A burning passion for toasters

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

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

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.

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.

"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."

What determines price

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.

Two types of collectors

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?

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