The Archives of Obsession

(This “Walking Woodstock” column appeared in the June 23, 2011 Woodstock Times.)

No. No thanks. Not on your life. Those are the range of my responses to flea markets, antique shops, yard sales, and other junk meccas where others actually enjoy browsing through odds and ends, sometimes with serious intent. As an escapee from a family of pack rats, I have an aversion to stuff. It was my mother who crowded our house with inherited furnishings from her family’s mansion, including a grandfather clock, brass coal buckets for the fireplace, and more stiff-backed dining room chairs than we ever had guests. After she died, my father and brother really let things get out of hand, as magazines piled up on every other table, chair, and footstool. The bookcases filled to resemble overcrowded prison cells with volumes laid sideways across the tops of volumes already double shelved. Once, venturing into my father’s bedroom, I glanced into one of the shopping bags on the floor and thought, “Oh,” as I recognized the books, “those were my gifts to him two Christmases ago.” So, no, I like open floors and lean furnishings. I limit my memorabilia to scrapbooks and a few shopping bags at the back of the closet for such things as a bear skull from Alaska. My only collectible is an 1842 leather-bound copy of The Poets and Poetry of America. Not that I’m fond of rhyming poems by dozens of figures long forgotten. But the editor, Rufus W. Griswold, was an ancestor of mine. The frisson I felt upon holding this physical link to the poetic genes in my past made the $75 price seem but a pittance.

Enter Eric Caren: my antithesis. Michael Perkins and I met him last summer at Mower’s Market—where else—on a Saturday that we spent hawking our book, Walking Woodstock. An almost boyish man in his early fifties, Eric could have been one of dozens of people schlepping in and out of the flea market to check out LPs, lampshades, or whatever, but he wasn’t. As we’d later learn, his Caren Archives of old newspapers, broadsheets, and other paper items of historical interest is the largest collection of its kind in the United States with one million items. An earlier assembly of some 30,000 items was spun off to establish the permanent collection of the Newseum near the mall in Washington D.C. That frisson I felt at holding my ancestor’s book? Eric’s goal has been nothing less than to own a piece of paper related to every major historical event of the past 500 years. The man must be buzzing.

He caught his obsession at age eleven when he carried home pounds of old newspapers, yellowed and flaking apart, from an abandoned house in hopes of finding articles about his hero, Babe Ruth. (The papers proved to be a little too old: 1913.) Within a few years, he’d persuaded his father to drive the family station wagon down to the Philadelphia library to pick up 8,000 old papers the institution was disposing of to make way for microfiche. The $1-a-week allowance that he spent at flea markets and fairs proved to be the seed money for what has grown into a significant business. At auctions his rare pieces might sell for $100,000 to $150,000. At the popular level, he runs a publishing company that has produced upwards of 100 titles reprinting old articles from The New York Times and elsewhere about historic events, including one done for the fortieth anniversary of the Woodstock Festival, an item you might just find at Mower’s Market.

Michael admired Eric as that rare individual who has pursed his own fascinations to achieve remarkable success in a society in which so many of us trim our quirks and passions in order to be good team players. Well rounded. Works well with others. Privately mournful of our lost eleven year olds. Not Eric. Several vintage photos of Babe Ruth hang in his basement. His obsession is his career is his passion. (The key to becoming a great collector? Two bad parents, he said with his self-deprecating sense of humor. Oddly enough, I’d recently read a memoir making the same claim for poets. It makes you wonder what good parents are good for.) Michael, always on the lookout for interesting people, invited Eric to speak at the Woodstock Library Forum, which he did this past spring. Afterwards, Eric reciprocated by inviting us to visit his property. On a drizzly morning in the week after the forest erupted with spring greenery we arrived.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But I needn’t have worried. Eric wasn’t a hoarder. Just the opposite. The airy white living room of his modern house was immaculate. Shoes off by the door, please. When Eric returned moments later from walking his young husky recently adopted from a shelter, he wiped the dog’s four paws with a paper towel before letting him loose on the white carpet. Then Eric ushered us in to show us a small stack of Woodstock materials in protective plastic covers placed out on a credenza. There was an inscribed copy of Hervey White’s self-published poem, The Adventures of Young Maverick. And the two issues of Hue and Cry, a literary journal produced in 1925 and 1926, which included a poem by young Hart Crane, a shared interest of Michael’s of mine. In Alf Evers’s history of Woodstock these publications had sounded mildly interesting but definitely dated. As actual books and journals lying before me they had much more allure. The art deco purple cover of Hue and Cry called out to me to be opened to read what it was like to be young, witty, and forward looking in 1925. These objects weren’t historical artifacts, I realized. They were time machines. No wonder people treasure them.

Eric and his wife bought this house about three years ago as a getaway from their primary residence in Westchester. But don’t call him a weekender. Woodstock has captured his soul. When the time comes, he hopes to die here. Since arriving, he has collected Woodstock materials from both the arts colony and the music festival. Downstairs in his billiards room he showed us some rare Sixties posters framed on the walls. Also, behind the bar a small piece of old paper from the early 1700s that was one of the first bar permits ever issued in America. The history that he collects comes in all shapes and sizes.

Then we put on our shoes to go out for a walk. Finding their Westchester house had taken Eric and his wife two years. Woodstock had taken a day. What sold Eric wasn’t the house itself, nice as it was, but what he now showed us no more than thirty yards from the front lawn under the shady canopy of hemlock trees, a surprisingly deep and dramatic stream gorge cut down from the brown duff of the forest floor. A private canyon in miniature of gray bedrock jutting and slabbing from the sides, then cushioned with green moss, an emerald fairy tale. There was even a small cave at the bottom.

Have you seen anything like this in Woodstock? Eric asked, clearly enamored with his magical spot. Now I knew why he’d invited us. He wanted the confirmation of experts, the authors of Walking Woodstock. No, said Michael. And I was hard pressed to think of another spot like like it, though I did recall Sloan Gorge at which the geologist Bob Titus had explained that the gorge hadn’t been cut by the trickling stream that exists today, but by the raging torrents that poured off the glaciers of the last Ice Age.

This was where he came to get away from it all, Eric added. This was his land of destressing. The green moss called to him with a force as powerful as old newspapers. He led us upstream a short distance and then off into the woods to see the rock rubble heaps and pools left by an old quarry. I realized that for Eric his own 26 acres was his version of Walking Woodstock, enough wild land to carry his mind far from his worries. And many homeowners in town must share his experience, finding the beauty and solitude they need in the woods past their own lawn. To find peace in the forest doesn’t require miles of trails.

Yet I’ll confess that my mind was back upstairs in his office loft space, where we’d admired more of his Woodstock collection along with such items as a framed broadside from the 1600s and an announcement of Martin Luther’s funeral. One item had tugged at the corner of my attention from his desk. The Woodstock history was all fine and dandy—the hippie dollar bill mocking federal currency, the undated green library fair poster that Michael guessed to be from the 1950s—but the shiny white Jets football helmet was what I wanted to hear about. Among the magic markered signatures was Joe Namath’s. I knew what this helmet had to be, and what Eric now confirmed that it was, a memento of the 1969 Super Bowl team. Then in my early teens I’d considered that victory one of the great moments in history. Still do. Eric, too, apparently. For Jets fans like us, football has been a sorry story ever since. I wondered, but didn’t ask how much that helmet might cost. Was I catching the bug? One thing I was sure of: this guy knew how to live.

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