The Toy Collector

by Thomas Beller

12/11/2005

267 west 11th 10014

Neighborhood: West Village

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1.

It was a cold, early evening in autumn, and the street was crowded with people. I walked down the street looking down. I was focused on the tiny people in my mind. A friend had been making pottery and attaching these tiny little people to it. She hovered over a large magnifying glass and held each tiny person between her fingers while dabbing them with a paint brush. It made her look scholarly, like some archeologist. Or maybe a forensic scientist, looking for clues.

She had small, strong, willful hands, but they were gentle. She held the tiny people by an arm, or a leg, or a head, in between index finger and the tip of her thumb. In the other hand she had a very fine paint brush.

The tiny people had heads the size of apple seeds, but she managed to paint them all in detail. The women got to wear nice dresses and shoes, and some of the men wore ties which were as wide as splinters. In some instances the figured were relaxing, as though at a table with a cup of coffee. In others they were standing as though waiting for a train. In still others they were doing something a bit dramatic and even cantankerous: One of these little people was waving an umbrella in the air, as though they were hailing a cab, or maybe yelling at someone. These tiny people were made in Germany. Their designs were from the sixties. The people they were modeled on had eaten, strudel and a lot of potatoes. They were portly bud dignified.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw a strange flash of yellow-a neglected color that suggested a parallel world – and I looked up. I found myself staring into the window of a toy store. My friend had mentioned the store where she got the tiny people. I thought maybe this was it. I could buy her a present. It was an opportunity for redemption, to make up for neglect. I hesitated—generosity as a form of apology is suspect. But then I thought come on, don’t talk yourself out of it. I went in.

The linoleum on the floor was smoothed by the years. White fluorescent tubes ran along the ceiling.

"Excuse me," I asked the man behind the counter. He was an older guy in jeans, trim, with a mustache. "Do you sell miniatures?"

"Miniature what?" said the man. He said it as though he hadn't quite heard me right, as though he had to deal with mumblers all day, and here was another one. He wore a plaid shirt tucked into jeans. There were toys in glass cases all over the place, but not modern toys. The store didn't have any of the manic energy of toy stores meant for kids. This was not a place for pop-rocks.

"These tiny little plastic people," I said. "They're in different poses, and you can paint them. Architects use them a lot. For their models."

"Miniature people?"

"In different poses," I said. The velocity of the street was still with me, but this man was stationary. He was content in his one place, and had been for a long time by the looks of him. I forced myself to slow down. "They're really small, the size of a finger nail really."

"Let me check," he said.

He moved slowly out from behind the counter and towards the back of the narrow store. I knew already that this was the wrong store, they wouldn't have the tiny people. The tiny people were perverse in some way and this store had a warmer atmosphere, one of memorabilia, it was a time capsule. The store’s spirit was what the store sold. I calmed down. The tiny people were a gift I wanted to buy so I could to apologize for the fight we had. But the fight had taken place in my own head as I barreled down Bleeker Street. It hadn't even happened.

I forced myself to breath deeply and not be a jerk to the nice old man and his old store with old toys, who was at that moment standing in front of a dilapidated partition at the back of the store, calling someone's name.

I cringed. I could hear the intimacy in the man's voice, it was like he was waking someone up from a nap. And sure enough, another man's voice called out from behind the partition, cranky. "What?"

"There's a man here, he want to know if you have miniatures."

"Miniature what?"

"People."

"Hold on."

Now I was really hating myself for causing all this trouble but it was too late, someone was scrabbling out from behind the partition. It was another old man, even older, and apparently the boss, wearing a mustard yellow sweater that echoed the mustard feel of the whole place. He now stood before me, a kind, skeptical face, no hair, a little vein by his temple. Outside, on the street, there were people rushing by in haste. Inside everything was delicate and still. P>I described the tiny people. The man said he didn't have any. Then, because I felt bad to have dragged him out from his nap, or his snack, his privacy, and because I wanted to distinguish myself from the people who probably came in here all the time asking for stupid things like cigarettes or condoms or whatever, I said, "So you sell old toys?"

"Yes, we do."

"Have you been doing it for a long time?"

"32 years in this very spot."

I looked around. In the glass cases were antique trains, dolls, dollhouse furniture, wind up toys, and old bits of advertising ephemera.

"I know a guy who collects toys," I said. "But he's not as eclectic as you. He's mostly into cars. He's a neighbor. Jack Herbert."

"Oh Jack!" he said, and his face lit up. "I've known Jack for thirty years! He and I were some of the very first people who started collecting antique toys. Nobody took it seriously at the time. They couldn't believe it when Jack paid fifty dollars for an old toy car. Now it's probably worth five thousand."

"I live right next door," I said, proud. We made friendly noises. His name was Van Dexter. We shook hands and I said goodbye.

Outside, in the bustle, I looked back into the narrow window and saw the store's name on the green canopy: Second Childhood.

3.

There is a gap on my block. It comes between two brownstones, and is a little wider that a man, and a little narrower than a horse. What you wouldn't know from staring at the front of these brownstones is that behind them is a world of ample backyards. In one of these backyard spaces, the one next to mine, is a small wood house with a chimney. Its scale is peculiar. The front door looks out onto the backyard of our building, which is a nice, unruly Garden. The house is square, slightly nautical, and has an A-frame roof. The little chimney sticking out makes it look like a ginger bread house.

The gap in my block is a narrow alley that separates my building from the one next door. There's a steel gate that is painted black and faces the street. You would hardly notice it, because it is right next to my neighbor's stoop. I never thought of it until I went up to my own roof one day shortly after I moved in here, in 1995. I looked out over the backyards. Our own was an unruly garden with a giant Elm tree whose tortured, massive, and beautiful branches rose up above the roof. I looked through the branches and saw a little house in the backyard of the brownstone next to mine, and realized that the black gate led to the pathway to the front door of the little house.

One day I saw a man emerge from the gate, and I assumed he lived in the little house. He was a strapping figure, with brown hair and an almost barrel chest, and his cheeks were a ruddy pink. He was a little over six feet and walked with a very erect posture. He had some of that Ronald Reagan - circa his first term - robustness of an older man, and also the tiny hint of vanity that goes with it. There was something athletic about him, even though he was an older guy, but it wasn't a sports kind of athleticism. It was more like someone who was once a sailor, or who knows how to fix things with his hands.

My first and, for a long time, only conversation with this man, my neighbor, whose name is Jack Herbert, involved my bicycle. I had taken to locking it to the lamp post right in front of the little alley.

"I hope you don't mind my leaving my bike locked up there," I said one day as he was coming out of the little alley.

"Not at all," he said. "I think it lends a little panache to the block."

And after that, panache was the word that came to mind when I saw Jack Herbert strolling with that upright posture of his around the neighborhood.

For a while it looked as though Jack Herbert was going to go the way of the Heavy Metal Puerto Rican, a character from another neighborhood who had intrigued me, but who I had never managed to talk to.

Then, one warm and lazy summer afternoon, I was about to unlock my bike when I saw a sign on the black metal gate that lead back to the little Ginger Bread House that read: "Toy collectors, this way."

The gate was unlocked and I wandered through the narrow alley. It was the first time I'd been in there. On either side were brick walls not much wider than my shoulders. I looked up, and it was a strange sensation-- two brick walls rising six stories above on either side, opening to a sliver of sky. I couldn't help feeling I was entering a passage to a secret world.

There is a patchwork of backyards behind my building, but mainly there are a trio of large ones, of which my building is the center piece. The owners of the building where I live have been there over forty years, and their backyard has a rambunctious quality, two converging paths through the ivy, a gigantic Elm tree rising up in the middle and, in spring, two huge forsythia bushes at the back.

These giant forsythia bushes are a new development and are the one positive effect of the Renovators, who are to the right. The renovators moved in a few years after I did, and, as you can guess, they promptly began renovating. The father of the Mr. Renovator has been involved in fomenting democracy in Eastern Europe, and for a while it seemed as though gigantic numbers of unemployed Poles and Hungarians were working on the building next door. Specifically, the were walking from the backyard to a giant dumpster on the street with buckets of earth. It was almost biblical, the amount of earth being moved, and I expected landscaping on the scale Olmstead, a mini-Central Park. In the end, the backyard was covered in slate. The cool grey slate, very smooth, or so it seems, is interrupted on by a dramatic Douglas fir tree. And there is one wide indentation, where water collects in a shallow pool, giving it a Japanese rock garden feel. The back yard of the renovators does not get much use; the only occupants are usually a pair of black labs who are set free to roam its austere plain, lolling around by themselves and looking bored and decadent--sleek black dogs on smooth grey slate, with a giant white Douglas fir rising out in their midst.

The renovators removed so many trees and so much vegetation were torn out of there, that our Forsythia bushes suddenly had all that water and nutrition to themselves, and began to bloom. This was the one small pay-off for the invasion of the earth bearing Poles and the other construction workers who descended on the endlessly renovated house, though the Poles were very well behaved, and I was always impressed with how at the end of the day they would change out of their work clothes and be so clean. Their mustaches were elegant. The knew how to smoke a cigarette, as though it were a pleasure, not a vice. Towards then we started exchanging friendly nods.

Looking down from my roof the three backyards form an interesting trio. The Renovators to the right, the rambunctious chaos of ivy and Forsythia in the middle, and, to the left, the ginger bread house. It sat there like a secrete in broad daylight. My perspective on them is usually from above, standing on the roof and looking down, but now I was walking in there myself.

The exterior of the little wood house was a beige color, with white window frames and green shutters. The front door faced out towards my house's backyard and had a little cupola above it. There are some wooden steps to get the door, which was ajar. I pushed the door open, and my very first impression was that of a captain's quarter's on an old boat into which the captain had invited some guests. The A frame roof rose up above, and light poured through the skylights and windows. Wide wood planks made up the floor and walls. The room was pleasantly cluttered. The tables and the shelves were filled with... things. I couldn't make out what, at first, these things were, other than that there were books, but there was other stuff, too. I waved hello to Jack Herbert, who was sitting on a very which seemed to me to be an old couch, but an old couch in pristine condition, vintage. He greeted me with a wave.»

"Hello there!" said Jack.

"Wow," I said, and stepped inside.

Now I saw that the things were mostly old boats, some that could sit on your palm, but mostly bigger than that, and made of metal or wood. There was an old Staten Island Ferry. There were some little soldiers. There was an old metal horse and carriage. There were little planes.

"Am I interrupting?" I asked.

"Not at all," he said.

It turns out Jack Herbert is one of the preeminent collectors of antique toys, and he keeps them all in his tiny two story cabin.

2.

I came back a week later with a pad and pen. We both sat down on his couch. Light filtered pleasantly into the room from the skylight and windows. It was very quiet. I asked him questions and he answered. My questions were precise, but laced with speculation about how man becomes a toy collector. His answers were precise, but there was going to be no speculation on how he came to be a toy collector. I thought of another Republican President, the first George Bush. "Don't put me on the couch," he once remarked to an interviewer, trying to discern something about him, and that seemed to be the subtext of Jack Herbert's remarks to me while we sat on his very nice couch: Don't put me on the couch.

Jack Herbert had grew up in Gross Pointe Michigan. He has lived in New York ever since the end of World War II, when he came here to attend Fordham University. The Village was where he wanted to be. His job at the time was selling ad space for radio, and he spent a lot of his days going from one appointment to another, with time in between. He had plenty of opportunities to look at property.

I kept looking around while we spoke.

For all the slightly disheveled oldness of the house - and of the toys - there was a somewhat military precision to the arrangement of things, the cleanliness of the couch. For some reason the immaculate unfrayed quality of the couch intrigued me. It was an old style, but new. But it did not look like something he had bought for a lot of money at a vintage furniture store. I could only concluded he took good care of his possessions. He wasn't going to spill anything on his couch.

"There was this lovely French girl and she knew of this house which had previously been rented to a set designer," he told me. "He'd apparently had all sorts of plans for it, but he ran out of money and shortly thereafter he ran out of town."

I struggled to imagine the personal collapse of the set designer whose big project was going to be building the set in which he would live--this house. But then it all fell apart. He left town. Why? A romance gone bad. A relative fallen sick. The money dried up and he left out of shame and not being able to succeed. Jack Herbert knew nothing about it.

"When I first came to look at it the floors were black," said Jack. "The walls of the place were painted blue, and they were peeling. But I fell in love with it right away. I thought, I have twenty five square feet in Manhattan that is mine and mine alone, no one lives above me or below me."

He made a deal with the sisters who lived in the brownstone in whose backyard the house was built, and moved in. He came every night and scraped the walls and the floors while listening to the radio. The Cuban missile crisis was under way. "Kennedy was giving Kruschev the word on Cuba," was how he put it.

I asked about the sisters who lived in the front house.

Their name was Maximillian, he said. They were born in that house at the end of the 19th Century sometime. They died in their late nineties. They lived their entire lives in that house. There were three sisters, and one married. "There is offspring," Jack said.

But two of the sisters continued to live there. "Somewhere in the early days they ran a hat shop on Madison avenue, back when ladies wore hats," he said with a laugh.

I noticed the peculiar habit of Jack's in which he seemed to enjoy looking back at old times with a certain nostalgia, but the nostalgia was bleached of sentiment. Whether he was against nostalgia on principle, or if he was simply not emotional, or if he was so emotional and nostalgic that he had, out of self protection, willfully removed and locked away that impulse, I could not tell.

He told me the main house was built by the Maximillian sister's father, around 1875. He built Jack's house an art studio for a friend of his sometime after the turn of the century.

"The sisters lived until the late eighties, and died within a few years of each other.

"One lost her sensibilities, and the other had to try and help her," said Jack. "They would invite me to their parties, mostly family parties, which was nice. But in all the time I've been here, forty years, they never once came back! I don't think they were afraid, I should hardly think so. But who knows? Adele is the one who kept her faculties. She kept things cracking and so on. The one story I know is that when she was really very old, she was taken over to St. Vincent's for some reason and while she was there the Rabbi came to see her. And she said, 'Get out of here! I'm not going!' A year or so later she did."

The sisters lived on the second floor and rented out the rest of the place to tenants. For a long time they hauled up and down their enormous steps. They had five tenant apartments: Ground floor, Parlor, 3rd, 4th, and then Jack as the fifth.

"So they were doing all right," I said, somewhat crassly, I admit.

"I'm not so sure," said Jack. "Taxes in the city at one time, back in their days, were reasonable, but what income could they have had, poor things? They didn't live lavishly, but they lived."

I asked about the narrow alleyway that led back to his house. He speculated it dated back to the days when people would park their carriages in front of their house, and take unhitch the horse and bring it to a stable. "You could have brought a filly back through that space," he said. "And the fact that the top floor of my house has very wide planks, made me think that perhaps they had a barn back here."

I paused to consider this variation on the parking ritual: you not only have to find a spot, you have to wash and feed the horse. The I looked down at the couch. The truth of the matter was I was letting the conversation veer in all sorts of directions other than toys. They were all around me yet I was having some trouble focusing on them.

"This is a very nice couch," I said.

"It a convertible couch. I've had it since Lincoln was in power!"

"It's in very good shape," I said.

"I've had it re-upholstered once. Had to. Forty years is a long time," he said. "The secret of anything is, if you can, get something of the best quality to begin with and then you wont have to fuss about it. At my gym a funny little plumber came in did everything with domestic showers, and they lasted two weeks. For something like the gym, they ought to have industrial showers."

So with some effort I brought the conversation around the toys. He showed me some of the ships. They were very pretty, but they also fell into a category I found hard to respond to: they were antique, they were, in a way beautiful, and they were toys. We all have out blind spots. I recall a friend's father once remarking, on the subject of antiques, "Why would anyone want to sit in used furniture?" Maybe I was having a similarly philistine resistance to these charming artifacts.

As Herbert explained it, collecting antique toys was an new hobby when he started. "It grew, and I grew with it."

His professional life has been spent running restaurants, including a place called Bentley's which thrived in the Neighborhood until he went into semi-retirement. He had a star waitress to whom he turned over the operation. But she had a boyfriend with a coke habit… it's a Thai place now.

"When you're doing something as stressful as running a restaurant, sometimes you need to get away. I would come back to this house and… get away."

He specialized in transportation, he said. He doesn't do dolls, or trains.

"You have to specialize, or you go bananas."

Jack Herbert has the biggest collection of its sort in New York State. There is a guy in Massachusetts who has more, he said. "But it's too much. I've seen it. You leave sort of depressed. And if you are a collector and you go there, you are going to see everything you ever say. It's like doing too much of a museum."

Then we went downstairs. The living room area is so pretty, so complete in its mood and light and architecture, that I forgot that there was no bed, or kitchen for that matter. Also, though I didn't think of it at the time, the stuff in that room, impressive as it was, did not seem to amount to the largest collection of its kind in New York State.

The staircase was narrow. As we walked down the floor of the living room became eye level, then disappeared.

The downstairs of the house feels different than the upstairs. Upstairs there is the vaulted ceiling, the sky lights, the tall bookshelves filled with books and toys, the beautiful furniture, the rug. Most of all, the light.

Downstairs, the ceiling is very low. I had to duck. There was a bed against one wall, made up as immaculately as if this were a show room. There was a small table with a laptop computer on it. The light was artificial here. Something strange was going on, and it took me a moment to identify it: the room was filled with toys. More specifically, the walls were covered in narrow shelves, and on each shelf, perfectly arranged, was a small toy car or, in some instances, a plane, something that could fit in the palm of your hand. But bigger than a Hot wheels. The shelves were about four inches apart from one another. The walls were covered with these shelves. A rough estimate of the antique cars and planes sitting on the shelves of that room that Jack gave me: 4,000.

The density of the toys, their sheer number, became unreal as I stared. In ever tiny car, a driver's seat. In every airplane, a cockpit. They were all empty. They were all waiting for their driver. Each one was a tiny empty space waiting to filled by a person, or the fantasy of a person. Several thousand unformed souls surrounded me crammed against the walls.

In the morning, he opened his eyes to these toys. And at night, when the lights were out and it was dark, they surrounded him-- replicas of things that take you places that were staying exactly where he had put them. I did not have that feeling Jack described when he visited the super-collector in Massachusetts. I did not feel depressed, or overwhelmed. But I felt something that welled up in me as I wandered among the shelves and made admiring noises as I peered at various models or car or plane.

By the time we went upstairs I had forgotten completely where I was.

4.

“Toy.” In the early sixteenth century one of its definitions was, "A light caress."

Among the OED's definitions: "A thing of little or no importance, a trifle, a foolish affair, a piece of nonsense. A thing to play with, often a model or miniature replica of something, especially for a child."

The example of this is a quote from Macbeth that plays up the nihilistic aspect of this: "There is nothing serious about mortality--all is but toys."

Then there is the definition of toy that refers to a human being. "I saw him become my slave, my toy," is the reference drawn from Allan Hollinghurst.

Then there is the verb. "Deal lightly or frivolously with, amuse oneself (with a person or activity) also consider (an idea, etc), handle, or finger idly. To behave in a superficially amorous manner (with a person). Dally, flirt…

Jack Herbert is a pioneer in the toy collecting field. He writes a column for Toy Collector magazine. His involvement in the field is his business, these days, and it makes him happy.

Of course I think it's a little strange. But who am I to talk? What do I collect? Maybe I collect people like Jack Herbert.

I recently called up my friend, the potter who used the tiny people. She doesn’t do the tiny people any more. I asked her why not.

"They made me feel too tiny," she said. "Now I do vases."

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