SAN ANSELMO, Calif. — Here in the heart of Marin County, where old money rubs shoulders with yuppiedom, there is a yellow frame house that contains an extraordinary assortment of paper collectibles.
"When you see all this, you'll see I'm a crazy woman," says Ada Fitzsimmons, who runs what's appropriately called the Paper Pile a block off this hamlet's main street.
Ada and her husband, Warren, have jammed into the cozy basement of their two-story home enough nostalgia to bring tears to even the most jaded collector's eyes. There are boxes, cabinets and dresser drawers spilling over with decades-old newspapers, magazines, photos, posters, post cards, labels, sheet music, menus, maps, advertising throw-aways, greeting cards, blotters and more--much more.
"And I'm the one person I know who never had a doll," laughs the effervescent Fitzsimmons, a 57-year-old refugee from Appalachia's poverty pockets.
"I was one of 10 kids," she relates. "My father was a coal miner."
Fitzsimmons, a high school history teacher, and her husband moved here in 1967 from Los Angeles (where she attended UCLA and taught in the Los Angeles school system), and they bought the old house on Woodland Avenue about eight years later. It wasn't long before her insatiable interest in collecting began overtaking her, and the small basement soon overflowed with history.
Actually, Fitzsimmons recalls, it was a rare-book dealer from Chicago who got her seriously interested in collectibles. And, once she caught the collecting fever, she soon discovered that one of the most efficient methods of quickly building an inventory was to purchase collectible lots from dealers and wholesalers.
"I was an impulsive, addicted buyer for a while, spending all the money I was making as a teacher and beyond," she said.
"Finally," husband Warren says, "I told her, 'You're no longer a collector, you're a business.' "
From time to time, the Paper Pile has been open to the public, but in recent years visitors usually have been allowed in only by appointment. Almost all of Fitzsimmons' business is conducted now by mail and through advertising in trade journals and San Francisco Bay Area telephone books.
Between teaching and running her collectible business, she also finds time to publish a tastefully illustrated quarterly newsletter, appropriately called the Paper Pile Quarterly. The publication contains samples of her enormous inventory and articles giving the collector some history (after all, she teaches the subject) on paper collectibles.
The January issue, for example, has a piece on bicycle advertising. Fitzsimmons writes: "During the 1890s, the American bicycle craze was in full swing . . . . As a result of this craze, there was a thriving advertising industry busily engaged in popularizing the bicycle. The results of those efforts are a large body of very beautiful advertising art of that period: posters, trade cards, catalogues, post cards and newspaper and magazine ads."
You get the idea: Squeeze out more basement space for bicycle collectibles.
Nostalgia generates the fuel that keeps her business perking along, Fitzsimmons is quick to say, while showing off a post card collection that numbers about half a million pieces and that reflects beautiful artwork and photographs from a number of countries.
"Nostalgia, it reminds people of happier times," she says.
Recently, her post card collection has become a major part of the Paper Pile's business, she says. "We probably sell more post cards than anything else. In the past five years (the business) has grown tremendously. There's a great deal of interest in post cards."
But there are other prizes in that cramped basement! A Nov. 23, 1936, Vol. 1, No. 1 Life magazine with the famous Margaret Bourke-White photo of a Montana dam is priced at $100. An Oct. 4, 1948, Time magazine issue with the New York Yankees' immortal Joe DiMaggio on the cover was sold for $10. Down another aisle is a cache "I can't buy anything else," Fitzsimmons quipped while leading her visitor toward a stack of old maps. "There's no place to put anything."
What was her biggest purchase? Several years ago, she bought from a dealer the Philadelphia public library's entire inventory of 15,000 geodetic and survey maps.
Her most valuable item may be a military map, hand-colored in 1648, of the Basque region of Spain and France, carrying a $400 price tag.
What areas constitute the cutting edge of paper collectibles that collectors will be coveting half a century from now? Posters advertising the California lottery are worth saving, she says. And, she adds, advertising touting video cassettes are colorful and highly collectible, much akin to film posters of another era.
Fitzsimmons can be reached at Box 337, San Anselmo, Calif. 94960. A year's subscription to the Paper Pile Quarterly is $7.50.