What’s so beautiful about rusty beer cans, old bar signs and GetSmart lunchboxes? Ask these three, if you dare.
Brian Brown’s beer-can collection isn’t what it once was. It’s been whittled down to a handful of keepers. There’s a Sierra cone top, which echoes in miniature the silhouette of Lassen Peak, visible on clear days from Brown’s backyard in Yuba City. There’s a mint-condition Acme, a deceptively generic name for a can worth upwards of $200. And, of course, an Old Frisco flat top, a sentimental favorite. It was the find that started the former UC Davis student down the collecting road, a trip that began 35 years ago in the tetanus-daubed roadside dumps of Northern California, wound through yard sales and farm sheds, and ended … well, it hasn’t yet.
Brown flips open his scrapbook, a blue binder filled with old photos, beer-can price sheets and printouts of eBay listings slotted carefully into plastic sheet protectors. He thumbs back to the one he’s looking for, a listing for a 1937 Clipper Pale Ale can. He steps back, waits for the final sale price to come into focus and sink in: $19,299.99. It wasn’t his sale, but there’s a vicarious pride in his face, and maybe a little jealousy. He wishes he’d been the one to find it, but he doesn’t hold grudges. He gives the seller his due and moves on.
Brown’s not sure who the seller was, or the buyer, but he’s probably met them both somewhere along the line. He knows most of the collectors, at least the old-timers. The can is the reigning prize in a long line of minor grails, but like most collectors and gamblers, Brown believes the one that will top it is still out there somewhere. Waiting for him. Or for Jim Pfaff, Brown’s doppelganger 100 miles to the south.
They are collectors, but their collections are temporary edifices in constant flux, a mix of sentimental relics from their early days and newer items that, for whatever reason, caught their eye. Stacked on tables and workbenches are the items-in-transit, the eclectic inventory of the moment.
Collecting moves in trends, and collectors often seem guided by herd instincts. Brown and Pfaff try to stay ahead of the curve, anticipating what forgotten items will become indispensable next. Beer cans, lunchboxes, old speakers, bar signs, each has had its day. Very little is uncollectible. You name it, someone somewhere collects it. And if they do, Brian and Jim will find them.
The Clipper Pale Ale can is a kind of high-water line, a ledge from which they can look down on their beginnings as students at UCD in the early ‘70s. Their hunt began, as many college pursuits do, aimlessly, in the simple hunger for a drive, the need to get out of town.
Along with Scott Hamrick, who in temperament and appearance resembles Jerry Garcia in his later years, they wandered west into the hills around Lake Berryessa, up the Capay Valley into Lake County, and east along the rumpled skirt of the Mother Lode. Looking for rust, as they called it. The brown iceberg tip that marked the vein underneath.
Old dump sites were abundant in the foothills, residue from the days before mass landfills, when people dumped their garbage into the nearest ravine and waited for nature to cover it up. A patina of rust betrayed their locations, and that dull orange semaphore would pull the three out of their car and down the slope like a magnet.
The best cans were at the center of the piles, where the outer layers shielded them from the elements. Even these, on first glance, appeared hopelessly decayed. A less practiced scrounger would have passed them by, kicked through the slough disconsolately, and hiked back up to his car. But the three nascent collectors saw beneath the dirt and rust. They set promising candidates gently into plastic collecting bags, strapped the bags to a jerry-rigged rack on the roof of Pfaff’s Volkswagen and coasted back down into the Valley.
In the backyard of Hamrick’s house, they wiped the cans down carefully, removing the accumulated grime like archaeologists. When confronted with a more stubborn layer of rust, they soaked the cans overnight in a Styrofoam ice chest filled with a dilute oxalic acid solution. When they lifted the lid the following morning, the cans winked up at them, their original paint intact and gleaming.
Leading up to this methodical near science, of course, was a slow, dim path through road trips and hangovers, a far from certain climb to their particular, peculiar epiphany: the day they turned a primal instinct of beer drinkers—the compulsion to throw empty cans away—on its head and established themselves on the receiving end.
It began, the three generally agree, with Pfaff’s introduction to Warren Hardaker, a serious collector whose house in Davis was fitted with pine shelves displaying more than 1,000 beer cans from across the country. The majority of the cans had been acquired through “dumping,” the practice of roadside scrounging at which Pfaff and his friends would later become expert. Pfaff at the time had a dozen Maier Brewing cans, bargain-basement California beers like Bohemian, Royal Crown, Brew 102 and Regal Select. Hardaker’s collection impressed him, and twinged a shallowly buried competitive streak.
Pfaff launched his first dumping expedition the next day, to a roadside dump outside Winters. He came back with 50 unique cans, a case of poison oak and a habit.
As he soon found out, he wasn’t alone. Hardaker belonged to a happily obscure club known as the BCCA, the Beer Can Collectors of America. It has since upscaled its name to the Brewery Collectibles Club of America, but at the time it was a scraggly confederacy of people like Brown and Pfaff, forward-looking beer drinkers with a nostalgic bent and expendable time. Their annual get-together, the BCCA Western States Canvention, in Las Vegas, was coming up, and Hardaker was planning on attending.
By then, Brown and Pfaff had amassed two or three crates full of beer cans in varying condition. Hardaker took the cans to Vegas with him, traded them for other cans, and brought back a handful of Canvention souvenirs. He also brought back the BCCA trading list, which showed the prices collectors were willing to pay for specific cans. On the list, Brown and Pfaff found the Golden Gate cans they’d given him, and the names of collectors from the East Coast who were willing to pay $10 apiece for them.
Eastern collectors, it turned out, faced the same obstacles that car owners there did: snow, salt and rust. The combination ate away at cans far more quickly than the kinder climate of Northern California. Cans in even moderately good condition were in high demand. The ripe market opened up before Pfaff and Brown like James Marshall’s tailrace, and the next year they loaded up their budding collection and drove to Las Vegas themselves.
The first Canventions were something like episodes of Antiques Roadshow hosted by Foster Brooks. Traders from around the country came to Las Vegas to swap cans and empty new ones in a meeting of like minds. They gathered in the casino hallways, half-lit, discussing the intricacies of the beer-can grading system. Downstairs, Brown, Pfaff and Hamrick hit the tables.
The BCCA was a gentlemanly club, if not precisely sober. Only trading was allowed at its sanctioned events; cash transactions were forbidden. But they hadn’t yet met the Norcal Beer Can Excavators. With the addition of Hamrick, the group had taken on the name to distinguish themselves from less organized traders. They shared common traits, too, including a habit of seeing provisions like the BCCA no-cash rule as a challenge, more a suggestion than a law.
To be specific, the rule forbade cash transactions on the floor of the convention. So the Norcal Beer Can Excavators set up a table in the hallway.
They quickly discovered a network of collectors who would pay real money for their cans. Northern California was a thinly represented region with a fairly diverse spread of labels, and in beer-can collecting, as in all collecting, specialization is the key.
The Norcal Beer Can Excavators soon became experts in the truncated histories of a string of Northern California beers that blossomed briefly in the ‘40s and ‘50s, then died. They began printing up their own newsletter and assembling a mailing list of known buyers. Business boomed and their collections swelled.
Brown holds up a handwritten, foggy copy of the Norcal Groundhog Day Edition Beer Can List. Brand names scraggle down the left side of the page opposite their going prices. A groundhog, drawn by Hamrick and resembling a mildly bubonic rat, gazes across the page toward a lopsided soccer ball.
“We sold them as fast as we could dig them up,” Brown says.
The digging remains his favorite part of the trade. Retracing Norcal’s trail, he pauses over photos of roadside campsites and piles of rusty cans, taking his time, drawing out details of old dump sites and back roads like Huell Howser after a couple of bong hits.
He holds up a picture of the Norcal trio posing beside a fire ring with two tag-alongs from Southern California.
“That trip didn’t work out too well,” he says. “It was a one-way mutual exchange.”
He squints down into photos of prime finds. The Old Frisco dump in Forbestown, their first big score, where they unearthed nearly 1,000 rare Old Frisco cans then flooded the market incrementally. Hinting at a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, they sold the first batch for $15 apiece. A few months later, they dropped the price to $10. When the selling price hit $5, nearly every collector owned at least one and the previously coveted cans were as common as Budweisers. Other scores followed: the variety-rich Portola dump, the Tahoe Beer bonanza.
The colors in the pictures are fading, and the focus was never much to begin with, but it doesn’t matter. He’s got a good memory, and Hamrick and Pfaff to back him up. Though all three caution against believing anything the others say.
Each of them has his favorite can, inevitably tied to a vividly recalled dump site. They rattle off the names of long-gone beers like the names of old girlfriends. The beers themselves have been history for a long time now, but it’s precisely their short lives that give them their stature. Rarity, after all, is the prime indicator in the worth of any item. For a great many collectibles, it is their only discernible attraction.
Brown’s garage is an illustration of the point. His surviving beer-can collection is framed by odd trophies from his post-can-collecting career.
A Big Shot pinball machine glows beneath a collage of beer signs, concert posters and the telling “No Dumping” sign that, in their expedition days, had been like a beacon to prime digs.
A Barry Goldwater bobblehead grins beside a mini bottle of Maker’s Mark bourbon.
A chronology of openers marches in an evolutionary parade along a magnetic strip screwed to the wall. Pre-Prohibition bottle openers lead up through fat ‘40s church keys to streamlined postwar can openers.
In the far corner of the garage, several hundred record albums are stacked in protective plastic sleeves. A partially dismantled speaker sits on the bench above them.
“Beer-can collecting sort of morphed into the garage-sale thing,” Brown says.
It was a logical next step. They’d had a good ride, but by the late 1980s the beer-can lode was beginning to dry up. The dumps had been fished out—owing in large part to their efforts—and the principal enemy, rust, had had more time to work. Mint-condition cans were hard to come by. Unless they’d been sealed up in walls, stashed in basements or cushioned by a fecal blanket beneath privies, they just weren’t there to be found.
It was Jim Pfaff who made the first tentative forays into the wider collecting world, and his entry point was a typically singular one. While hunting for cans at a Modesto flea market in 1987, he spotted a pristine Get Smart lunchbox selling for $1. Being a fan of the show, he bought it. The box made a handy tape storage case; bootleg Grateful Dead tapes and Hank Williams cassettes rattled against the tin lid on the floor of his car as he made the rounds to flea markets and garage sales. Zorro came next. Then Gomer Pyle, Batman, Hogan’s Heroes.
“There were very few people buying them,” he says. “They were cheap, 25 cents to a dollar, and the graphics were excellent.”
Pfaff proved to have a good nose for what would move, and that knack is coupled with uncommonly good luck. It’s as if he and the things he collects find one another through a mutual attraction. How else to explain a lunchbox collector stumbling onto three 10-by-15 farm sheds packed full of nothing but lunchboxes?
Pfaff got the call in answer to an ad he’d run in the Modesto Pennysaver, but even he couldn’t have expected this one.
“You still looking for lunchboxes?” the man asked.
They haggled a little over the typical going price, then Pfaff drove out to see him. There were more than 1,000 lunchboxes.
Within 45 minutes, he had found 120 he didn’t have yet. It was a throwback to the Old Frisco dump, a full-on bonanza out of the blue. And just as in those days, he found himself again digging down through an outer layer of rust to a nest of immaculate jewels sheltered underneath.
The farmer was probably just as happy to see Pfaff as Pfaff was to see him. Who knows how long he’d been waiting for a chance to unload his ridiculous store, the mounds of school lunchboxes clogging his sheds, whose origins he probably couldn’t remember.
The original agreement had been anywhere from $1 per lunchbox to $20 for rare ones. Pfaff offered him $50 for the bunch and spent the next two days hauling them home.
He sold two of the boxes to make back the investment and cover gas. He sold another three to finance the construction of display shelves along the length of one garage wall. The view from his poker table documented 20 years of television history and an aversion to school lunches. It was also money in the bank.
Brown and Hamrick branched out shortly after.
“At first, Jim bought stuff at garage sales and resold it at his own garage sales,” Brown says. “For a while he paid me 25 percent commission to sell stuff for him. Then he realized he was spending a lot on commissions.”
So Brown went out on his own and slowly built up a new inventory.
There’s an undeniable element of competition to their collecting, and each of them has his strengths. Pfaff shows a gift for sniffing out nuggets, while Hamrick has the patience and farsightedness of a marathoner. Brown approaches his sideline as a psychologist or a con man might. He has an instinctive ability to capitalize on the habits of thought most of us fall into blindly.
The assumption, for instance, that a sale sign denotes a bargain.
While managing a cherry ranch in Lodi in his 30s, Brown earned liquor change by selling bags of cherries rejected by the ranch’s packing shed. The cherries were culled for purely aesthetic flaws, spurs and misshapen fruit, and were otherwise perfectly fine. He separated the cherries into approximate 1-pound bags, folded a lawn chair open on the shoulder of West Lane and plopped down in the thin shade at the edge of the orchard.
Traffic on West Lane at sunset was brisk, and passing drivers were enticed by the hand-lettered sign slapping in the Delta wind above him:
30 cents per pound
3 pounds for a dollar
The cherries moved quickly, with customer after customer loading up at the 3-pounds-for-$1 bargain price. The first person to notice that it was cheaper to buy individual pounds at 30 cents each was more confused than angry.
A smiling Brown maintained, with technical honesty, that he had never said either was cheaper, he’d simply offered a choice. The man argued briefly, but Brown eventually pocketed his 90 cents.
It was a minor incident, but indicative. A dime either way didn’t matter to Brown, but the man’s flummoxing was intensely satisfying. It made his day, and made the bottle of Myers that night taste even better than usual.
It’s difficult to spend much time with any of the Norcal three and not lose at least a dollar. They’re inveterate gamblers who will bet on anything. At a Super Bowl party hosted by Hamrick, one wall was covered with butcher paper carefully gridded into betting fields. Alongside the typical wagers—final point spread, halftime score, rushing yards—were more idiosyncratic betting opportunities, such as the running time of the national anthem.
They have wadded up dollar bills and kicked them toward the edge of a redwood deck, with the closest to the edge winning. They bet on blackjack, liar’s poker, Scrabble. They each carry a pocket full of ones at all times.
The yard sale and eBay racket is a perfect fit, a game whose rules they can make up as they go. They like money, but they especially like money they’ve made by their wits. Their pride in their success is palpable, and a little contagious.
Brown shows off printouts of past auctions that each made more than anyone would have predicted. A wicker and leather fishing creel he bought for $5 and sold for $190. A ceramic Clydesdale, intended as a training tool for his son, a trial sale to get his feet wet. It turned into a lesson in Brownian economics when, surprised by the $123 selling price, Brown was compelled to tack on a 90 percent handling and training fee.
“We had to renegotiate,” he says.
In the early days, it was tough connecting with buyers. You had to peddle your wares yourself, at flea markets or yard sales. With the advent of the Internet, though, and specifically the vast virtual garages of eBay, the northwest passage of collecting was breached. Suddenly, you could find the Japanese collector looking for that Colonel Sanders statue almost instantly.
Scott Hamrick sold off the last of his beer-can collection in the early ‘90s and went over to the garage-sale circuit full time. His trailer in Davis doubles as a warehouse, with every available surface piled high with a diverse inventory. It’s a little tricky telling the stock from the decor, but the line may be imaginary. He is willing to sell almost any of it.
He moves a box filled with maps of every county in Oregon out of the way to clear a path to the refrigerator. Out his window, the cheery blue apartments of the former motor court hang close to each other, hugging the gravel drive that snakes between them. In one of the bungalows, his neighbor is very possibly folding herself into human origami and zipping herself into a suitcase. She holds the world speed record for doing so. On Sundays, she comes over to Hamrick’s and watches football with him, tucking herself into a tight ball on the floor.
On a shelf beside the TV, he keeps a shoe box full of bottle caps. In contrast to practically everything else in the room, the caps are recently minted. Visitors rarely come empty-handed. They bring obscure microbrews or exotic foreign beers, and as they down them, they toss the bottle caps into the shoe box. Hamrick is putting his money on the only unbending standard in collecting—time.
“I figure in 20 years or so, if I’m still alive, maybe they’ll be worth something.”
He switches on a 1950s Burgermeister sign, which begins slowly revolving. Beer signs comprise much of the room’s lighting scheme. Since moving onto garage sales and eBay, the fundamental theme that started the whole enterprise has persisted just below the surface in all their collections. Beer signs, serving trays and openers are prominent components of all three. It’s the line that weaves back through the past 35 years, the safety rope that helps them find their way back, when necessary, to where they started.
Brown takes an intact Bull’s Eye Beer can from the shelf in his garage.
“It’s tough to find these without bullet holes in them,” he says.
He peels a wide-headed church key from the magnet strip on the wall to demonstrate how cans can be dated by the size of their openings. Wartime cans had a single, large punch. He matches the opener to the hole in the top of the Bull’s Eye can. Then he shows the double punch of postwar cans, when smaller openers were used and separate vent holes were introduced.
On the earliest cans, brewers provided cartoonlike opening instructions for people accustomed to bottles. The final panel in the Rainier instructions shows a fisherman tossing a can over the side of his boat.
“When you’re done,” it says, “just throw it away!”
It’s a piece of advice that may be hard on modern sensibilities, but it’s one to which Brown, Pfaff and Hamrick owe an undeniable debt.
Brown flips toward the back of his binder to an auction listing for a fifth of Crown Royal. It had belonged to his father.
“Instead of drinking it,” he says, “I sold it for $67 and bought a bottle of Wild Turkey.”
Despite such claims to mercenary motives, Brown’s collection points to deeper roots. He has kept the rolls of parking-meter pennies he first collected at the age of 11, bought from the city of Grass Valley through a friend of his father’s. A truly greedy person would have sold them by now, and would not have a garage that looks like his.
Inside his living room, he cranks up a Victrola he picked up at a yard sale nearby.
“Something like this,” he says, “is hard to sell. It’s too big to ship. Even though it’s a shame to dismantle them, you could get $40 for the reproducer alone. You could sell the reproducer, you could sell the platter, you could sell the crank.”
The Victrola gets up to speed, and Eddy Arnold croons “Then I’ll Be Happy” from the cabinet’s hornlike speaker.
“You could dismember it and make more money,” he says. “But it’s kind of a travesty, too.”
He has kept other things that would be unlikely to find any bidders. In a filing cabinet in his garage is a letter written by a rodeo rider, one of a collection kept from the time he taught penmanship classes at the Sacramento Central Library.
“Dear Bussy,” it reads. “I’m riting about your dotter Janey. I know that she be longs to the womens rodeo association and I wood lik to marry Jane she is wut I want for a whif. I love Jane.”
The grammar and spelling are childlike, but the penmanship is admirable. It closes with a postscript that may strike a compatible note in Brown’s barterer’s heart:
“PS. I will trad three horses for her.”