Hummels, Precious Moments, Pokémon cards, Thomas Kinkade prints and, of course, Beanie Babies. All of us who lived through the late 20th century remember being told, and told again, that they were going to be mega valuable someday. Us scoffers who didn’t collect them would be left wishing we had.
In the 1990s, I was a student and then a young graduate of a liberal arts college. My tastes and those of many of my peers ran more toward thrift store finds and band posters, and I would not have deigned myself to buy “that mass-produced crap.” Fortunately, my cocksure attitude paid off. With just a few exceptions, those so-called collectibles appreciated very little. Unless you truly love them, the investment was worth neither the dollars nor storage space.
But I do collect. My first collection began when I was eight years old and someone gave me a set of coin albums for Christmas. I quickly tossed aside the ones meant for silver coins—no way was I going to waste a valuable quarter on this effort—and began filling up the penny booklet. When I was a toddler my grandfather would give me all the change in his pocket each time he saw me. He died when I was two, but six years on, I still had the coins. The album had slots for each year and mint mark, and I quickly filled it. The oldest penny in my stash was 1949, and it became the prize of my collection. I just took a gander on Ebay and it appears that I could maybe fetch a dollar or two for it now. Never. Granddaddy gave it to me.
Which brings me to my earliest intended collection. Marie Antoinette. When I was fourteen, I picked up a fictional biography called The Queen’s Confession by Victoria Holt. Halfway through the book, I was in love. Antoinette was so glamorous, so glittering, and so doomed. I needed to read more. The only problem was that my family lived in Germany at the time, and I didn’t speak German. The library on the air force base where my dad was stationed was tiny. I had no access to English language bookstores, and Internet shopping was years away. Fortunately, my parents liked to travel, and we took several trips to England during the next couple years. Also fortunately, my mother liked antiques. This gave me time to comb through piles of old books in secondhand shops, and I found some treasures, usually for about a pound each. I bought an 1890 copy of Madame Campan’s memoirs. According to the embossed flyleaf it once belonged to the Helmingham Rectory in Stowmarket, and then (after that?) an Aimée Garrett wrote her name in it. I liked thinking about who had read my books before I did, and I still do. But my real acquisition goal was the words. I read every single one. Years before I would study history in college and grad school, I became somewhat of an authority on the French queen. I credit her story, in part, with leading me toward my career.
I do not buy old Marie Antoinette books anymore. Ebay killed the joy of the hunt. Of risking the allergy attack that would come from the dust I stirred while combing through used books in 1980s Britain. Of spotting her name in gold letters on an aging spine. Of spending the whole of my dollar-a-week allowance on my hobby. There is no sport in typing the words into the computer and having something appear on my doorstep a week later. It just isn’t as fun.
Today, I could easily replicate my Antoinette collection with an hour or so of work. Nevertheless, it remains invaluable to me. Several books sit on top of the piano in the living room. The rest fill the vertical bookcase in my bedroom. I like looking at them. They remind me of a girl who loved stories.