The recent past produced collector's favorite things


January 24, 1993|By Lita Solis-Cohen and Sally Solis-Cohen | Lita Solis-Cohen and Sally Solis-Cohen,Solis-Cohen Enterprises/Contributing Writers

Looking to borrow a sled this winter? Don't ask pop culture collector Alex Shear. His cache of streamlined sleds, largely from the 1930s, '40s and '50s, won't be zooming through the snow: They're hanging from the walls of Olympia and York's 237 Park Avenue Atrium in New York through February 24th, in a gallery exhibition called "Favorite Things."

Mr. Shear is a pop culture junkie who searches flea markets, second-hand shops and ephemera shows for everyday things most people throw away or couldn't be bothered with, and then gets a thrill wowing others with his zany finds.

Unlike his idol, Andy Warhol, who never enjoyed displaying his unusual collections, Mr. Shear is getting a big kick out of exhibiting his "Favorite Things" in a very public place. He considers it his coming-out party and clearly revels in showing off.

"My one-man show is not as much about collecting as it is an expression of my personality," claims the exuberant Mr. Shear, 52, who calls himself a "marketing consultant, broker of nostalgia, archivist of pop culture and a lifestyle buyer."

Mr. Shear's sleds, which resemble rockets, bring back his childhood memories of sledding down the South Marshall Street hill in Lancaster, Pa., where his father was a wholesale toy distributor. When it comes to great design and great function, the Flexible Flyer can't be beat, according to Mr. Shear. "It goes a lot faster than the Sno Rocket monorail with outriggers that stabilize it like a catamaran. I've tried them all with my two boys." When he first started collecting vintage sleds, he paid around $20 each; now they're about $100 to $150.

A mission of discovery

Mr. Shear's mission is discovery. "I buy when something screams out and communicates design," he says. "I collect humor and obscurity, American cleverness and ingenuity, what the French call 'fantastic,' and the French are my biggest competition. They see post-[World] War II America as our richest period and are coming over here and carting off what we take for granted."

In this public confession of his private passions, curiosity and evolving taste, Mr. Shear wants to prove he's broken new ground. "Most people collect manufactured toys, but I collect 'scratch-built' toys made by tinkerers in their own garages, mostly during the 1930s, '40s and '50s. Many were inspired by pictures in Popular Mechanics magazine," he said, surveying his fleet of trucks, trailers and buses.

Mr. Shear's favorite of favorites is a 1940s Caterpillar bulldozer made entirely of wood, painted yellow. It narrowly nosed out a motorcycle, recently made of crushed discarded Budweiser beer cans by a Daytona Beach biker.

Inexpensive hats

"While others spend lots of money on occupational shaving mugs, I've paid very little for occupational hats," Mr. Shear notes, pointing to the tall hat stand with a red cap from New York's old Pennsylvania Station, a bright Yellow Cab Co. hat with a black patent leather visor, an airline's captain's hat, a 1939 World's Fair Greyhound bus driver's hat, an American Ice Co.'s iceman's hat, and a gray pillbox with "GB" on the button, worn by an elevator operator at Gimbel Bros. department store. The bathing cap with a green organdy ruffle and platinum blond page boy wig is from Grossingers, the Catskills resort. His French Foreign Legion hat with a crocodile visor and linen neck flap shares a display case with a Hershey's kiss-shaped beanie and a Woody Woodpecker peaked cap.

The paperweights Mr. Shear collects reflect high-quality American manufacturing and generally were given out at Christmas. Miniatures of the products they advertise, they include a gasoline nozzle, cinder blocks, a subway turnstile and an electric meter. One with a steel cable is from the Roebling Co., builders of the Brooklyn Bridge. "They're part of my 'American Ends in I Can' project," Mr. Shear explains. "I've compiled a book with can-do quotations."

Mr. Shear sees his exhibit as a grand collage. "The objects are all up there on a canvas; this is a painting about my life," he says, explaining that he's prepared for this big moment for years. "My parents and grandparents were in retailing. I enrolled in Macy's training program, became a kitchen textiles buyer at J. C. Penney's . . . and built my collection like a merchandiser builds a product line." Lately he's marketed nostalgia and the theme and accouterments of the American roadside to corporations. (To Mr. Shear, the roadside diner was such an important symbol of mid-20th-century America that he considers his salesman sample diner booth and stools prizes of his collection.)

There aren't many other pricey items in Mr. Shear's collection, although a few may be priceless, like his turnpike toll gun. "Load it with quarters, cock it and fire it into the coin basket; it never misses," Mr. Shear promises. He says it was designed for Connecticut's Merritt Parkway in the 1960s, but he's never found another.

Blazing new trails

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