And the rest is history: Boise collectors started small

Over time, they re-created an old general store

awebb@idahostatesman.comFebruary 26, 2014 

It all started in 1983 with the purchase of an old tin that once held Campfire brand marshmallows. Pam and Dave Sorensen liked the tin’s graphic design.

The purchase kicked off a 30-year collecting project that involved buying other tins — for teas, peanut butter — as well as dry goods cases, shop displays and candy racks.

Now, not only do the Sorensens live among their collection of what’s known in the trade as “country” or “general store” items, but they’ve also converted an entire room in their house into a kind of time capsule. A few friends get to see the collection from time to time, but it’s not open to the public.

“We tell people we have this collection,” said Dave Sorensen. “They expect to see a couple of tin cans.”

That’s not quite the situation.

Walk into the room — past a barber chair and glass milk bottles from old Boise dairies, filled with white styrofoam beads to look full of milk, past the jukebox and the shoe store bench, where wooden animal heads divide the seats — and you’ll encounter shelves salvaged from the old Ustick Mercantile.

The shelves hold hundreds of retro packages that once contained spices, saltines and coffee. The Sorensens’ collection includes items that go back decades.

It’s all about the beautiful graphics on the packaging, they say. It’s all about attention to detail. Small metal price tags hang on shelves. The tags hark back to a time that predated individual price stickers.

An obelisk shaped like the Washington Monument holds a selection of Hohner harmonicas. Wind up the obelisk and it will rotate for hours, said Dave Sorensen.

A glass case holds a collection of detachable men’s collars. Another case holds hairnets for the ladies.

A Dr. Scholl’s display still contains a torturous-looking toe straightener and other foot-correcting items made of now-desicated flesh-toned padding.

Other cases hold tobacco tins with wonderful names: Dixie Queen, Green Turtle, Hand Bag. When all the tobacco was used up, kids used the tins as lunch boxes, the Sorensens said.

Children were lucky in this particular era of commerce. Other tobacco tins were “rolly pollies,” spherical tins resembling porcine men and women that must have delighted the younger set.

The Sorensens’ collection includes a 1920s-era promotional tin train made from multicolored Tasty Food coffee tins. Parents could buy different colors of cans. When the coffee was gone, the tins became train compartments. The company stashed the toy’s train wheels and other accoutrements inside the tins, buried in the coffee — not unlike prizes in Cracker Jack, said Pam Sorensen.

MODERNISM AND THE PAST

“We’re lucky,” said Pam Sorensen. “We both love collecting the same kinds of things.”

The downside: There’s no one to talk the other out of buying more stuff and “growing the collection.”

Pam Sorensen isn’t sure where she got her love of collecting. Besides the “store,” an entire bedroom in her house is filled with antique sewing items, children’s clothes and dolls — paper and otherwise.

Collecting is both a tribute to and a departure from her family. She spent lots of time in her grandmothers’ Boise houses when she was growing up. Dave’s grandmother lived in Boise as well. Pam thinks that early exposure to the older generation helped inspire both Sorensens’ love of history and retro style.

Pam’s father, Sherm Perry, owned Sherm Perry Furniture from the 1950s until the 1980s in various buildings, including the current home of 10 Barrel Brewing Company in Downtown Boise.

Pam’s mother liked to say that the store was Boise’s first “contemporary” furniture store. The Perrys specialized in midcentury modern design. Think “Mad Men.”

So the family had an artistic sensibility. “But my mother didn’t want anything old,” said Pam Sorensen.

SAVED FROM THE REFUSE BIN, PRIZED

Pam and her sister, Patty, both grew up to love vintage items. Pam sells antiques on eBay and also keeps a booth at the Antique World Mall. She loaned several of her items from her collection to the city in 2013 as part of its “Remnants of Boise” exhibit at the sesquicentennial shop on Main Street, including milk bottles (complete with metal spoons for skimming cream from the top) and a tin from a local grocery for “Natatorium” coffee, named for Boise’s famous bathing palace of yore.

Collecting and arranging are Pam Sorensen’s art forms. “I love to put things together, take them apart,” she said.

Both Sorensens like that when it comes to their collection, “none of this stuff should be here,” said Dave. These weren’t prized items intended for posterity.

The Sorensens’ collection is only possible, they say, because a lot of people a long time ago were not inclined to throw things out.

Anna Webb: 377-6431

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