Have an offbeat hobby? Might as well join the club

June 28, 1993|By Ted Gregory | Ted Gregory,Chicago Tribune

Mitzi Geiser is president of the Sugar Packet Collectors Club.

Go ahead, laugh.

Ms. Geiser has filled two dresser drawers in a guest bedroom and a couple of boxes on a closet shelf with empty packets.

Her best guess is that somewhere around 12,000 sugar packages, none of which are worth a nickel, are occupying space in her home.

"I just say, 'you can laugh all you want, you just save the sugar packets for me,' " she said from her headquarters in Orrville, Ohio.

Years ago, the existence of such a club would have been considered not only amusing but patently peculiar.

Today, there are so many "offbeat" clubs and associations that one is tempted to say the adjective no longer applies. There are more than 1,000 in the United States, in fact, and their numbers and members are mushrooming.

Which brings to mind the National Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Mushrooms in Traverse City, Mich. Membership 1,000.

There's the Ghost Research Society in Oak Lawn, Ill.; Girth & Mirth, a club for overweight gay men in Chicago; and the Flying Funeral Directors of America in Elgin, Ill.

Not to mention the National Toothpick Holder Collector's Society in Eureka, Ill.; and the U.S. Amateur Tug of War Association in Madison, Wis.

Of course, there's even an association for associations, called the American Society of Association Executives, in Washington; as well as Loners of America, a club in Ellsinore, Mo., that ousts members who associate too much with each other.

Seven of 10 Americans belong to some sort of club or association, according to research from the American Society of Association Executives, which itself has grown dramatically in the last few years. And associations spend $26 billion a year on conventions, seminars, board meetings and the like, said Lorri McGough, the group's director of public relations.

What happened to the great spirit of individualism?

"I guess I think the way we live in America, the way we move around, that maybe this is a way of trying to maintain some sense of community," said Deborah M. Burek, a former editor of the Encyclopedia of Associations, an annual listing of thousands of organizations in the U.S. and abroad.

Last year, Ms. Burek and colleague Martin Connors compiled a collection of offbeat groups in a listing titled, "Organized Obsessions."

Every year as an editor of the encyclopedia, Ms. Burek noticed the establishment of about 200 more organizations, she said. In 1976, the encyclopedia listed 14,600 entries. The latest edition has nearly 22,500 entries.

The American Society of Association Executives has about 21,000 members representing nearly 9,000 organizations. In 1986, members totaled less than 13,000.

Like editor Burek, Bette L. Bottoms, a social psychologist at University of Illinois at Chicago, said associations may be a response to our mobile, modern, society.

"More people are finding themselves alone," Ms. Bottoms said. "The onus is being put on the individual to seek out affiliations that came about very easily 50 years ago."

Organizations and clubs are "self-validating," she added.

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