Katy Dycus dusts down the clutter, delves into the psychology of collecting, and learns that there is a fine line between a casual hobby and the world of obsession.
The landscape is fast and dramatic, with surfaces eroded by sweaty palms and hot breath. Entering the shop is like discovering your grandmother’s attic, suddenly open for your perusal. Without words, the objects tells the story of collecting. Stop by and see for yourself, but if you suffer from asthma, remember to bring your inhaler. Dust coats the items of dubious antiquity. You’ll cough once or twice and start sneezing in triplets, but your child-like sense of wonder and amazement will awaken at every turn.
After a couple of visits to Relics, a hidden gem tucked down Ruthven Lane off Byres Road, my curiosity led me to the owner. “I’m Steven Currie,” he replied, shielded by a towering old lamp, dating from the sixties. I instantly linked him with Oldbuck, The Antiquary’s protagonist of Walter Scott’s The Antiquary —amateur historian and collector—who is forever looking for treasure in hidden ruins. The shop is covered in treasures of the past—mainly classic sixties items and things of Scandinavian origin—with “organization” an irrelevant and useless term. “The business started because I collected things,” he said. “The store is perfect for other collectors, with the same customers trailing in every week, in search of items to add to ever-expanding collections. While I speak with Mr. Currie, a middle-aged man purchases an old military badge, which has lost its sheen but certainly not its dignity. He leaves looking rather proud of himself.
Mary Duenwald, in an article entitled ‘The Psychology of…Hoarding’, explains: “The instinct to hoard offers clear evolutionary advantages elsewhere in the animal kingdom. The Arctic gray jay gathers berries, insects, and spiders to endure the long, dark winters. But humans appear to be the only species that takes hoarding to pathological excess.”
Mr. Currie explains that every artifact of old has history and that may be why people are so attracted to seemingly innocuous items. “It’s had a previous life at another time,” he adds. “And that’s the romance of it: you must use your imagination.”
While we chat, Flash the cat roams in and perches on top of a pile of books. People may feel at home here but I get the feeling she is the real
master of this cluttered domain. “I try to do a real variety across the board, but I’m really interested in—it sounds pretentious but—postwar British social history,” he manages to unhinge the words at the tip of his tongue. “Snap-shots that capture the essence of the time.”
Yes, Relics is cluttered, but it is a business, and not the result of obsessive hoarding. Paddy O’Donnell, Professor of Psychology at the University of Glasgow, says that hoarding presents the excessive version of what is a normal human activity. “Collecting is an expression of the human capacity to categorize objects, to fit things into useful and functional categories,” he explains. “The tendency originates in middle childhood, when race cars and stuffed toys line the perimeters of children’s bedrooms. At this stage, collecting is endearing, but when the habit reaches far into adulthood in consuming degrees, it can turn into an obsession.”
Professor O’Donnell concedes that collecting can take on a darker side: “Categorizing becomes an escape from other anxieties. It’s soothing and reassuring, but it can become an escape from life itself.” He adds, “we can also develop emotional attachments to these items” and such attachments make giving up items a highly stressful and emotional ordeal, almost equal to giving a child for adoption or experiencing bereavement.
While psychology highlights the potential disorders of overzealous collectors, many people find that collecting offers healthy and rewarding benefits. Admit it, we are all collectors to an extent—it’s built into our genetic code. Isn’t it?
Nick Mitchell, a post graduate student studying Philosophy, would seem to be a case in point. Since the age of 12 he has been faithfully collecting Games Workshops Miniatures: “It’s like if Dungeons and Dragons and RISK became one game” he explains as he grins at his fiancé, Tovah Ross, another avid collector and post grad in Archaeology. “I have upwards of 500 figures—potentially more than that. Thousands of pounds worth of plastic men. I had more toys than anyone else as a kid” he continues, with a beaming smile. “Way too many toys! But my father collects sports memorabilia—actually he collects everything. Maybe it’s hereditary.”
Tovah, sitting across from Nick, collecting her thoughts before cutting in: “I cleaned his room one time, and it was like pulling teeth getting him to get rid of any of it though I must admit I do have 102 DVDs here,” adds the New Jersey native. “But that doesn’t include television series. My parents have over 500—it’s like living in Blockbuster.” It must run in the family!
All collectors value their items as treasures, whether they are out-of-tune banjos hanging upside down in a musty antique shop, or plastic figurines, or worn handbags. Isn’t it important to have something you can call your own? To be able to connect with others who collect similar items? Own it, enthuse over it, but remember Professor O’Donnell’s warning. If it’s going to be an obsession, make sure it’s a healthy one.