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What's the deal with collecting?

Chances are pretty good that right about now you’re thinking something along the lines of: “Why on earth would anyone collect mustard?” And, indeed, the greater question that most often comes up on the matter of collecting is not “Why do people collect?”—I think most people accept, on some level, that they may never be able to answer that one satisfactorily—but rather “Why do people collectthat?”

It’s a question that bridges the chasm between collectors and noncollectors; this is because collectors, people who pursue certain objects with a single-minded fervor, are often, in fact, so single-minded in their pursuit that they can’t imagine why anyone would be interested in collecting anything else. I mentioned earlier that I come from a family where everyone collects. What I did not mention is that we all collect different things, with absolutely no overlap, and no one in my family has even the slightest interest in collecting any of the things any other family member collects. This may seem counterintuitive—you would think the shared experience and passion of collecting something, anything, would create a bond that would enable us to appreciate one another’s pursuits. But it doesn’t work that way, either within families or among strangers. In my experience, collectors just don’t “get” other collectors. We may think it’s interesting that they collect something we can’t imagine collecting. We might, conceivably, admire their collection, in an abstract sense. We probably appreciate the fact that they won’t be bidding against us at auctions. Still, we can’t help but wonder “What are they thinking?”

Odds are, they won’t be able to tell you, either. Sure, they can tell you what they like about the objects of their desire, just as they can tell you what they appreciate about their spouse. But just as they can’t tell you how they chose their spouse from among a virtually unlimited pool of qualified applicants, a great many of whom no doubt possess the very same list of qualities, they can’t really explain why, exactly, they chose to collect little souvenir spoons instead of vintage decorative corncob holders.

Yet it’s fun to ask. You just might hear a good story.

Barry Levenson’s got one. Unlike most collectors, who seem to pick up the habit in childhood, Levenson didn’t collect a thing until, in his mid-30s, he became fascinated with the tale of Elm Farm Ollie, a dairy denizen who in 1930 became the first cow to both fly in an airplane and be milked in midair. At some point Levenson started collecting anything he could find relating to this bovine pioneer, going so far as to turn his living room into a shrine to Elm Farm Ollie, about whom he also composed an opera,Madame Butterfat.Levenson can’t really explain what inspired him to start collecting Elm Farm Ollie ephemera, but that’s okay, because there was never all that much of it floating around to begin with, and in any event that passion has since been upstaged by another, born out of a personal tragedy.

On October 27, 1986, Levenson, a native of Worcester, Massachusetts, watched his beloved Red Sox lose the World Series to the New York Mets in a spectacularly humiliating fashion. Stunned and deeply depressed, he left his house at 2:30 the following morning and went to Woodman’s Markets on the east side of Madison, Wisconsin, looking for something to dull the pain. Perhaps he’d expected to come home with a case of Twinkies, but as he turned into the condiment aisle and found himself face-to-face with a shelf full of mustard—and, as it happened, destiny—he had an epiphany: “I thought that if I would collect mustard,” he recalls, “that would somehow lead to the Red Sox winning the World Series.” (Interpret this as you will: since then, the Red Sox have won twice.) Looking back on it, he ruminates: “I had no idea what I was doing—I was so depressed. Life was tenuous. I just knew I needed to collect some mustard. I didn’t know where it was going to lead.” Now, of course, he knows, and he couldn’t be happier with the way it all turned out. “Mustard is something that happened to me,” he proclaims. “I saw it as my salvation.”

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