On Being a Collector

When I was a little kid, I had a string of trinkets. I must have been three, maybe four, and the trinkets probably cost me a penny each. That was the first thing I collected.

Somewhere along the same time, I have picture of myself with a little record player, and a bunch of 45s. My parents tell me that I ripped off the labels, but still knew what each record was called. I’d say, “This is ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’,” and sure enough, I’d be right. I had the rips and tears memorized. I don’t know that I collected 45s at this early age, but I had a bunch of them.

Next thing I remember collecting was rocks, then pennies, then stamps, and finally, when I was about ten, I started collecting baseball cards. Stamps and cards occupied my time until I discovered 45s again, and started buying them from the local record store in Woodland, Traynam’s, on Main Street. Traynam’s was a musical instrument shop that sold a few records on the side, and I quickly became one of their most fervent 45 customers.

Somewhere around age fourteen, I started collecting books. I only remember the age because I was in junior high, and that’s when they introduced us to Scholastic Books. I was hooked from that first brochure. We didn’t have a bookstore in town, so I started buying books via catalogs. I’d write to the publishers like Ballantine or Pyramid or Lancer, ask for a catalog; then pour over them for all the interesting books I could find. That’s when, thanks to the Ace Books catalog, I discovered Philip K. Dick.

Somewhere in my high school years, I discovered British imports. There was a head shop in Davis—our hip Mecca in the area—that sold a handful of British paperbacks: horror anthologies, Nevil Shute, Georgette Heyer, Dennis Wheatley, stuff like that. They intrigued me, and soon I had the name of a UK wholesaler who would ship me books from Falmouth, England. Now I felt like I had access to the world.

And, of course, there was Tower Books and Records over in Sacramento. I was living the collector’s dream.

Fast forward to 2016, and what have we got now: ebooks, music downloads, data streaming. What do collectors collect these days? I have no idea. All I know is that Stark House Press grew out of that young man’s collecting obsession—his desire to share the treasures of the book world—and that I remain dedicated to publishing BOOKS. Sure, we publish a few ebooks along the way. I understand that many readers appreciate the convenience of a kindle or a nook. But I just don’t get it.

To me, an ebook is as disposable as Kleenex. As efficient, certainly, but no more or less lasting as a tissue, to be used then thrown away.

My problem is, I’ve been a collector for about 60 years. I don’t get downloads and streaming. If I like a musician, I want all their albums. If I like an author, I want all their books. If I like a director, I want all their movies. Sure, it’s a disease. It’s a mania. It’s an obsession. But when someone tells me how their mom threw away their comic collection when they went off to college, I grow visibly pale. When someone tells me that they sold their vinyl collection when cds came along, I am filled with a nostalgic sadness. When I sold my baseball card collection recently, I felt like I was cutting out a chunk of childhood and throwing it away. But, hell, I’m in my 60s. I haven’t looked at these cards in over 40 years. It hurt, but I figured it had to be done.

The vinyl and the books? They’ll have to tear them out of my hands… Or in other words, my sons will get to deal with that when the time comes. I just hope by then that one of them becomes a collector.

—Greg Shepard

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The Boys of Summer

When I was a kid growing up near Sacramento, California, all the boys played baseball. We played baseball during recess at school, we played in the park, and we played baseball in our backyards. Every kid had a mitt and a ball, and most had a bat as well. We’d go the park, and if there were enough of us, we’d break into teams and play the rest of the afternoon. Or all afternoon on weekends. Whenever there was some spare time—or our moms kicked us out of the house–we’d hop on our bikes and head to the park.

There was a tennis court near our little diamond, and the goal was always to hit the ball over the monstrously high chain-link fence and into the tennis court. That was an automatic homerun. I don’t remember hitting many homeruns, but it was a noble goal.

Around this time, we all started following the major league teams, too.

This was when I was nine or ten, the early 1960s. At about this time, Post started printing baseball player cards on the backs of their cereal boxes. These were easy to collect. All we had to do was talk our moms into buying box after box of breakfast cereal, then quickly eat the stuff so we could cut out the cards on the back. It was easy collecting the boxes that had sugar in them (which was most of them). Like little humming birds, we lived on sugar in those days. If the box had some cards we wanted and it was a corn flake or shredded wheat box, well, that was problematic. Somebody would have to eat that stuff, and it usually fell to a younger brother or sister to do the deed—or suffer the consequences!

But the cereal got eaten, so Mom was satisfied, and the boxes were cut up and sorted by team into nice little piles, to be traded, hoarded, sorted and if you had too many of one player, drawn on and discarded. It was fun in an obsessional kind of way. Not all the kids went after collecting baseball cereal cards with the dedication that I did. I had a best friend named Bobby who had a better collection, but not many other kids could say that. Besides, Bobby hole-punched all his cards so he could ring them together, and even then, that didn’t seem like a good idea to me.

Around the same time that I discovered cereal cards, I also discovered chewing gum cards. Packaged with a pink tongue of gum–sometimes fresh, often times dry and crumbly—these cards always smelled like the powdered sugar that covered the gum. But dry or fresh, I would chew that gum with as much dedication as I would collect those cards. Every allowance, I was hoofing it over to Nellie’s to buy another pack or two. Nellie’s is what we called the corner market because the owner’s wife was named Nellie and she was always the one to help us pick out our sweet treats. She had the patience of a saint. Even now, I have no idea what the real name of the place was.

Anyway, Nellie’s sold me most of the cards I collected at this time—1961 and 1962—and what a lot of fun that was, trying to get all the cards for a team. My favorites at the time were the San Francisco Giants and the Pittsburgh Pirates. Why the Pirates and not the Dodgers or the Angels, our other West Coast teams? I have no idea. Maybe I just liked the black and gold color scheme of their uniforms. But I followed the Pirates with a fervor.

And then I turned twelve, and the Beatles happened. Almost overnight, I stopped collecting baseball cards, and started collecting 45s and Beatle cards instead. I only had a limited income after all: an allowance—which I could save, and sometimes borrow against if I wheedled long enough—and yard work money. During the Spring and Summer, I’d mow the lawn like crazy. During the Fall, I’d rake till I had blisters. During the Winter…. nothing. It was a hard life during the Winter.

After the Beatles and 45s came book collecting, and eventually, record albums, so by the time I was fourteen, baseball card collecting had become a part of my past. I put the cards in shoe boxes and kept them in my closet. Eventually, I collected all the shoe boxes and put them in a larger box. And over the years, I carted that box with me everywhere I moved. Over the years, I would occasionally look through the top layer, reminisce a bit about the ten-year-old who even then had to have ‘em all, even as I now collect a particular author or recording artist. The baseball cards had become like an old friend, or a totem of my youth, a touchstone for young and innocent days.

And today I sold them.

It was great being ten. Time to let someone else enjoy my childhood.

–Greg Shepard