Collectibles mania is good news for pack rats

An inventory of my house would have to include such mysterious items as: two dozen empty wooden thread spools. Someone once told me that plastic would make wooden spools obsolete, and thus worth something - someday. Are empty wooden thread spools collectibles? Or are they junk? It is a fine distinction that collectors have to live with as they play their trivia game. ``Worth something'' and ``someday'' are two of the vaguest promissory notes in the English language. There is simply no way to answer the question: Which ordinary objects of today will become valuable in 10 or 20 or 50 years because of the romance of scarcity? And that's the trap.

In his recent book, ``What to Save from the '80s'' (Fawcett, $6.95), Charles Jordan offers a list of potentially valuable items long enough to sabotage the best efforts of anyone trying to clean house and simplify, simplify.

The Royal Wedding, Halley's Comet, the Statue of Liberty, Cabbage Patch Kids, Michael Jackson, Mt. St. Helens - memorabilia from every major event and personality become worthy of space in the attic. Even video games may double as collectibles: ``Today's Pac-Man mug could be tomorrow's valuable antique!'' the cover proclaims, not bothering to explain why anyone would want a Pac-Man mug in the first place.

``Give me five minutes in the average person's home,'' Mr. Jordan boasts, ``and I'll prove they're a collector.''

If ``collector'' is synonymous with ``pack rat,'' he's probably right. But give most people an attic or a basement, wait a year or two, and presto! Murphy's Law has been rewritten: ``Junk expands to fill the space available.'' For proof, just check any suburban yard sale on a Saturday morning.

When you put together the two mottos, ``Someday it might come in handy'' and ``Someday it might be worth something,'' you have effectively blocked every impulse to clean up your act. But the real mania begins when a collector turns from passive to active and starts to look for things to collect, like an investor.

Jordan offers a suggestion to '80s collectors: ``You can start today by buying up every baseball card being printed, in hopes that you have a future winner on your hands.''

Thanks, but no. Some of us, after all, are still trying to decide what to save from the '70s and '60s. As it happens, I threw away the first issue of Ms. magazine - now a collector's item, alas. But I did keep my copy of Off the Wall Street Journal, a parody issue that Jordan describes as one of several ``look-alike periodicals that appear destined to enjoy a healthy future in collecting circles.''

At a time when Americans continue to be obsessed with diets, thinness, and fitness, the collectibles phenomenon represents a curious contradiction. The real overweight problem may be in our closets and attics. The ultimate measure of fitness and trim, in fact, could be an empty attic, an uncluttered basement, and a two-car garage with room for two cars.

There is hope. Thomas Hoving, publisher of Connoisseur magazine and a veteran culture-watcher, recently predicted a return to a more minimalist look.

``The current crop of yuppies have been enormously influenced by the Orient,'' he claims. ``In 1987, there will be a trend toward clean, uncluttered rooms. There's a new sense of joy in the pared-down, the simple.... The new status symbol will be simplicity.''

I hope he's right. But in the meantime, I'm hanging onto those wooden spools. You never know. They just might be worth something - someday.

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