The Ephemera Archive for American Studies

Yesterday, right at the end of my long walk, I chanced on this man, who was taking his recycling out to the curb.   I crossed over and said hello, and learned that yes, he is the tenant in the storefront there.

That storefront has been hard to keep full. It was a Jamaican vegan restaurant when we first got here, but that closed before we ever tried it. Then it was a candy store where you reach into jars and fill up candy to be sold by the pound. Given my estimate of the population who are more or less constantly stoned– and more so in that particular neighborhood — I thought that business might work well. After not very many months, they added a Thai restaurant, where we ate once and it was good, but then the whole venture collapsed.

More recently, however, the windows have been filling up with stuff. And not just stuff, but interesting stuff.

Mr. Kit Barry was more than happy to indulge my curiosity. “Window Theater,” he explained. “First time anybody’s seen such a thing in America.” It was cold, I was tired, and the conversation moved quickly, so I did not ask him to elaborate as to whether that meant that such a thing happened in other countries.

This window, then, isn’t just an assortment of stuff. The Elvis lamp, well, it represents Elvis, looking vapidly and emptily past the dinosaur, his dedicated fan. The King’s tragic career is represented by the tapes, moving right to left from his innate genius and early success through a period of greater and greater mismanagement and corruption. See the marbles being lost? Finally, the whole thing unravels (get it?), and the scary Halloween skull tells us what happened next. But wait! look up! The blissful optimism of the human spirit watches over all and gives us hope.

On the basis of my expression of interest, Mr. Barry invited me in for an introduction to the mind, the context behind this and the other windows that are visible from the street. It turns out that he’s been collecting ephemera since his teenage years. And I even got a good definition of ephemera, a word I mostly hear on Antiques Roadshow (which program Mr. Barry disdains). Ephemera is printed material specifically designed to be used for a defined and relatively limited period of time and then thrown away. Advertising, posters and fliers, tickets, newspapers, and so on. Magazines and catalogs and phone books.

He’s got hundreds of thousands of pieces of paper in there, mostly from the 19th century, all (or at least mostly) neatly cataloged and arranged in 3-ring binders. Is it the largest collection of such objects outside the Smithsonian as he claims? Hard to know for sure, but why not?

Fascinating and overwhelming, both for him and for any visitor. He’s always on the lookout for visitors to share the collection with, and even willing to entertain the idea of volunteers to help manage it. He’s not much computerized… that would be quite a web site!

We only spent about 15 or 20 minutes together, as I was eager to get home to a nice hot tub and a nice cold beer. However, I hope I’ll have the chance to talk with Kit Barry again. He is another of those unexpected and uncategorizable souls that seem to be overexpressed around Brattleboro. One thing he said particularly resonated with me: most of what we learn in school these days is designed to provide answers, but the Ephemera Archive is all about supplying questions.

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