Alex Shear, Owner of 100,000 Pieces of American Kitsch, Dies at 73
They were all his Rosebuds: the vacuum cleaner shaped like a rocket ship, the toaster shaped like a piece of toast, the suitcase with an electric iron in the handle, the potato mashers (he owned about 500), the tin soldiers, the fallout-shelter sign and the gasoline-powered pogo stick.
When Alex Shear died in New York at 73 this month, he left behind a collection widely described as one of the largest assemblages — quite possibly the largest one — of pop-culture artifacts in private hands, with holdings so vast they once spanned 11 storage facilities in three states.
Mr. Shear, whose former career as a department store buyer and product designer had given him the wherewithal for a life of ardent accumulation, deplored the word “collector.” Though items he acquired have been exhibited at renowned museums, his collection as a whole, he often said, was about far more than the drive to assemble.
It was, as he put it, a window into the American soul, built from the literal stuff of life, a tangible hedge against the passage of time.
“American culture is now global culture,” Mr. Shear told the marketing magazine Promo in 2000. “And the good news for me is that I own most of it.”
Mr. Shear died in Manhattan on Jan. 10 when he was struck by a tour bus at 96th Street and Broadway. No charges have been filed, a spokesman for the New York Police Department said on Tuesday in confirming the death.
Comprising some 100,000 items assembled from the flea markets and antiques shows he haunted for five decades, Mr. Shear’s collection was famous for its size and scope. Where another collector might focus exclusively on baseball cards or bowling shirts, his quarry was nothing less than all of American postwar material culture — the everyday ephemera that museums had largely ignored.
In his 2003 book, “To Have and to Hold: An Intimate History of Collectors and Collecting,” the journalist Philipp Blom called Mr. Shear “the Noah of American life.”
Mr. Shear’s ark took in consumer products, folk art and riotous kitsch. There were obscure board games like Capital Punishment (“For 2 to 4 Adults”); failed products like the Turnpike Toll Gun, which shot quarters into collection baskets; promotional pillows in the shape of cans of Chef Boy-Ar-Dee and Aqua Net hair spray; and salesmen’s sample cases stocked with tiny models — telephones, swimming pools, prison cells — from which whole cosmos could be conjured.
Mr. Shear, who lectured on popular culture around the country, appeared often on television and was the subject of profiles in newspapers and magazines, including, in 1999, a long article in The New Yorker.
To read one of them is to be in the presence of its subject at full acquisitive tilt, his speech a torrent of syntax that in its gnomic wisdom recalled Zen koans: “Oil cans make the home”; “To me, looking at coffee pots is the same as looking at women”; “This country is totally immersed in whippers.” (He meant the kind used on egg whites.)
For some years, Mr. Shear earned a modest living as a “nostalgia consultant,” as The New York Times called him, creating displays for corporate events and renting out props for advertising shoots. He abandoned this work after props went unreturned: Collecting was a keener imperative than commerce.
Artifacts from his collection have seeded well-received museum exhibitions, including “Mechanical Brides,” featuring home and office products made to appeal to midcentury women, at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York in 1993.
Curators often dropped in on Mr. Shear’s New York apartment for advice on acquisitions — or, more precisely, for an emphatic reminder of the tens of thousands of items their collections lacked.
His holdings were so comprehensive that he could assemble impromptu “exhibitions” as the need arose. When one of Mr. Shear’s sons was 5 or 6 and enamored of building, he came home one day and found to his delight that his father had transformed his bedroom into a realistic construction site, complete with Con Edison barricades and orange safety cones.
In recent years, most of Mr. Shear’s collection has been in storage in his hometown, Lancaster, Pa., awaiting the museum of his own he hoped to open one day. The Museum for Regular People, he planned to call it.
Previously, much of the collection had resided, together with Mr. Shear and a little essential furniture, in an apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan awash in artifacts — floor to ceiling in places — a state of affairs that persisted through his marriage to Betty Blum in 1980 and beyond its dissolution a decade later.
“When Betty moved out, I had the fantastic opportunity to fill my seven-room apartment with my stuff,” Mr. Shear told The Times in 1992.
It was during their breakup that Mr. Shear began collecting the plastic bride-and-groom figurines that now form a conspicuous slice of his holdings, for if Mr. Shear’s collection is a mirror of America’s psyche, it was equally, by his own ready acknowledgment, a mirror of Mr. Shear’s.
Alexander Joel Shear was born in Lancaster on March 5, 1940, into a mercantile family. His mother’s family ran a department store in Florida; his father, a grocer turned toy wholesaler, kept a warehouse filled with inaccessible objects of desire: yo-yos, Hula-Hoops, Flexible Flyers.
“My dad was not a demonstrative man, but if you talked to him about merchandise, his eyes would light up,” Mr. Shear said in The New Yorker article. “We communicated with him through stuff.”
As a child, Alex could take home any toy from the warehouse — provided he returned it, in its original box, in mint condition.
“At face value, a fantastic opportunity,” Mr. Shear told The Times in 1992. “But maybe it wasn’t so great. Sort of like having to go to the library to take out a book, but never owning one.”
After receiving an accounting degree from Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Mr. Shear joined Macy’s in New York, where he ran one of the store’s seasonal Christmas shops.
For J. C. Penney, which he joined in the late 1960s, he became a buyer of kitchenware and other home furnishings. Researching the field, he scoured flea markets to amass a palpable reference library of midcentury domesticity — dishes and blenders and curtains and towels — and found his lifework.
“I realized,” Mr. Shear told The New Yorker, “that the thing I love is stuff.”
He struck out on his own as a successful designer of housewares and kitchen textiles before turning to collecting full time.
Mr. Shear’s survivors include a twin brother, Ted, and two sons, William and Andrew.
The future of his collection, which has not been appraised, is undetermined, though Mr. Shear’s sons hope to move forward with plans for a museum, Andrew Shear said.
Over the years, when interviewers visited Mr. Shear’s home, what they seemed to notice most was its immense inventory of toys, boldly arrayed as if in answer to his father’s long-ago dictum to look but not touch.
“Now,” Mr. Shear told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2003, “I have more toys than he ever did.”
Evoking a winter pleasure of his youth — “some of my happiest times,” Mr. Shear once said — those toys include a substantial collection of sleds, among them Flexible Flyers.