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What's the deal with collecting?

No one knows how many people there may be dwelling unknowingly in collecting’s penumbra, though their more visible counterparts—those who have set aside denial and embraced their passion fully—are absolutely everywhere. And, as you know if you’ve ever been outbid on eBay, they’ve got plenty of money to throw around, and they go after what they want without even a milligram of reserve or, in some cases, shame. I witnessed this firsthand when I recently made a pilgrimage to Brimfield, Massachusetts, which hosts, thrice annually, what the organizers claim to be the largest antiques show/flea market/swap meet in the country, if not on the globe. Thousands of dealers converge upon the fields that line a one-mile stretch of road in this small New England town, and they don’t go for the fresh air. The place is teeming with collectors, hunters, gatherers, accumulators, acquisitors, scavengers, fanatics, pack rats, obsessives, and, of course, the people who love (and tolerate) them. Some, seeking a small margin of advantage, go so far as to print up signs, buttons, and even T-shirts advertising the objects of their desire: “Wanted: Gas-Powered Racecars.” “I buy postcards.” “Wanted: Old Police Badges.” “I buy old musical instruments.” “Wanted: Nancy-Ann Storybook Dolls.” “I buy post office items.” “Wanted: 1934 Caddy Stuff.” A pair of balding 40-something men who looked very much alike sported T-shirts that were as similar as they were. “Wanted: Vintage Christmas,” read one, while the other simply stated “Vintage Christmas Collector.” Impressive as these people all were, none could compare with the older gentleman who hobbled along swiftly from stall to stall on crutches—he had only one leg—calling out to each as he passed: “Cast-iron cookware? Any cast-iron cookware?” Nowthat’sdedication.

Not that you would expect any less from a true collector, no matter how esoteric the object of desire. And there’s an awful lot of esoteric going on out there. If you can think of it, someone, somewhere, has a lot of it and is always looking for more. I used to think people who collected those glass insulators usually found at the tops of telephone poles were strange; then I heard about Barry Levenson. He collects mustard.

Now that might not seem so strange at first thought; enophiles, after all, collect bottles of wine. But enophiles, like those hunter-gatherers of yore, collect with the intention of consuming, eventually. Barry Levenson (who should not be confused with Barry Levinson, the director, whose feelings about the condiment in question are unknown, at least to me) has thousands of crocks, jars, tins, and tubes of mustard that he never intends to open, much less apply to a hot pastrami on rye. He is not hoarding them in a climate-controlled cellar, though; instead, he shares them with the public at a little storefront museum he has created on Main Street in Mount Horeb, Wisconsin. He calls it—what else?—the Mustard Museum. Laugh if you must, but it draws some 30,000 visitors a year.

They come for the mustard, of course—nearly 5,000 unique examples, representing all 50 states and 60 foreign countries, are packed onto shelves and into display cases—and to watch videos about mustard, buy exotic mustards from the gift shop, and gawk at Levenson’s line of “Poupon U.” merchandise, everything from sweatshirts and surgical scrubs to book bags and baby bibs, to diplomas and a toilet seat, all emblazoned with the institution’s crest and motto, “E Pluribus Mustard.” They can even commission their own vanity brand of the condiment. Judging by the number who have, there are quite a few mustard mavens in our midst. None, however, are likely to ever surpass Levenson in terms of hot, spicy zeal. A former assistant attorney general for the state of Wisconsin, Levenson once argued a case before the United States Supreme Court—and won it—with a tiny jar of mustard in his pocket. Today that jar is, as you might expect, a highlight of the museum. “It’s known as the Supreme Court Mustard,” Levenson says, “and people travel from far and wide to see it.”

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