SAN DIEGO — Keith Kaonis just loves collecting.
He has a houseful of toys, dolls, trains--artifacts from a distant past, symbols of a time gone by. They are worth thousands of dollars, he said, and yet for most he will name no value. They are, to use a cliche worn like armor among collectors, as "priceless" as a rare Gauguin.
An old Coca-Cola bottle? A Dr Pepper clock? A swiveled barber chair? As priceless as an autographed Klee?
Beauty in collecting is, after all, pocketbook deep--totally in the eye of whatever beholder happens to covet what you happen to own.
Collectibles are not just Kaonis' avocation, they are his vocation as well. He has taken a passion for storing nostalgia and turned it into a business--not just collecting but publishing a magazine as well.
Collectors' Showcase is a 4-year-old twice-monthly publication, with a base in Point Loma. Funny thing is, Kaonis said, San Diego is one of America's least intense collecting havens. And compared to such giants as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, it's offered the magazine an almost-icy reception.
"The most excitement has been beyond the city limits," he said, sipping a cup of coffee in an oak-paneled office full of dashing memorabilia. An aggressive terrier named Strudel nipped at his heels as he talked about a hobby that quietly became a habit.
"It's just a blase city, I guess. L.A. offers a more diverse group of people--that's at least true among serious collectors. L.A. and New York are real Meccas of collecting--they, without a doubt, are perennial No. 1's. But anywhere back East is gonna offer more than the West--it's older for one. More people have more things to sell."
Nevertheless, San Diego has numerous doll collectors, Kaonis said, as well as dozens of doll clubs. San Diego carries itself well, he said, among the estimated 24,000 doll collectors nationwide. Los Angeles is a center for toys, especially those of the cartoon variety.
"Must be the proximity to Disneyland," he said.
Whatever the item, Kaonis notes that the New York Times recently reported there are about 16 million collectors in the United States, and millions more internationally.
"Many people are just naturally eclectic," he said. "Some save newspapers and matchsticks. Others save swizzle sticks. Toys are certainly a charming art form, and they just don't make 'em like they used to. I know it's a quip, but it's true.
"They used to be made with a real eye to quality. But a lot of them were dangerous. I know of this airplane toy, a big old thang, where two planes come whistling around a tower. A lot of kids could get hurt from something like that. And did . You wouldn't find it in today's marketplace."
Subscribers in 50 States
What you will find in the marketplace of collecting is Kaonis' magazine. It's distributed in bookstores nationwide and mailed to subscribers in 50 states. It goes to 15 foreign lands, with a readership he reported at 30,000-plus.
By area, the biggest bastions of collecting are California, New England and, Kaonis said, Pennsylvania. Though no city stands out, Pennsylvania is apparently to collecting what the Romans were to imperialism. Or gerrymandering.
OK, so it's a wonderful hobby. It's taken Pennsylvania-like fallout from Three Mile Island. But why a magazine solely on collecting? Aren't the nation's magazine racks already littered with one too many arcane and esoteric specialties?
"We deal mainly in rare collectibles," he said. "We target antique toys and advertising pieces--you know, old Coca-Cola signs, that sort of thing. That stuff is really big. Anything by Coke is big.
"Did you know Nabisco maintains an archive of old paintings, like the ones it used in advertising Cream of Wheat? Many of those were by N. C. Wyeth. I don't know if you saw the work he did on exhibit at 'The Cowboy' show in Balboa Park. Easily the best thing there. Thousands of people across the country have his works, just from owning old cereal cartons."
Worth Tons of Money
Scores of those are worth tons of money, provided, Kaonis said, their condition is good. Condition is a watchword among serious collectors. An item that may appear "priceless" to you won't be worth a dime, he said, unless its condition is "mint."
"On the other hand," countered Kaonis' wife and co-publisher, Donna Kaonis, "if something is real rare . . . condition might not matter. It depends on the buyer. Some are willing to pay anything for the right item, regardless of condition. Others buy only the best."
The Kaonises know people who have compromised their standards of living to remain in the hunt as serious "collectivists." He estimates that an "average" reader of Collectors' Showcase spends $3,000 to $10,000 a year on collecting alone. Its readership is affluent, he said, adding that anyone interested had better be--it's no hobby for a dilettante with an anorexic pocketbook.