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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You Can Keep Going Home as Often as You Like

I started this blog in February of 2015, and have written faithfully every week since then. This week, I’m taking a vacation, heading down the Calistoga/Wine Country area of California with wife Cindy to celebrate our wedding anniversary. Getting away from it all.

But I thought to myself, that I really should say something this week. I’ll be taking a lot of time off this month, what with one thing or another. On September 18th I will be driving down to Woodland with an old friend to celebrate our 45th high school reunion together. Has it been that long?

Hell, yes, it’s been that long.

I walk into antique stores now and see my childhood displayed on the walls. It has most definitely been that long. And I ask myself, as I do every time this comes up, why bother renewing acquaintances with people I really don’t have any more in common with than a shared childhood. The friends I’d like to see rarely attend. It really comes down to a perverse form of sentiment.

My folks grew up in Danville, Illinois. They went to high school with Dick Van Dyke and were even part of the same theater group for one school year. They would go to their Danville reunions, renewing old lang syne every ten or twenty years. They always said that they hoped that Dick would attend each time, but he never did. I, too, always hope that this old friend, or that old friend, who may or may not have gone on to bigger and better things, will show up so we could compare notes on the past 40+ years. But like my folks and Dick Van Dyke, it will probably never happen.

Some people just don’t like reunions. And let’s face it, high school wasn’t a joy ride for most of us.

Me, I take a phlegmatic approach. I can take ‘em or leave ‘em, but generally tend to take ‘em. I didn’t have much in common with these people when I lived in Woodland, and I probably have less in common now. But there’s my old friend, John, who moved to L.A. back in 1970. And Walt, who moved to Arizona not long after high school and who I never see unless it’s in Woodland. Getting together with them is like jumping into a conversation that never stopped. Comfortable, familiar, always fun. And there’s Bob, who still lives in Woodland as a successful lawyer, and who might grace us with his presence. There’s Claudia and Debbie. There’s… The list is small, but significant.

And there’s Woodland itself—the City of Trees, as they used to call it, and maybe still do. It sits in the Sacramento Valley, a lush, green town filled with well-kept old homes, parks, a partially revamped old town with a restored live theater, lots of history. And lots of familiarity there. They tell you that you can’t go home again. I watched a video of Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys driving down a Southern California street to visit his old home, only to find a freeway offramp where the house used to be. When I visit my old home on Third St, it looks better than when I lived there. The residents are keeping it up very nicely. I remember the street filled with shouting kids, always riding their bikes around. The last few times I stopped by the old home, the neighborhood seemed very peaceful and quiet. No kids outside, but lots of sycamores, elms, oaks and walnut trees—serene sentries to what has become an “older neighborhood.”

Truth to tell, I look forward to the next visit. I enjoy the renewal that comes with visiting the scenes of my childhood—driving by my grade school, now shrunk by time; strolling around the old high school grounds, now a junior high, the new school having moved clear across town back in the 70s.

Anyway, it’s getting time to reminisce with some old friends, the wild old men and women only slightly tamed now by time. Hopefully, the faces will still be familiar. And hopefully, the old friends, the real friends, will be there this time.

—Greg Shepard

Woodland Memories

I grew up in a California town called Woodland, right in the middle of the Central Valley, a stone’s throw away from Davis, and not far from Sacramento. I lived there roughly 13 years, from when I was four to seventeen. Formative years. We moved to Mill Valley in Marin County right before I graduated from high school. What a change! We went from a conservative valley town where the main focus of high school seemed to be football, sports and cruising, to a liberal area where just showing up for P.E. class got you an A for effort, much less whether you participated or not; and everyone had long hair and scraggly jeans.

At the time, I thought I had died and gone to Heaven. Mill Valley was everything that Woodland was not: hip and happening, politically aware, musically attuned, right on the cusp of everything I found interesting, and just across the Bridge from San Francisco, no less. My senior year at Tamalpais High School, I took a poetry class and we all drove over the teacher’s house in Berkeley and spent the morning relating to each other. There was an anti-war protest that year, and the whole school—students and faculty—turned out to march in front of the school. We were encouraged to cut classes to attend the march. What a difference indeed!

If you had protested the war in Woodland, you would have been branded a card-carrying Communist, an outsider to be shunned. (Well, okay, I exaggerate a bit here. But still, it wasn’t a particularly liberal area back then. Probably still isn’t.)

But time has been kind to Woodland. I realize that not everything I learned in Mill Valley has stood me in good stead, and not all my experiences in Woodland were framed by insular redneck-ism. I go back and visit Woodland and am reminded of why it is known as “the City of Trees.” Tree-lined streets everywhere—elms, maple, oak, sycamore, walnut. Lots of beautiful Victorian and Spanish architecture. Parks everywhere. A massive stone court house that rivals any county courthouse in California, one block away from the massive stone post office and massive stone library. (Spent a lot of time there when I was a kid, I can tell you.)

Back then, we all had bicycles. I had a black Schwinn with dual wire baskets on the back. Until I turned fourteen and entered high school—where it was considered social anathema to ride a bike to school—I rode that bike everywhere. We could do that in those days. It’s not that our parents didn’t care where we were, they just came from a generation where kids were automatically given more freedom. We were expected to go out and play. As soon as we got home from school, we’d hop on our bikes and tear off in all directions. A visit to Woodland these days brings back memories of all the neighborhoods I explored on my bike. My younger son, who didn’t grow up with a bike, has no idea how to get around town. And doesn’t care. Different generation.

Of course, it was easy to bike around Woodland. It was flat. No chance of ever getting lost. The Coast Range Mountains were on one side, the Sierra Nevada Mountains on the other. Orient yourself to the two ranges, and you always knew where West and East were. And for the most part, Woodland was laid out like a grid. The new developments have added lots of winding streets, but that’s not the town I remember. I remember a town bracketed by nice, straight streets, stretching out of town and into the open country, where you could ride as far as your legs could peddle.

Main Street isn’t what it used to be. Gone is the Hobby Shop where our mom used to buy us all sorts of projects for rainy days. Gone is Traynham’s Music Store, where I would buy all the latest rock’n’roll singles (to the bemusement of the staff, whose tastes ran to less radical beats). Gone is Goggins clothing store where I got fitted for my first suit. And even our first big box store, Value Giant, has gone the way of the retail dinosaur. The Nugget Market and Rexall Drugs are still there. That’s comforting. We didn’t have a bookstore when I was a kid, so I would haunt places like Woolworths for new science fiction books.

There’s a used bookstore in town now. But still no new bookstore. Some things never change. Like the weather. It’s hot. Damn hot. The whole country is boiling over this summer, but my memories of Woodland summers were of a time spent in front of the air conditioner, reading Edgar Rice Burroughs books with my legs propped on top of the unit in my bedroom. Eureka, where I live now, doesn’t get above 68 degrees generally, and that’s about right for me. But summers in Woodland were usually in the high 90s to 105, 110 degrees, and with a fair amount of valley humidity. Folks on the East Coast and Southwest probably consider this mild, but leaving the Woodland heat behind was a big plus for me when we moved to Mill Valley.

In spite of the heat, Woodland has taken on a rosy glow these days. I grow nostalgic for its slower pace, it’s time capsule memories of a childhood spent exploring the world around me—making crafts at the local park, shooting off our BB guns along country roads, playing baseball in the park and running through the sprinklers; creating blanket forts in the backyard and sleeping outside with the sound of the crickets and the freight trains down the street, serenading us to sleep; waking to the cooing of the doves in the big oak tree in our back yard…

A childhood well spent. Woodland memories.

–Greg Shepard