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Matchbook collection a decades-old history lesson

DUNEDIN

‘Yes, please come on over,'' Bob Pitcher said over the telephone. "I'd be honored to show you my collection.''

So I drove over. He and Katherine live in a modest house off Belcher. They're both about 80, struggling with a changing world and health issues. Collecting helps them cope and stay busy.

Bob opened the door. With his bad back, he was bent over at the waist. "Come in,'' he said. "Come on in. Have a seat.''

I sat on the sofa. Katherine waved from the kitchen table. She has lung problems and other disabilities. She was going to let Bob do most of the talking.

"What would you like to see first?'' Bob asked. "My matchbook collection? Or can I show you my collection of menus?''

• • •

I know more people who collect something than people who collect nothing. I know a woman who collects Barbie dolls. I know a man who has more autographed baseballs than anyone on Earth.

When I was a boy I collected baseball cards and stamps. They're gone, but I still have my boyhood collection of Indian head pennies. I'm not a practicing Catholic, yet I've hung on to the rosaries and prayer books that belonged to my late mother, who, by the way, threw away those baseball cards after I left home.

These days I have a small collection of Florida stuff, mostly postcards, orange-crate art, alligator icons and antique fishing lures. I'm guessing many of us collect things that keep us in touch with our youth.

I may be an old goat with wrinkles and a thicket of hair growing out of my ears now, but listen, whippersnapper, I was a kid once.

• • •

It wasn't like that for Bob Pitcher. Oh, he collected baseball cards and stamps as a boy, but for him, they didn't count for much. The real business began when he was in his 20s.

He was a cop in New Jersey, in the Newark area, when he sat in a diner and picked up a book of matches. It was nothing special and Bob didn't even smoke. But he tucked it in his pocket.

"A man has to do something,'' he told me. "I had tried bowling, but I didn't like how loud it was in the bowling alley. When I went fishing, I got seasick. So it became collecting matchbooks.''

In his living room in North Pinellas, he opened a book on his lap. The book displayed those prized matchbooks, lined up and in perfect order, for page after page. They reflected Bob's earlier life and America's, too — Truman's America, Eisenhower's America, JFK's America, where restaurants and diners and nightclubs welcomed smokers and even provided the tools for igniting those Pall Malls and Lucky Strikes, Kents and Chesterfields. As long as you closed the cover before striking you were going to be all right. Everybody was going to live forever.

Bob stood with difficulty, grabbed another book from the shelf and began thumbing through the pages.

"When I first started, I collected every kind of matchbook, I didn't care, you know? But after you collect awhile, you start to specialize. I know it's going to sound funny, because I never drank either, but my specialty became the matchbooks you'd pick up at microbreweries and bars. But especially gambling casinos.''

Basil T's. Yuengling and Sons. Brewmaster Pub. Rock Bottom. Heartland Brewery. And thousands of others. Some of Bob Pitcher's matchbooks are black-and-white, pedestrian. Some are colorful. To him, all are beautiful. They remind him of his younger days, when his body was sound and he enjoyed life and knew important people. At one good matchbook bar he ran into Joe Willie Namath, who turned out to be a nice guy. At another, he chatted with "that fighter who knocked down Joe Louis. What was his name?''

"Joe DiMaggio,'' Katherine piped up from the dining room table.

"Not DiMaggio. He played baseball. The fighter. An Italian.''

Rocky Marciano.

"Well, eventually, we planned our vacations and weekends around collecting matchbooks. We'd drive and stop at bars and the microbreweries. We'd even go to matchbook collector conventions.''

Conventions?

"No, I'm not kidding. There were matchbook conventions. I'd build display cases to show off at the conventions, but I'll tell you, it got a little old. Hauling those display cases around is a lot of work, and my back went bad, plus we got to where we just didn't like to drive those long distances anymore. Now I just keep them in these picture books.''

His living room shelves sagged from the weight of them — 100 albums or so, each containing about 600 matchbooks. Sixty thousand matchbooks out of the past.

Did he have a favorite or something especially valuable?

"I don't know that I have anything really valuable. I wish I had a Charles Lindbergh matchbook, though, but I never found one. You heard of Lindbergh, right? He was the first pilot to fly between the United States and Paris. When he done that somebody did a special matchbook for him. I wish I had one but I don't.''

Would you be a rich man?

"I don't know how rich I'd be. The Lindbergh matchbook is worth a few thousand dollars, I guess. That would be nice.''

For a half century he collected matchbooks, obsessively and maybe a little desperately. But that was okay. It didn't hurt anybody.

Then America changed.

"I was against them passing the no-smoking laws,'' he said. "I knew it was going to be the end of matchbooks. And it was.''

New Jersey, his home state, enacted one of the nation's strongest "no smoking in bars and restaurants" laws.

In 2004, Bob and Katherine moved to Florida.

"It was just to get away from the cold weather,'' Bob said from the couch. Still, he was unhappy to learn that Florida had also passed a "no smoking'' law. Maybe it wasn't as tough as New Jersey's law, but it was tough enough.

• • •

A man with a bad back is not going to play golf. He is not going to weed the garden or lift dumbbells at the gym. But a determined man can collect. A few years ago Bob began collecting restaurant take-out menus.

He has collected several hundred so far. He and Katherine go out for breakfast, lunch or dinner whenever possible. At the cash register, they grab a take-out menu. Sometimes they drop by for a cup of coffee and a menu. Sometimes Bob waits outside with the Chevy running and sends Katherine in to collect a menu.

He has nice ones from LoBosco's Italian & Pizza Restaurant, Fireside Pizza Cafe and one from a Johnny Garlic that became a Johnny Primos. He has menus from Covered Bridge and Bonnie's — Bonnie is so nice! He would like more menus, hundreds more. Not long ago, he telephoned the food reviewer of this newspaper to see if she had extra menus for his collection.

"One thing you learn when you collect menus,'' Bob said, "is how hard the restaurant business is. In a matter of a couple years one restaurant we liked was Chinese, then German, then Italian. Then it became, what do you call it, a rainbow coalition restaurant.''

Gay?

"Yes, but it didn't even survive as a gay restaurant. It's out of business now.''

Katherine had a coughing fit at the kitchen table — she's a lifetime smoker. Bob and I walked outside, where he sat in a garden chair in the shade. I wondered if he ever shows off his unusual collections to neighbors.

"No,'' he said.

What about your children?

"Four children. Grown up. They're not interested in my collection,'' he said. "I always hoped they would be, but they're not. Kids, they're not like they used to be. They don't collect. Kids don't even collect coins or stamps anymore either.''

Our country is different now. The son of the late Benjamin and Violet Pitcher, Bob was a Marine during the Korean War and a New Jersey cop for 36 years. Like his parents, he tried to make the world a better place. Maybe some day his collections will end up in a museum. But maybe they will end up in a Dumpster. Perish the thought.

We collect for a lot of reasons. Perhaps collecting is a way to stay in touch with our youth. But maybe it's something more. A collection is proof that we were here.

We had a life.

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at klink@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8727.

Matchbook collection a decades-old history lesson 07/06/12 [Last modified: Friday, July 6, 2012 5:07pm]

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