'Nostalgia broker' fears pop culture artifacts being lost

December 17, 1992|By New York Times News Service

New York - Alex Shear lives in the kind of place where a turn-of-the-century welder's mask looks right at home on a pedestal in the living room and a gas-station display of vintage automotive products is the decorative focal point of the home office.

Mr. Shear, a New York marketing consultant and collector, keeps memorabilia like salesmen's models of swimming pools, military panoramic photographs, Coca-Cola artifacts, life-size tin men and hand-painted roadside signs.

Mr. Shear calls himself a "broker of nostalgia." He loves all his stuff -- to the point of making it a patriotic, even evangelistic, cause. "The Europeans and the Japanese have been buying Coca-Cola artifacts, pinup calendars, jukeboxes and toasters for years," said Mr. Shear, who has also done his share. "I can't stand to see the things leaving the country. We take our pop culture too much for granted. Our mother, dad or grandma had the things in the closet, so we think, 'Who wants them, anyway?'"

Unlike many collectors, whose treasures are rarely seen by the public, Mr. Shear has temporarily moved the cream of his collection from his crowded Upper West Side apartment to the sleek Park Avenue Atrium to be the subject of an exhibition titled "Favorite Things."

It is on view at 237 Park Ave. (46th Street) through Feb. 25, 1993. Hours are Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Mr. Shear's taste careens from industrial design ("Raymond Loewy was the best -- he cleaned up the Coke bottle") to-made-in-the-garage chairs inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright.

The Turnpike Toll Gun, which shoots coins from the car into the basket, was "American ingenuity at its best," Mr. Shear said as he nimbly made his way around his apartment, where floor-to-ceiling hand-painted signs, wall-to-wall sleds and cabinets filled to overflowing with toy trucks and cars set the tone.

"And how about an electric lunch box, or having your iron concealed in the handle of a suitcase?" asked Mr. Shear, who is working on a book called "American Ends in 'I Can.'" "It's a collection of 'can-do' quotations I compiled," he said.

For Mr. Shear, the obscurity of many of his items adds to their allure. "Many of these great ideas were not successful," he said. "My business is to understand the 'why not.'"

In the case of some of the board games he collects and usually keeps piled up on the floor, their obscurity may not be much of a mystery. But Mr. Shear sees the games as mirrors of American culture. His "best" include Stick the IRS; Lie, Cheat and Steal: The Game of Political Power, and Public Assistance. "That's a game you win by going backward," said Mr. Shear, who has been accumulating the games for 10 years. "I rarely see any of them now for under $50."

His apartment is his laboratory and archive. In the bathroom, 18 vintage cans of cleanser from the 1920s to the 1950s are grouped on the medicine cabinet; rocket-shaped scatter rugs are hung at a takeoff angle on the living-room wall, and five Pyrex glass irons made in the 1940s are lined up on shelves.

The living room is also the place to gaze at a dozen or so snow sleds that date from about 1933 to 1950. Many of them are examples of that pivotal time when objects became streamlined. "I love transitional objects," Mr. Shear said.

The affection for the sleds may have something to do with his memories of Lancaster, Pa., where he was born in 1940. "The sleds were inspired by rocketry and airplanes and symbolized speed in design," he said. "Some of my happiest times were sledding on South Marshall Street."

One aluminum sled looked like a close relative of pool furniture. "It doesn't move," he said. "Too light. I tried it out."

But where does he get all this stuff? "I go to every flea market or antiques show I can," he said.

A love of objects might just be in his genes. "Both sides of my family were merchants," Mr. Shear said. "Mom's family came from Romania to Cuba and then to Florida, where her family opened a department store in West Tampa, catering to the Cuban trade." Mr. Shear's father came from Lancaster, where he was a wholesale toy distributor.

"I could borrow any toy I wanted from the warehouse as long as it was returned in the box in mint condition," he recalled. "At face value, a fantastic opportunity." There was a pause. "But maybe it wasn't so great. Sort of like having to go to the library to take out a book, but never owning one."

While he grew up with a great desire to own toys, it was only about 12 years ago that Mr. Shear started fulfilling his toy void.

At a flea market he bought a 1946 plastic Ford truck for a dollar. "I'll never forget the moment," he said. "It was so exciting to get back a part of my childhood. I wanted to find more of my things from my past."

He did. "But a lot of people thought I was crazy," he said. "My new love of antiquities did not sit well with my former wife. The old question of who was going to decorate the home kept coming up."

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