Like so many of us can do with items in our collection, I remembered exactly where and when and how much I spent with Dr. Nostalgia when I learned he passed away Dec. 7 (see page 45 of the Dec. 29 edition and online, temporarily, for more about his fascinating life). It was Robert “Bob” D. Gardner, aka Dr. Nostalgia, who launched me on one of my favorite collections and in a totally unexpected way.
For decades, Bob was known up and down the Eastern seaboard as Dr. Nostalgia, issuing prescriptions to addicted collectors at fine antiques and funky collectibles shows.
We first crossed paths during the 2006 Baltimore Summer Antiques Show. I was promoting the former Atlantique City Show and spent that Labor Day weekend recruiting dealers. The show was spectacular and shared significant crossover with our “high ticket” dealers. After two days of shaking hands, collecting contracts and passing out free passes, my eyes were beginning to glaze over from aisles of iridescence, ormolu and patinated bronze. I turned a corner, deep in the back section of the show and there was Dr. Nostalgia, happily chatting away with Nurse Leah Belle, his wife. I couldn’t get through my introduction before my eye caught a colorful dome in the back of his booth.
It stood out as much for its novelty as the fact that it didn’t look like anything else in the show. Resting on a top shelf was an old gray fedora with its brim neatly trimmed in a zigzag pattern. The hat was covered with dozens of celluloid gumball prizes, Cracker Jack charms, toys and odd bits and pieces.
Dr. Nostalgia knew he had a customer. He took the hat down and explained the lore behind the beanie: how poor boys and girls of the 1930s and early 1940s would salvage the usable part of their dad’s old fedora hats and then cover them with whatever small collection they could muster around their modest neighborhoods. It was as though I had found something I always regretted losing as a kid.
He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “There’s a connection here,” and he offered me a deep discount on the price before I had the chance to ask. I stayed in their booth for some time and learned all I could about 1930s and 40s home front collectibles and their large postcard inventory.
Bob and Leah Belle were scaling back the number of shows they exhibited at, but our paths crossed again two years later at Joyce Heilman’s excellent Great Eastern paper show in Allentown, Pa. To my surprise, both Bob and Leah Belle not only remembered me but also asked if I kept the beanie.
I don’t talk about the collection much because, frankly, I’m still a little embarrassed to be so excited about something so juvenile. But Bob and Leah Belle made it ok to collect them and loved hearing the stories behind each one I added to the family. I now have 10 of these great pieces of Americana folk art in my collection and they have brought me countless hours of joy, research and excitement. The collection has instilled a connection to others in the hobby, too (Ted Hake once sent me a beanie in thanks for a cover story on his 200th milestone auction) … and it was all thanks to Bob.
Rest in peace, Dr. Nostalgia.
Thanks for the prescription.
- To send a condolence to the family via the Whitten Funeral Home.
- Dr. Nostalgia’s homepage still has a large inventory for sale.
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