How much is that pencil in the window?
By Martha Frankel
Photography by Kitty Sheehan
I was with my in-laws at Donny Malone Auctions in Saugerties in the mid-1980s. The Hellers of Lake Hill, NY were well-known—they sold Tiffany and Handel lamps, but my father-in-law also took old lamp parts and created beautiful new ones.
They were bidding on a few expensive pieces. My mother-in-law grabbed my arm and pointed to a cardboard box. It was overflowing with dirty pieces of yarn, a doll’s head, a lace doily, some other things I couldn’t identify. “Bid on that box of contents,” she said with a smile. “Who knows what magic is hiding?!”
I bid $1. And won. While people continued bidding on other things, I unpacked that box and at the bottom, I found a gorgeous Shawnee pottery deer planter. The yellow deer had painted eyes; the tree planter could hold pens. I clutched it to my chest—I was smitten.
A week later, I was at an auction in Fleischmanns and spotted another deer on a shelf. When it came up, I bid $2, and a collection was born.
Within a year, I had about 30. Some were chipped, some needed painting. People started giving them to me. My husband Steve built lit shelves in the kitchen. They were immediately filled to overflowing. But over the next decade, I started getting more particular. On trips to Los Angeles and Miami, I found many gorgeous ones. I got rid of every one that wasn’t perfect. I gave some to people who admired them. I search antique shops still, but I remain much pickier.
On New Year’s Eve day, I take them all down, wash them lovingly in soapy water. I rearrange the shelves. Old ones become favorites again and I’m reminded why I love them.
Textile salesperson Margie Schultz’s collection began years ago, when she went with a childhood friend to a big antique show in Westchester County. She noticed a kangaroo with a tinier kangaroo in its pouch. When she picked it up, she realized the larger one was for salt, the smaller for pepper. She had just moved into her first apartment and it looked just perfect on her dining table. Her collection grew in that way collections grow; she bought some, people gifted her others. She sought out rare ones and gave away doubles.
Holiday shakers hold a special place in her heart: the Thanksgiving turkeys, the Chanukah dreidels, some matzo balls, the 4th of July flags. Pumpkins for fall. Flowers in spring. She and her husband travel a lot. “One of the great things is every place, every city, has its salt and pepper shakers,” Margie tells me. “Sometimes I buy them in the hope that the next time, they’ll have even better ones.”
When Margie was building her new passive solar home in the town of Olive, NY she knew one thing for sure: she wanted a big display case where she could show off as many as possible.
Kelley Parker is a retired lawyer living in Woodstock. Rainy days in Manhattan always made her miserable. “I used to complain about the rain to anyone who’d listen,” she says with her Oklahoma drawl. At some point, she came across a fancy umbrella store on 55th street, near her office. “And I popped in there
on a rainy day and got a pretty plain but substantial one.”
Later that year she went to Paris, and in a wonderful umbrella shop the saleswoman admonished her for the way she closed an umbrella. And that was it. “I just fell into the umbrella subculture!”
She says there are people into umbrellas, and then there’s everyone else who have the throwaway black umbrellas they buy outside every office building. She waxes about the good handles, the way they open and close. “I’ve left many an umbrella in a cab or restaurant, but I’ve had some of these umbrellas for more than three decades. When I moved to the mountains I stopped using an umbrella so much. But I did build a covered porch with a swinging bed and that’s sort of my new umbrella. It’s where I go when it rains.”
Parker searches out the umbrella store everywhere she goes. And she always finds one. A trip to Morocco is next, and she says that she’s already dreaming of what kind of umbrellas they might sell there.
Writer/editor Kitty Sheehan was once told she had “a knack for arranging useless clutter.” She took it as a high compliment.
Among her collections are pencils and notepads. “My first pencil in kindergarten was a fat little one that said ‘DIXON.’ That was the first word I learned to spell. I asked my teacher if I could have it. And years later, when I taught kindergarten, I couldn’t wait to give my students their fat little pencils! But none of them fell in love with them like I did.”
Sheehan also has notepads from hotels she’s stayed in since 1973. “At the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, you got a whole leather portfolio of stationery!” In 2007 she met Chandra Greer, of Greer Chicago, on Twitter. Greer’s stationery store is world class, and Greer tucked little presents into Sheehan’s orders. One was a Blackwing pencil, and that began her love affair with the gorgeous pencils with flat erasers. “John Steinbeck used them, and the guy who drew Looney Tunes, Chuck Jones.” People are passionate about their Blackwings, and if you’ve ever used one, you’ll understand. “Nothing compares to how soft and wonderful they are,” she gushes. “I always find the stationery store when I travel. It’s where I meet my people. Rhinebeck’s Paper Trail is exceptional. And I recently discovered a wonderful stationery store in Hudson, The Social Type.”
Friends give her pencils, but it’s her daughter, Natalie, who gives her great ones. “She gets it.”