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A burning passion for toasters

Michael Sheafe gave up a corporate job to indulge his enthusiasm for collecting the lowly kitchen appliance.

By Ashley ChapmanSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / January 8, 2003


As a crowd looks on, a slice of soft cinnamon bread disappears silently into a toaster.

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Nothing unusual there, but this isn't just any appliance. This is a sleek chrome-sheathed 1949 Sunbeam T-20 Automatic, the Grace Kelly of toasters, which automatically lowers the bread and turns on the current. It has no cumbersome buttons or unwieldy levers.

A minute later, a slice of crisp, golden toast appears. The crowd lets out a collective gasp - or is it an appreciative sniff? Is that the smell of cinnamon?

This bread transformation takes place every Sunday at Manhattan's Green Flea Market where the "Toast Master" of New York, Michael Sheafe, dazzles passersby with the joys of using nondigital technology to produce a piece of golden-brown bread.

You wouldn't necessarily think this would attract crowds - but it does.

A toaster for every whim

As the owner of 800 antique toasters, Mr. Sheafe has one for practically every mood.

Feel like conserving electricity? Try the manual Bromwell pyramid-shaped toaster, so you can hold your bread over a flame just as your ancestors did at the turn of the 20th century.

Looking for a toy for a good little girl or boy? Try the Excel Electric Toastoy, a miniature working toaster from the 1920s, which costs $325 (pictured at right).

And if you're seeking to entertain the family some snowy Saturday morning, consider the 1928 Universal's E9410 Push-Button Toaster. This ornate nickel-plated treasure flips toasts in delicate baskets like a mechanical juggler. It's a guaranteed crowd-pleaser.

Sheafe is founder and proprietor of Toaster Central, which repairs and sells vintage toasters. He is also part of a small, sometimes-eccentric coterie of collectors whose enthusiasm for toasters has mushroomed into a full-time enterprise.

Each year, a convention for old-toaster enthusiasts pops up in a different spot across the country. At these eagerly awaited events, approximately 100 toaster collectors gather for toaster show and tell, auctions, and competitions.

They are the sort of enthusiasts who spend long hours hunting through garage sales and thrift shops, hoping to find a grime-encrusted treasure.

All of this activity has attracted a certain amount of attention beyond the antiques and collectibles field. In October, Bergdorf Goodman displayed 100 of Sheafe's toasters in its Manhattan store windows.

"We didn't think anybody had ever seen that many vintage toasters at one time," says David Hoey, who manages the window displays for the large department store. "Everybody loved it."

Who buys old toasters?

Window-shopping is one thing, but purchasing is another. And who is willing to spend more than $1,000 on a vintage toaster? Sheafe's customers have ranged from a therapist and a lawyer to a man seeking kitchen equipment appropriate for his 1920s-era home.

He has buyers who live as far away as France, Holland, and Germany. In fact, people in the US Embassy in Beijing brown their bread in one of Sheafe's fine vintage toasters.

When Sheafe gives a toaster demonstration, he speaks in a hushed voice, as if reading a suspenseful story to a child. "When you turn this lever," he whispers, as he drops bread into the jaws of his 1920s-era Sunbeam Toastwitch, "it starts the current, and you can hear the clock timer ticking."

The toaster, which could be mistaken for your grandmother's jewel box, sells for about $600 and is festooned with Bakelite handles and knobs.

Almost one toaster per square foot

The toaster ticktocks as Sheafe sips tea in his 360-square-foot apartment, which is home to 300 shiny chrome toasters varying in design, size, and age.

Finally, a bell dings, a little door pops open, and fingerlike metal prongs lift the toast out. "So you don't burn yourself!" he exclaims.

Sheafe hasn't always been a vintage-toaster enthusiast. Four years ago, he was clocking long days as a project manager in the operations division of American Express. The work was challenging, but Sheafe was restless: "I finally asked myself, 'Why am I doing this?' "

Deciding that he could live off of his 401(k) and other savings, Sheafe left his 12-year career in the corporate sector. "American Express just couldn't believe it," he says with a laugh.

He didn't have an immediate plan when he quit the company, but wanted to indulge his love for antiques and dabble in the art of finding treasures.

One day, while pacing his apartment, Sheafe's eyes rested on his toaster - a Sunbeam T-9, dating back to the 1940s, which he had used every morning for the past 30 years.

Were there other interesting toasters out there, he wondered.