A burning passion for toasters
Michael Sheafe gave up a corporate job to indulge his enthusiasm for collecting the lowly kitchen appliance.
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To find out, Sheafe picked his way through estate sales, antique stores, fundraisers, and thrift shops. He collected grease-covered, rusty toasters as though they were stray animals: rejuvenating them with a good soaking, and then reconditioning and polishing them.Skip to next paragraph
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"Some looked like a dog's dinner, but you never know what you'll find under all that grease and dirt," he says.
Collecting toasters is also educational. When he comes upon a toaster that's new to him, Sheafe also sees if he can find out more about its designer and patent, often unearthing unusual facts in the process.
For example, he learned about his Toastmaster 1B5, which he describes on his website (www.toastercentral.com): " 'Cheek to Cheek' by Irving Berlin topped the charts and '42nd Street' was running on Broadway when Toastmaster produced this stunning architectural design."
When Sheafe discovered that the designer, Everett Worthington, also designed dispensing machines for Coca-Cola, he was ecstatic. "I thought, if his toaster is this gorgeous, then what does the dispensing machine look like - the Chrysler Building?"
Despite his burning enthusiasm for his toasters, Sheafe remains humble about his collection.
"They're such mundane objects," he admits. "It's not like they're Fabergé eggs or something. They are all mass-produced. What makes them rare is when you find them in good condition."
And rare attracts customers. "Prices vary because the market is small, and two people interested in the same toaster will drive up the price," says Dan LaBelle, a toaster collector who met Sheafe two years ago in Minneapolis.
Toaster prices are also very subjective. Often sellers aren't even aware of a toaster's value. "My cheapest purchase ever was a nice T-9 for 25 cents at a yard sale. It still makes great toast," says Mr. LaBelle.
But a dealer such as Sheafe knows on which side his bread is buttered, and he no longer needs to buy just any used piece of scrap metal for his collection.
"When somebody brings me a grease-sodden, rusty mess, I try to be as courteous and as respectful as possible," he explains. But, unless it's rare, he isn't interested, as he might have been when he was getting started.
David Krolick, an investment banker who has been collecting toasters for 20 years, says that Sheafe has one of the most impressive toaster collections in the country.
Sheafe travels to other cities four to five times a year, buying and selling toasters and attending get-togethers of toaster afficionados, such as the convention hosted by the Toaster Collector Association (www.toastercollector.com).
At last year's convention, the toaster competition was a highlight for participants. Categories included: the Prettiest Pop-Up, the Premier Percher, the Fabulous Flopper, the Hipper-Tipper, the Pincher, the Slide-Through, the Sensational Swingers, and Tremendous Turners.
The Slide-Through, which was made by Toast-O-Later, once a popular toaster brand, has a window that displays the toast going down a conveyor belt.
"We have such a great time [at the conventions] that most people come a week in advance and turn it into a vacation," says Helen Greguire, toaster collector and author of the book, "Collector's Guide to Toasters and Accessories: Identification and Values" (Collector Books, 1997).
Last year, Ms. Greguire walked away with 13 ribbons from the convention's toaster competition.
Greguire, who has about 500 toasters - with the most valuable worth an estimated $3,500 - had no idea when she bought her first old toaster that she would ever own that many. "One toaster needed company, and pretty soon the next one did, too," she says.
Toaster enthusiasts can be sliced one of two ways: those like Greguire who collect as a hobby, and those like Sheafe who make a living buying and selling toasters.
But Sheafe says his penchant for antique toasters masks a deeper passion - conveying his knowledge of these appliances to others.
"Selling toasters is just a subterfuge so that I can teach [people about them]," he says.
In the meantime, though, he is busy five days a week, cleaning and restoring toasters in his apartment, where visitors know they've reached the right place because of the two magnets of toasters - with bread popping out of their tops - stuck to the front door.
Then, on Sundays, potential buyers - as well those who just like toast - enjoy the fruits of his labor at the Green Flea Market.
Is that the smell of toasted rye bread, or is it pumpernickel?