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JEANS! CATS! HIPPOS! The accidental collector

By Patrick Kampert, Chicago Tribune – 06/03/2007 – 12:00am

The hippo’s crime was cuteness.

Newly married Kim Tupper saw the offender in a candle shop at Fox Valley Mall and had to have it. The small, tan candle in the shape of one of nature’s largest animals was taken to the register, paid for and brought home. It was a colossal mistake.

Tupper’s husband, Rich, like any observant male, thought his bride’s purchase meant she loved the oversized mammals. She didn’t. She just thought the single small candle was neat. But he bought hippos for her anyway. Tupper says her husband even told the extended family that “Kim likes hippos.” That did it.

The avalanche of hippos began and continued with each birthday and holiday. Tupper had become someone we can all relate to: an accidental collector.

“We were next to a jewelry store,” she remembered. “Did I get a diamond? No.”

Two decades after her visit to the mall, the Woodridge secretary has given away about 100 stuffed hippopotamuses, but some items are harder to shake, like the planter her kids bought for her when they were in grade school, or the needlepoint her sister-in-law made for her. The one that started it all rests on a shelf in the lower level of her home, part of a herd that includes the planter.

“This is it,” she said with a laugh, holding the candle aloft. “I should have melted it.”

Sadly, the animal kingdom is responsible for a lot of unhappiness around the Chicago area these days. A number of people are grinning and bearing it under the weight of an arkload of plush toys, T-shirts, socks, pajamas, knickknacks, stickers and stationery that feature not-always-welcome creatures.

Take felines, for instance.

“Thank goodness they don’t make a cat coffin, or I’d probably be buried in it,” joked Sandy Elliott of Union. Elliott used to have a couple of cats. They died. She liked her cats, but she never liked collecting cat kitsch. Now she has boxes of it and tries to remember who gave her what so she can haul it out when they come to visit. There are alternatives for less-than-imaginative shoppers, she says.

“You can get lotions, you can get candles, you can get plants,” she said. “I do have a friend in Lombard who makes fudge. Now, that’s good. I can collect candy.”

It was a matter of timing that snared Jean Brown and Gerry Bianco of Elgin. After they got married, they learned that the date, March 1, was National Pig Day.

“We acquired a few stuffed toy pigs as mascots, laughed and thought that was the end of it,” Brown said.

Not a chance.

Relatives squealed with delight when they found out, Brown said, and piled on the pork-related paraphernalia. Till the Christmas when her husband blurted out, “No more pigs.” A charity organization took in the unwanted pig invaders, and the couple had a private revenge for their 20th anniversary.

“We went to Hawaii and ate some bacon,” Brown said.

Mythical creatures such as unicorns and mermaids have long fascinated Mary Michael of Waukegan. But friends and relatives apparently stopped listening after they heard “unicorn.” She has unicorn plates, plush unicorns, a unicorn vase, unicorn journals, unicorn ornaments and unicorn address books.

“You can never be sick of such a beautiful creature,” Michael said, “but you can run out of room.” But not before she built a room addition. She also likes birds and, well, you know the rest.

She says she keeps her “innermost thoughts” to herself these days.

Michael and her sister are publishing their first children’s book about a white goose, but she’s not too concerned that relatives will get any ideas. “I think people realize there’s no more room for dust catchers around here.”

Feeling the pain

Even the family of etiquette expert Sue Fox has been haunted by accidental collections. Pigs. Salt-and-pepper shakers. Tea kettles. Despite this, she has empathy for both gift givers and receivers.

“It’s not always easy to shop for people,” said Fox, author of the newly revised “Etiquette for Dummies” and president of Etiquette Survival, which trains people to start local etiquette companies. She says she herself can’t pass a Betty Boop in a store without thinking of her mother, who recently passed away.

But she offers help for those enduring a perennial stream of unwanted collectibles. Although you should never express ungratefulness when receiving a gift, Fox says it’s perfectly acceptable to find the right moment to gently say, “Enough” or “I’m finished collecting lighthouses.”

“If they keep coming, they won’t be so special and you can’t remember who gave it to you,” she said.

If the guilty party is a spouse, it’s OK to be more direct: “Where did you get the idea I was collecting?” But in either case, “always use humor and light-heartedness,” Fox said.

Our informal polling indicates that accidental collecting is primarily a female problem. Perhaps it’s because men are less concerned with hurting people’s feelings. Although males can be on the receiving end of way too many golf-related gifts and enough ties to strangle a convention of hippos, Chris Jones of Chicago is now having an issue with jeans, mainly the Levi’s 505 variety.

It used to be a stuffed-animal dilemma. His mom in California kept sending them to him until he was 30.

“I used to give the animals to my nephews,” said Jones, an advertising producer. “But now they’re getting too old for stuffed animals.”

1 pair after another

All was quiet on the gift-giving front until Jones was bitten in the thigh as he tried to break up a fight between pooches at a dog park. His jeans were ruined. So his mom bought him a new pair of 32-inch waist Levi’s 505 jeans.

A few weeks later, another pair arrived in the mail. Then another.

Now he has enough jeans to last a lifetime, although he thinks his body may have something to say about the 32 part of that equation.

“Being 37, I don’t think I’m going to keep the same waistline forever,” he said.

Jones says he and his mother joke and laugh about the jeans, but the clothes keep coming. Now, it’s socks and underwear too. Jones’ mom told his aunt that he appreciated getting socks, so the aunt sent some as well.

“I’ve told her I like the jeans but I have too many,” Jones said. “I do tell her this. I’m afraid she’ll go back to stuffed animals.”

At the heart of it all, Jones says he knows that his mom simply loves him a lot and wants to show him that with her generosity.

Barb Dembinski of Warrenville says she realized the same thing about well-meaning relatives and friends after she was paved over with enough Christmas-village houses of different eras and styles to fill her basement, which was where she kept them because she didn’t have the room or even the interest to display them all.

“It was a collection with angst involved with it,” she said.

But she has come to realize what she really was collecting all along.

“As much as little houses that make a village are cute, they’re all things,” she said. “They’re fun to collect. But the people in my life — they’re the collection that matters.”

It started as joke and then they were on a roll

Sometimes, unwanted gifts are not the reasons people become accidental collectors. Sometimes, what starts as a joke develops into something more.

Nikki and Carrie Domanus are sisters-in-law by virtue of marrying the Domanus brothers. But back in 1992, when they were friends and roommates at Illinois State University, they visited The Gallery, a now-defunct bar in Normal. What happened that night, they admit, was not normal.

Carrie went to use the bathroom. When she came back, “she slides this piece of paper across the table to me,” Nikki said.

It was the wrapper from the roll of toilet paper, and the brand name was Doubldown. Carrie thought it hilarious; so did Nikki. The next time they were out, Nikki found a funny one in a restroom a block away from The Gallery.

“It spiraled out of control,” Nikki admitted.

Think there are just 5 or 10 brands of TP? Think again. The Domanuses have more than 200 wrappers between them. They keep the wrappers neatly displayed in plastic-sheet binders in their respective Palatine bathrooms, the perfect spot for reading material, they say.

“Ovation is one of my favorites,” Carrie said. “Who’s going to give an ovation in the bathroom?”

Debonaire. Jubilee. Sweet Life. Top Note. Cast Away (with an arrow pointing down). The sheets are often labeled with the date and place the wrapper was found. Some, from baseball games, even include ticket stubs. Nikki honeymooned in Jamaica, Carrie in Cozumel. Both brought back two wrappers, one for each collection. Now husbands, parents and friends add to the bounty.

Not all of Nikki’s colleagues know of her collection (well, at least until today). But occasionally, it will come up at the office and catch a co-worker by surprise.

“‘You collect what?’ There’s always a lot of giggling and looking down and explaining the history of it,” Nikki said. “Another person thinking I’m insane.”

Yet those co-workers often bring back a pair of wrappers the next time nature calls.

“You kind of feel like you’re doing something covert,” Nikki said.

Blue Water. Skyline. Snow Lily. Roses.

From London and Dubai, from road trips far and near, the Domanuses find new brands all the time. There’s even two-ply from the U.S. Capitol in their collection: Pillow Soft.

“Nobody would ever consider collecting this sort of thing,” Carrie said. “It’s kind of embarrassing to admit, but I can’t help it. It’s just too funny.”

Both were art majors in college, and have enjoyed the logos as well, though they note that some manufacturers are cheapening the wrappers, going from 3-color to 2-color to 1-color printing.

Maverick. Petalo. Perfect Platinum (that one sounds a little uncomfortable).

“It makes going to the bathroom,” Carrie said, “a little more exciting.”

— Patrick Kampert

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