Fantasy in Aisle Three: A Collection for the Ages

BOISE, Idaho (KBOI) - As you approach the tidy single-story home, you'd never guess that tucked inside is a complete general store, right down to the shiny enamel keys on the vintage cash register.

Where some might boast of a game room, or a library, Pam and Dave Sorensen lay claim to the most unique home addition this side of Norman Rockwell.

You half-expect Opie's Aunt Bee to give you a wave as you walk the aisles. But this store with no name is all make-believe.

And yet it has an authenticity that will take your breath away. Everywhere you look you see vintage tins and boxes lining shelves and filling display cases, although few of the store brands are immediately familiar.

"Advertising is a really big area of collecting," explains Pam, "especially 'general store.' And we know people who have built buildings on their property just to have a general store."

Dave waves around the room and relates how they bought the house years ago solely because it had the perfect extra room to display their vast collection.

That would include a maroon obelisk lined on all four sides with Hohner harmonicas.

"It was a store piece," says Dave. "Put in a music shop or mercantile store."

They bought it off a collector in Montana and Dave inhales sharply when asked how much it cost. You don't need to know the dollar amount to realize it was pricey even then and likely out of reach for most admirers now.

Walk the aisles of your average supermarket today and you don't give the items on either side a second glance. The cereal boxes and pickle jars aren't all that interesting, nor are they collectible. But that's precisely why what the Sorensen's have in their home hold their value: they were meant to be thrown away.

And to prove the point, Dave reaches down and picks up a roundish tin painted with the likeness of a woman.

"These are rollie-pollies. Originally, tobacco came in them," he tells me. "After the tobacco was gone, a lot of people gave 'em to their kids because they don't tip over."

In another corner he points out a wooden replica of a horse-drawn milk wagon. The name Borden is painted on the side.

"It's really a toy, but it does have advertising on it. 'Course you can see we're advertising people, so it's in pretty good shape and we like it."

The toy perches atop a tall wooden octagonal cabinet the color of pipe tobacco. There are many drawers to the piece, each with numbers painted on it. Turns out it's a display case for nuts and bolts.

The drawers don't pull all the way outand for good reason.

"Otherwise," says Dave, "all the stuff would fall on the floor. It was pretty heavy."

It's easy to see why theirs has been a thirty-year dime-store dance with anything that even remotely suggests advertising. There's a singular beauty in the colorful labels, many with bold graphics and cursive writing.

Pam grabs a dark blue coffee can from the living room.

"This is a very prized possession, because this is the Natatorium and this is a blend of coffee that they made."

Back in the day, the Natatorium was a popular amusement park in Boise. Pam collects anything that reminds her of her hometown.

In fact, coffee tins lend a lot of color to the couple's collection. They hearken back to a time when brand names were playful. Why not a "Morning Sip" with your morning toast? Or something "Plee-zing"?

Dave sounds almost rueful when he looks around the room.

"Most people don't appreciate it. This is just a bunch of old stuff to them that you gotta dust."

To underscore his point, he gestures toward a cardboard Dutch Boy hanging from the ceiling, one of his favorite pieces. Below it is a small bucket containing string.

"Everything used to be wrapped in paper with a string around it," he says.

Back then, store owners had penny candy, and electric lights if they were lucky.

It was the age of do-it-yourself. So customers needed sewing kits and thimbles and dyes for their clothes, all of which you'll find in this emporium of the impossible-to-find.

"You gotta buy it at an auction," Pam says with a slight wince. "You gotta buy it on the internet and pay a lot of money for it."

They're doing less of that now, largely because the things that caught their fancy decades ago are now priced out of reach.

Pam walks over to a vintage Seeburg jukebox, an early model that displays the record-spinner mechanism in the clear window.

She presses two buttons and Patsy Cline starts warbling "Crazy."

The effect is magical, although the lyrics hint at the nature of their obsession. Some might even suggest the Sorensen's are crazy to have kept so much ephemera.

And yet, given the value of what they have on hand, they might have the last laugh.

When asked if she'd take $100,000 for it all, Pam pauses and then offers a quiet "no."

And like a true collector of anything, from stamps to stereos, Dave hints they aren't finished.

"There's hundreds of items I'd love to have, "he says, "but they're hard to come by."

A tall pendulum clock ticks away in a corner. Is it marking time or an expiration date just around the corner?

Hard to say.

But for now a collection that began with a Campfire marshmallow tin is still a love affair in full bloom.

The same can be said for the owners.