‘I never get a single thing that’s new.’ An appreciation for America’s pack rat, Alex Shear, dead at 73, January 10, 2014, now in God’s collection.

America's Pack Rat, Alex Shear

America’s Pack Rat, Alex Shear

by Dr. Jeffrey Lant

Author’s program note. This is not merely an article. It is instead a declaration  of support and unity for people like Alex Shear (and, yes, me) who are (far)  beyond obsessive in their acquisition of… everything. We have endured snide  comments, ribald jokes, side slapping “humor”, ridicule, even the ultimate indignity  of having our closets, cupboards, drawers, basements, garages, and attics  opened and “organized” by the insensitive relations, too often our own mothers  and wives, who claim to love us but do not understand the vital importance of  what we do, why we do it, and our crucial significance in maintaining for future  generations the vital artifacts each of which is an aperture into the lives and times  of those now gone and relying on us to continue their praiseworthy work.

Today all of us come together not just to bury one of the best of us but to praise  him extravagantly, and (if the whole truth be known) to check out his stuff and  catch a coupla bargains. When’s the sale anyway, and could I have a preview?

Pack rats.

Considering the fact that I’ve been called a “pack rat” my entire life, since  my beloved Grammie Victoria Burgess Lauing, laid this monikker on me  as a boy (never mind she evinced similar tendencies herself) I admit to  knowing precious little about them. I mean, if Grammie said I was a pack  rat, simply perusing myself in the mirror should have told me all I needed to  know about the breed, right? Right down to those cute pointed ears which  got me elected “E” in my high school senior class alphabet poll and a picture  of the back of my head in the class book, ears rampant and strikingly apparent.


A pack rat can be any of the species in the rodent genus “Neotoma”. They have  a rat-like appearance (keep an open mind, please) with long tails and big black  eyes which are constantly on the look-out for free stuff. They are totally focused on  bringing home this stuff, but it must be up to their discerning standards.

Thus, when they find something they like (a constant occurrence), they drop what  they are currently carrying and “trade” it for the new thing that has taken their fancy,  the more so if that thing is shiny. These two traits have inspired an anecdote wherein  pack rats find the teller’s dime and replace it by two nickels. Yikes, Grammie was right.

What causes this unrelenting acquisitive behavior anyway?

Some psychologist at a minor institution of superficial learning is even now finishing  up a study financed by the government on the subject. His conclusion? People become  pack rats because they like having more of what they like, lots more, because more, still  more and yet still more beget radiant happiness and a sense that God loves them best.  Thus, from their earliest moment of recognition that they can have as much as they want,  they set upon the lifelong odyssey of getting it. “I acquire, therefor I am.”

Alex Shear was such a man… and it’s time you met him.

About Alexander Joel Shear.

Shear was born in Lancaster, PA, March 5,1940, into a mercantile family.  His  mother’s family ran a department store in Florida; his father, a grocer turned  toy wholesaler, had tons of stuff that Alex wanted, but couldn’t have: yo-yos, Hula- Hoops, Flexible Flyers and a whole lot more of Just What He Had Always Wanted.  “Come on, Dad!” (Champ wheedlers beget champ collectors.)

After receiving an accounting degree from Franklin & Marshall College in  Lancaster he joined Macy’s in New York, where he ran one of the store’s  seasonal Christmas shops. There as department store buyer and product  designer he had what he needed for a lifetime of ardent, never-ending accumulation,  a word he preferred to “collector,” which he judged with suitable condescension  to be pedestrian.

The question wasn’t whether he’d accumulate. The question was what. And here  he gave himself the maximum latitude, for unlike most collectors who focused  on Victorian toys… or piggy banks… or baseball cards… or matchbook covers…  or cigarette lighters, he focused on everything, so long as everything was  product of the Great Republic and its post World War II material culture, the  genre belittled by so many as kitsch, that is to say a low-brow style of mass-  produced art or design using popular or cultural icons.

It was also called “tacky”, but not by Shear, for he saw beyond the object to the Great  Republic which produced it, its industrious peoples, mores, values and beliefs. It was  he fervently believed throughout his life a window into the soul of the greatest nation on  Earth, the stuff of life, a tangible hedge against the ages to come.

Thus with his broad, engaging smile, the collector’s fine-tuned eye, and a  burning, unquenchable desire to build his astonishing empire, he went out, to  find, to haggle, to acquire, to love and, like every accumulator in the world,  to show off, brag about and overawe lesser beings with his intelligence,  sleuthing procedures, and a luck God had surely bestowed.

Like others of his ilk, Shear thought big, but he didn’t just talk a good game;  he was out early and late winning it. And so he brought back a constant stream  of “I had to have it” treasures which his typical New York apartment just wasn’t  designed to accommodate, not remotely commodious enough.

Thus, he found himself exulting when his wife Betty Blum left him in 1980. It gave  him more space… but of course all seven rooms were used up in an instant. Of  course people, less visionary people, people who didn’t understand him one little  bit, told him to slow down, get a grip, stop and savor what he already had. They just  didn’t get it… and so he packed 11 storage facilities in three states with the goodies  which were drawn to him like magic.

These finds included special promotional items from every big corporation  and advertiser you could think of — Chef Boyardee, Campbell’s Soup, Tootsie  Roll, Frito Lay, Coca Cola — and hundreds of others your taste buds remember  better than you did.

The odd, the commonplace, the unique, the designs you saw a million times,  and the one you never heard of at all, all made their way to Alex’s atelier where  he chirped about what he had found, how he’d suckered its hapless former  owner to “give” it away, a “steal”. “American culture is now global culture,” he  told the marketing magazine “Promo” in 2000. “And the good news for me is  that I own most of it.”

He wasn’t kidding.

Over the course of five decades and more, Shear acquired and acquired and  when you might have said, “Basta!”, he acquired the rest until he had over  100,000 items, in over 120 categories, hidden away. He said he was keeping  them for “The Museum for Regular People”, the institution that would memorialize  what he’d done, how well he’d done it, and provide his own pied a terre in the Cosmos.

At his not-so-old age, Shear might well have had a bundle of productive years  ahead, years when his already mammoth, historic accumulation would have  surged still more. But man proposes, God disposes. And so on a fine winter’s  day in Manhattan he was struck by a tour bus. It was an oddly appropriate way  to expire for a man who had become something of a celebrity himself. His  body was then collected by New York officials, who probably didn’t know what  a find they had.


What will happen to his stupendous haul? No doubt his two sons, William and  Andrew, will decide. I wouldn’t bet the ranch on it going to start The Museum for  Regular People. I’d say Sotheby’s or Christie’s. They know how to turn a parent’s  obsession into sibling cash. Thus will his staggering plethora be dispersed in  the usual manner, finding in due course thousands of new homes and dauntless  accumulators.

As for the music for this article, it could only be “Second Hand Rose”, which  Barbra Streisand belted out in “Funny Girl” in 1968. What a lark it would have  been to see La Streisand visit Shear. How they would have liked the visit, both  pieces of grand Americana and brassy show-offs that they were.

About the Author

Harvard-educated Dr. Jeffrey Lant is the author of over a dozen best selling business and marketing books, several ebooks and over one thousand online articles on a variety of interesting topics.


This author has published 72 articles so far. More info about the author is coming soon.

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