Uncle Melvin’s Museum of Physical Media

The first thing he started collecting was coins. When he was fairly young he noticed that one of the pennies had an “Indian Head” on it and not Abraham Lincoln.

“Is this a foreign coin?” Uncle Melvin (before he was an uncle) asked his Father.

“No, that’s a very old and rare coin.”

He put the Indian Head penny in a special jar, and started looking at his change every day, separating the older and stranger specimens from the common ones. For Christmas that year he was given a number of coin albums and he began to fill them up, one coin of each designator (penny, nickel, etc.), of each year, from each mint.

This was Uncle Melvin’s first exposure to his lifelong passion of collecting, and it only grew from there.

 

My Mom and my Uncle were estranged, and I never found out why. She always brushed off the subject or outright lied when I asked.

“We get along,” she would say.

Even my Dad didn’t know the reason, or at least that’s what he said, but he turned out to be an even better liar.

Regardless, I didn’t know Uncle Melvin existed until I was 12, and it was another three years before I met him in his strange little house filled with things.

It was not a typical hoarder’s den. He kept his things very clean and organized: a place for everything and everything in its place: bookshelves filled with DVDs and video game cartridges; curio cabinets stuffed with toys and model cars; narrow wall shelves just deep enough for a single action figure to stand, an oversized bathtub lined with rubber duckies, a closet sized arsenal of both real and toy weapons; no dust, not much light, and cold. Walking into his house was almost magical.

As a kid, Uncle Melvin had a… healthy amount of toys. Some got lost along the way, some stolen, and he even sold some. He saved the cardboard backers of the action figures too and kept them in a large 3 ring binder. The first time I met Uncle Melvin, when he was in his 40’s, he showed me the binder.

“This one I sold for a dollar at a bazaar in a church basement, but I wish I didn’t. Your mom wanted me to sell them for a nickel or a penny each. I don’t know what she was thinking. You never saw his face in the cartoon, but you could if you bought and opened the toy. I still have his gun. A different figure is holding it now.”

He flipped to another card in the binder.

“This one was stolen by Dennis Sunderland, that bastard. I never had the proof that he took it, and never got it back either.”

“Couldn’t you buy another one?” I asked.

“I could,” said Uncle Melvin. “But they’re not cheap these days in box. And I don’t like buying them loose.”

“Why?”

“Because they usually come in lots with a bunch of other figures, some of which I already have. I don’t want to sell the duplicates. They’ve already been sold and traded back and forth many times, like pets that nobody wants, and I don’t want to be just another heartless person passing them along. On the other hand if I kept the duplicates each one would only get half as much attention as they deserve, and that wouldn’t be fair to either of them, you know?”

I, in fact, did not know, but I realized then that Uncle Melvin thought differently than most people.

Likewise his wife, Aunt Maylin, was crazy about stuffed animals, even a little crazier than him. All their animals were displayed, they all had names, some had their own furniture, and one both gave and received Christmas presents every year. When any guest would come over she would introduce them to the stuffed animals. This included my parents, the first time we visited.

“Why are all the animals damaged?” I asked

“Kids always pick the ones in good shape. The stuffed animals that are missing an eye, or ripped on the corner of a shipping container are put on sale with the rest, but nobody buys them and eventually they’re thrown away, never to be loved or played with. We try to save as many as we can.”

When I went home, after meeting Uncle Melvin for the first time, I tried to imitate him, organizing my room to better display all I had. My collection, meager as it was by comparison, consisted almost entirely (and not by my own choosing) of girl toys: Barbie’s and American Girl Dolls, things like that. Toys that Mom and Dad wanted me to enjoy, wanted me to imitate, wanted me to be.

 

Sure, Uncle Melvin had toys and stuffed animals and weapons too, but the really weird thing in his collection was Physical media: DVD’s, Video Games, Vinyl Records, and other things that most people had little use for.

Physical media, almost as a whole, had been going out of style. Most video games were downloaded directly onto their respective consuls. Movies and TV shows were streamed to computers, phones, tablets and sometimes even the TV. The same was true for books and music.

Uncle Melvin’s only rule, when I finally moved in with him when I was 17, was that he made me give up my iPad. After 3 days I didn’t even miss it.

The first night I spent at his house, I looked at his massive library of DVDs.

“Have you watched all of these?” I asked him.

“Most of them,” he said pulling out a DVD. “Not all of them though, I have a bunch of these boxes, five bucks for 20 movies. I haven’t watched quite all the individual movies yet.”

He handed me the box and I looked at the list of movies on the back.

“How can they afford to do that?”

“A lot of the movies are public domain.”

“If they’re public domain, then why don’t you just watch them on YouTube?”

“I could,” he said. “But how would I know which movies to watch? I’d have to read through catalogues of PD movies, figure out which ones to check out, YouTube may or may not have them, then I’d have to watch them on my computer or burn them onto a DVD which would take maybe another 2 hours. I can save all that work and time for just 5$, and add another DVD to the library along the way. It’s all part of the hunt.”

“The hunt?”

“Yes: going to stores, seeing what’s available. Maybe it’s a movie or TV show I’ve seen before, at a good price, even better if it’s in a box containing other things I’ve never seen. Take this for example.”

He pulled out a slightly larger DVD box with a metal can inside it.

“When I saw that it had the Busy World of Richard Scarry and Heathcliff on it and I had to pick it up. Turns out there’s 10 DVD’s in that box, 9 of which are really good, shows I’d never heard of before like “the Littles,” if it wasn’t for the hunt, I may have never come across it. Of course not every hunt is that successful, but the ones that are, are that much more important. It’s the same reason why I don’t shop online… too much.”

“There’s nothing wrong with that,” I argued, worried he might ban Amazon along with my iPad.

“No, there’s not, I do it from time to time… like for this one here.”

“David the Gnome?” I asked reading the title.

“Yes, very underrated cartoon from the early 90’s. Spanish, as in it’s from Spain. The English dubbing has the characters occasionally talking over each other because of the speech cadence doesn’t perfectly line up. The narrator is Christopher Plumber, the guy from the Sound of Music, and the voice of the titular character is none other than Tom Bosley.”

“Tom Bosley?”

“He was the father from Happy Days. Do you remember that show?”

“Yeah I think so. Fonzie right?”

“Yeap, Fonzie wasn’t the dad, but he was a major character in it, Ron Howard was in it too. Anyways the point is, I had to buckle down and get it online, because the likelihood of seeing it in a store somewhere is virtually impossible. But that’s an acceptation to the hunt. I knew the show, knew I liked it a lot and wanted it in my library. I actually watch it a few times a year, it’s that good. A lot of the other stuff in this collection is… not as good.”

“Why don’t you get rid of the DVDs you don’t like?”

“Never,” he said, putting a hand on the shelves.

“I’m not suggesting you do Uncle, I just want to know why don’t.”

“You’d think I’m crazy,” he said.

“It’s a bit late for that,” I said ribbing him with my elbow.

“True,” he said. “It’s like this, when I get a DVD, it goes into my collection, and stays there. It becomes part of my… let’s say inanimate family. They’re all friends. Cheers can play with Seinfeld, Talespine with Family Guy, and I don’t want the mark on my soul from displacing them. I know they’re not real of course, nine parts out of ten tells me the DVD’s are just cardboard and plastic and foil, but that one part says otherwise, says they are creatures with souls and feelings, and that part dominates. It makes more sense, a little more anyways, when you talk this way about stuffed animals and actions figures, but it’s the way I see everything.”

I felt a tear coming to my eye.

This man, Uncle Melvin, loved his things, more than my own parents loved me.

My parents had gotten a divorced shortly after I first met Uncle Melvin and they used me like a pawn in their war of attrition against each other for some two years. In the end it was clear that neither of them really wanted me. Maybe if I was someone else they would have.

When my Mother caught me in bed with another girl, she gave me a choice: I could either change into the type of girl she wanted me to be, or I could leave her house.

My Dad said I could live with him, but it was grudgingly offered, and he knew I wouldn’t accept. Yes I did like girls, but not every girl, especially not his new wife, the same woman he had been seeing in secret the first time I met Uncle Melvin. If I moved in with my father I would have to leave the state.

Uncle Melvin on the other hand not only lived in the same state, but in the same school district. By living with him I could stay in the same school, stay with my girlfriend, and ultimately live with a new “parent” who may have been eccentric, but was at heart a good person. The choice was easy to make

I could go into more detail about all of this, but this is not my story.

Trying to muster a cleaner voice I said.

“So, um, could we watch some of these?”

“Gladly,” he said

Noticing my difficulty in speaking at the moment, he hugged me.

I realized that he loved me too, just as much as he loved all his simple treasures, and that love was more sincere then what my parents had showed me for quite a while.

I hugged him back and started to cry.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m usually not like this.”

“I know,” he said. “It’s okay, you’ve been through a lot.”

He let go and I straightened myself up.

“Okay,” I said, with a cleaner voice. “So what do we watch?”

He took me down into the basement and we spent the night watching forgotten cartoons and playing late 80’s video games at the same time on a two TV set up. For every cartoon we watched and game we played, he would tell a story about it, how he got the game, the DVD, details of the hunt, why he wanted it in the first place, how it connected to him. Everything in his house was a part of him. The stories he told might not mean very much to most people, but they meant an awful lot to him, and as the night went on, they meant a lot to me as well.

 

I spent my junior and senior year of high school with Uncle Melvin and Aunt Maylin. I loved them in every way that someone should love a parent. Moving in with him was a big change, and for a while I was depressed, which only got worse when my girlfriend (the girl my mom had caught me with) dumped me. None of this was Uncle Melvin’s fault of course, and he suggested that I start painting therapeutically.

Aunt Maylin helped me get started, I wasn’t that good, not at first anyways, but you would never know that by the way my Aunt and Uncle doted over the paintings. Uncle Melvin rearranged some of his action figures and shelves to make room for my paintings to hang on the walls.

High school graduation was the last time I saw my Mom and Dad, they sat several isles apart, and I only saw them when I was receiving my diploma. I didn’t want them there at all, and afterwards I ushered my Aunt and Uncle quickly to their car so we could leave before I had to deal with them.

In college I studied fine art. The college had to an early model vinyl 3D printer and using it I made action figures in the likeness of my Aunt and Uncle. The figures were fairly accurate too (considering my focus at school was painting), and I gave them to my Aunt and Uncle that Christmas, going all the way to design backers and package them just as you would a typical action figure. Uncle Melvin tied a ribbon through the whole punch at the top of the backers and hung them both on the Christmas tree, before ultimately hanging them on the wall with all his other unopened toys.

It would have been the best Christmas gift ever for Uncle Melvin, but the following year I topped it, when I again used the 3D printer to make (somewhat illegally w/r/t copyright and all) the very toy that that bastard Dennis Sunderland had stolen from him many many years ago.

After college I moved into the city, got a small studio, taught some community art classes and waited tables until I landed my first contracts for album covers, concert posters, bill boards. On the weekends I would go to visit Uncle Melvin and Aunt Maylin, then every other week, then once a month. In the city I got a girlfriend, we liked each other at first, then loved each other, and when the supreme court finally decided our love was “acceptable” we got married. We agreed early on not to have children, but she changed her mind, so we got divorced.

I moved back in with Uncle Melvin after the divorce. Aunt Maylin had already passed away by then and he was getting too old to take care of himself (let alone his bobbles). He couldn’t move very well in the end, so he spent most of his days watching DVDs. His arthritis had become so bad that he couldn’t play any of the old video games we used to play together, but that didn’t stop him from typing. He typed very slowly, I stood out of site once and using the stop watch on my phone I clocked him typing only one character every second and a half. I asked him what he was writing, but he wouldn’t tell me.

“You’ll find out one of these days.”

When my Mother died, I felt almost nothing. Uncle Melvin went to her funeral. He did not give me any details afterword, and I didn’t ask.

When Uncle Melvin died, the situation was a little different.

He left me everything in his will, but no instructions. Amidst the treasures he left behind was the thing he had been writing. It turned out to be a document, some 2000 pages long, telling the story of everything in his massive collection. Some of the pages were really short, indicating only that he did not remember the details of that particular item, but most of the pages were more or less full, with small anecdotes of where the item came from, what year and how. I called it “Uncle Melvin’s Journal of the Hunt” or the “Hunt Journal” for short.

For his funeral, I gathered a dozen of his favorite things, a few of my favorites, and the corresponding pages from the Hunt Journal, and brought them all to the funeral parlor. His friends and mourners would read about the items while someone else displayed them.

Even that bastard Dennis Sunderland showed up, and did a reading. His wife held up the action figure that I had recreated for Uncle Melvin, while Dennis read the page associated with it. When he read the phrase “that bastard Dennis Sunderland stole this from me…” everyone in the funeral hall laughed, even him.

We buried Uncle Melvin like a holy knight of sorts, arms crossed, in his right he held the hilt of his favorite sword, point down, and in the other he held a copy of the Hunt Journal, so at least the stories of all his inanimate friends would be with him forever.

After the funeral many people I didn’t know approached me. They offered me condolences, and asked what I was going to do with all the stuff in Uncle Melvin’s house, technically now my house.

“I don’t know,” I told them.

Dennis offered me condolences, and then he told me that he never actually stole anything from Uncle Melvin, and named the friend that did.

“But I’m just as guilty,” he said. “Because I never snitched on Jimmie… at least Melvin got the toy back before the end… and he got a great story out of it too.”

It turned out a lot of the “mourners” were antique dealers and various breeds of collectors. By this time physical media was pretty much non-existent, at least in a “new” form, and much of the old media had (with the passage of time) broken and found its way into landfills. What remained was very valuable, and Uncle Melvin’s collection was estimated at several million dollars.

Someone wanted to auction it off, others offered to buy certain parts of the collection: the toys, the coins, the video games. There was even a representative from the Smithsonian. These offers were not made at the funeral, these dealers and collectors did have a certain level of decorum.

I didn’t do anything about the collection for quite a while. I was in mourning myself, and just sat around the house reading the Journal of the Hunt, all day every day, temporarily bringing Uncle Melvin and his collection back to life.

Part of me wanted to sell it all. There was a lot of money in it. I didn’t need the money, but looking down a hall way of a million dollars’ worth of treasures was almost hypnotic. I might have done something I’d regret, but the spell was broken when I remembered Uncle Melvin saying:

“They’re all friends. Cheers can play with Seinfeld…”

I could not sell the collection off piece by piece, that was unacceptable, it would have to be all or nothing, and even so the idea of “selling” didn’t sit too well with me. So I talked to the guy from the Smithsonian. He invited me down to DC to show how Uncle Melvin’s collection might be cared for.

He took me on a personal tour, showing me the display rooms of the Museum of American History, and the warehouses for the overstock. Only 10% of the museums inventory was on display, the other 90% was stored, cared for in a way, but generally unloved. I couldn’t go with this.

Months passed. I called my contact from the Smithsonian again, told him my feelings and outlined a different plan.

“I think we can do that,” he said.

I could somehow hear him smiling on the other end of the line.

Almost everything was moved out of the house, and into a bigger building, not far from the cities museum district, but still in the suburbs. Everything was displayed even better then Uncle Melvin had, with little placards next to each item, identifying them.

Several old video game consoles were turned into arcade cabinets, and everyday new games would be installed for visitors to play. DVD’s were rotated daily and shown on large flat screen TVs. Stuffed animals were displayed in a room covered in faux-timber designed to imitate Noah’s arch. Even some of his paintings (my paintings for and of him) hung in an art gallery wing.

Everything in the Smithsonian Museum of Toys and Physical Media, was cared for, displayed and loved by all, with plenty of room for more to be added. The only thing Uncle Melvin probably wouldn’t have approved of was the smartphone and tablet app that played the lengthy audio descriptions of all the items displayed.

Uncle Melvin’s Journal of the Hunt was published into a massive coffee table book, with all his descriptions of items and pictures. The book has a forward written by me and is available at the museum’s gift store. But of course you already know all that since that’s what you’ve been reading.

For all those of you who love things, Uncle Melvin says: “You’re welcome.”

Zach Smith

 

Zach is a graduate of Chestnut Hill College and has been writing for more than a dozen years, struggling all the while with Dyslexia. His work has previously appeared in: Crack the Spine, the Short Humor Site, Foxglove, the Corvus Review, and most importantly the Ginger Collect among others. You can find out more about him at his Blog: theobscuritysymposium.wordpress.com.