Thomas Olmsted owns collections of coffee cans, Duke Ellington records, asparagus-related things, left-handed tools, measuring sticks, model steam traction engines and plastic toy trucks. Also, banana labels.
Olmsted once tried to list every collection to his name, but gave up after number 100.
The banana labels have made it into his Top 13, the collections that interest him the most.
“When they come out with a new label, there are 20 or 50 variations of it,” said the 82-year-old. “It’s just hard to stop. I’ll be doing it on the last day I’m alive.”
A year ago, Olmsted sat behind a plastic folding table at Collectors Day at the Florida Museum of Natural History. Extravagant collectors lined the walls of the conference room, displaying their potato mashers, their pop-up books, their Olympic memorabilia. Olmsted’s layout of laminated photographs sat atop a red tablecloth.
There were about 50 photographs in all. Each depicted its own unique collection, spanning decades, every one as fleshed out as any collection that had been brought that day.
Olmsted has over 100 collections in his possession, has been growing his beard out for 51 years and once spent over two years driving around the country in a pickup truck. He looks like a man you’d almost expect to have done these things.
His apartment isn’t the biggest, and the bookcases that line every wall make it feel smaller. Every piece of furniture sits burdened with boxes, some labeled, some with too many magazines draped over them to tell. He uses one burner on his stove to cook and the other three for storage.
He spends eight to 10 hours a day sitting in a chair, reading and eating meals off of a wooden tray. In a reachable radius around him are the 10 to 15 books he’s working through at that time, three of which include a volume of New Yorker cartoons, a biography of the Shah of Iran, and the “Cultural Encyclopedia of the Breast.”
Collecting took hold of Olmsted at an early age in his small hometown of Coldwater, Michigan. His family’s house was massive and unheated, not ideal for Midwestern winters. On weekday mornings, he would dart through his neighbor’s backlots to get to his elementary school. Even as a child, he collected at an alarming rate. He amassed himself a fleet of 150 toy army trucks, hundreds of marbles and thousands of matchbook covers. Collecting was his default setting.
Olmsted retired in 2000 and then took two years to drive around the country and three provinces in Canada in his pickup truck. He filled it with 60 days’ worth of clean clothes and enough alcohol to get him to the next winery. He brought along a list of landmarks he had never seen and relatives and friends he hadn’t visited in a while. Off he went, returning to Gainesville a couple of times in that span for holidays.
The short list of potential stops grew in size as time went on to include prominent factory tours, including Hershey’s, Levi’s and Ben & Jerry’s.
“Almost every factory tour was wonderful, interesting,” he said. “Surprisingly, Ben & Jerry’s is at the bottom of the list.”
Each state on the list had its own sheet of paper, and when he pulled up to a new state line, he’d flip to the appropriate page and decide from there where he would be off to next.
He spent one month camping in Paynes Prairie in Gainesville and three nights at the Grand Canyon, including one at the very bottom. He completed 90% of his bucket list before running out of money, which was enough for him.
Olmsted’s curious life has inspired several people to present collections of their own at Collectors Day, and he’s made friends along the way. One of those is Thomas Southall, an art historian and a curator of photography. The two Thomases met in 2007 through a mutual friend and built their relationship around a shared love of collecting. The pair had weekly conversations over coffee about collecting, art, history and life. That’s over for now.
The pandemic has kept the two friends apart for a greater part of the past year. Southall’s last in-person interaction with Olmsted came at the beginning of the pandemic, when he helped figure out ways to get food and supplies to Olmsted’s apartment.
For Southall, the pull of collecting is about the desire for control, for creating order out of the massiveness of life.
“We can’t understand the whole world, but we can understand this corner of the world a little bit better,” he said.
His collections are nothing close to what Olmsted has. Collectors often collect for sentimental or financial reasons, but Southall is unsure about what drives Olmsted.
“For the most part, the motivation is not obvious,” he said. “It’s more abstract and intellectual.”
Lately, the hobby that’s shaped much of Olmsted’s life has become harder to maintain.
Space is a big problem. Two decades ago, Olmsted moved from a 1,000 square foot apartment to a 600-square foot one, and has been siphoning off items ever since. He sold some; donated some. He’s whittled his 12,000 books down to a clean 5,000 by selling several for as much as $350 and donating the rest to libraries.
He also believes downsizing his collections in this way will make them less of a hassle to deal with after he’s gone.
His health is a consideration as well. Olmsted fainted on his way to his last Collectors Day. After getting off the city bus, he began his walk to the museum in the middle of a large crowd all headed the same direction. He woke up to 10 faces looking down at him. He managed to get back up on his feet, and continued to the museum, where he was talked into calling 911. An ambulance came, and he was examined.
“Lot of questions those folks have,” he said.
After the event, he felt faint again and had a friend drive him to the emergency room. He spent three nights in the hospital with no clear diagnosis.
COVID-19 has kept Olmsted confined to his apartment, and opportunities to collect have been hard to come by. Still, the pull of collecting remains.
Olmsted has been to 37 out of 41 Collectors Days. For several years now, he’s committed himself to not exhibiting, only to call up the event-runner, Tiffany Ireland, at the last minute to see if he can get a table. In addition to his collection of pictures of his collections, he is now collecting books on different collectors’ collections. It’s difficult to stop.
“I’m trying to reduce the thing,” he said of his inventory. “But it’s sort of like it’s everywhere in my life.”
In the fall, he got hold of a new banana label off of a bunch that had been delivered to him. He had stopped collecting banana labels four years ago because of a lack of space. But the pattern on this one was different. He just had to have it.
Now he has to figure out where to put it.