eBay have replaced some of the need for collectors to pack their cars with boxes of items and travel to swap meets, collector conventions and stores dealing in collectibles are still very popular. There will be conferences in Madison this fall focused on collecting soda pop bottles and stamps. And there are still several active stores in Madison.
"A lot of people don't understand collectors," says Jim Essence, the owner at Jim's Coin & Stamp, "but collectors understand each other."
Fittingly, Jim's Coins & Stamps, one of three coin and stamp collector stores in Madison, is tucked away from foot traffic at Hilldale, in the lower level just below Metcalfe's. Yet, when I visit midafternoon on a weekday, three different groups crowded the long counter in the narrow store.
"This is nothing," one clerk assures me. "We get them lined up down the hallway on the weekends."
When he was a kid, the current owner bonded with the previous owner over "mint errors" - slight defects on coins that force the U.S. Department of the Treasury to recall them, hence creating a rarity. A decade ago, for instance, an extra pine tree was pressed into the mural for Minnesota's commemorative quarter, and their worth skyrocketed to $150.
When the store's previous owner retired, Essence took over and, in 1989, moved the store to its current location.
Each type of collector, Essence explains, has a different connection to his or her chosen collectible. Stamps, for example, carry a romantic notion of voyage and geography, while coins speak about power, commerce and history (they are dated, after all, he points out).
"People who collect get some emotional charge from it," Essence says.
"Collecting preceded money," says UW-Madison art professor Matthew Bakkom. "There is a deep-down human tendency to accumulate materials. Baseball cards suggest an attachment not to a piece of cardboard with ink, but a portal to another world. These are historical documents."
Rather than specific collections, Bakkom is more concerned about what collecting means, and how collecting functions as a social binder. He's also interested in communities that are "mediated by objects."
For example, for tens of thousands of sport fans in Wisconsin, Bakkom notes, collecting means taking a step further than mere fandom. For someone who owns a rare Brett Favre jersey, ownership is a way to assign value to that emotional participation.
"Collecting is individuals confirming a value for things that have no value," Bakkom continues. "And there is no difference whether this happens at Sotheby's or in the back of the school bus where kids are trading baseball cards."
Bakkom grew up in a military family, and, as a kid, he collected Indianhead coins with his father. His collections have become much more esoteric since then. In 2009, he published a collection of complaint letters from 1751 to 1969 sent to the New York City mayor. Taken as a whole, those letters voice a story about that city's psyche.
"Collectors aren't acquiring something for the purpose it was made for," he explains. "For example, they are not trying to find a quarter to use as a quarter."
In recent years, so-called Buffalo nickels, minted for 25 years starting in 1913, have fetched prices a thousand-fold their face value, with rare 1916 coins selling for as much as $50,000. Likewise, comic book fanatics buy first edition issues of The Amazing Spider-Man for $40,000, and fine art collectors pay millions to own a Van Gogh or Jackson Pollock painting. But Bakkom believes that these prices are as much about how scarce an item is as they are shorthand for the value that collectors place on their community and hobby.
"These aren't worth anything unless someone confirms their value," he notes.
Collecting is ultimately about "the excitement of discovery and the satisfaction of living life looking for things. It's a way of looking at the world."
"I'm not crazy," says Tom Theisen, a special education teacher at Madison La Follette High School.
In fact, Theisen is pleasant and seemingly normal. He has invited me to his home to show me an extensive collection of out-of-print cereal boxes, lunchboxes and Kool-Aid packets. It's perhaps one of the most extensive collections of food packaging in the country. Theisen has gathered a basement full of mid-'70s pop culture that would make the Smithsonian envious.
At the base of the stairs leading into the basement, he points out four shelves of cereal boxes including Frankenberry, Crazy Cow and limited-issue Star Wars cereals.
From that display, the basement stretches out in a long rectangle, every inch of wall covered with movie posters, record album covers and Simpsons paraphernalia.
In the far corner, rows of Pez dispensers stand like miniature sentries - Winnie the Pooh, a gold C3PO dispenser, the entire Simpson family and several Smurfs. It is a colorful time capsule.
"I don't want to be a freak about it," Theisen asserts, but in the same breath he admits to a certain obsessiveness. Most of his items are pristine. A Bionic Woman doll was never taken from its packaging. Theisen talks about a rare balance between an item being popular enough to evoke an emotional response and still having survived childhood roughhousing intact.
His massive display results from nearly three decades of devoted collecting, although in recent years, as he has run out of space in his basement and closets, the gathering has slowed down and he's begun to sell various items. "It would probably take 30 years just to sell everything," he estimates. A few years ago, when an insurance agent asked him to catalogue his collection, he simply laughed and asked, "Are you kidding me?"
Theisen estimates the collection is worth mid-six figures, but that value fluctuates as much as high-tech stocks rise and fall, given that tastes change, along with the scarcity of the items.
Early in his collecting days, for example, while vacationing in northern Wisconsin, Theisen discovered a rare, unopened Kool-Aid packet at a pawnshop. The flavor, Injun Orange, was particularly rare because of its un-P.C. branding, and at the time it was believed that only a few such packets existed. Theisen bought the packet for $4 and phoned a few collectors he knew in the country, ultimately turning around the Injun Orange packet for several hundred dollars.
A year later, a cache of similar packets was found in a defunct bowling alley, and the value plummeted.
He recently started dating someone new, and says he introduced her to the idea - and scope - of his collecting cautiously. "I think she thinks it is cool," he says, still a bit uncertain. "I try not to be on eBay when on vacation with her."
More than anything, Theisen finds that his collection is a way to relate to other people from his generation. "If I asked you to point out five random things in this basement," he challenges, "I bet we both would have stories attached to them and emotional connections."
And, sure enough, my eyes scan his basement and find dozens of items from my childhood: a Bionic Woman doll that my sister owned, a Snoopy Viewmaster slide I remember from when I was 6 years old - and, like a song I haven't heard for years or a familiar smell from my grandma's kitchen, they instantly transport me to a different time and place.