Andrew Wood earned his doctorate in rhetoric and historiography in 1998 (Ohio University) and currently teaches Communication Studies at San José State University. He loves old roadside motels and the ephemera they spawned. We talked about his fascination with motels in the following interview.
Wood: As long as I can remember, motels held an attraction as sites of intrigue and even some danger. When I was very young my mother and I found ourselves, to put it politely, in between homes, and we stayed at a couple of motels for a while. It was a strange thing to be at school, just like everyone else, and yet return to a motel room at night, particularly when everyone else slept in their own beds. Hearing the cars rumble along outside , the comings and goings of strangers, reminded me of the precariousness of our situation. Yet, it was exciting too--a strange sort of fun. Instead of eating what my Mom put on the dining room table, I was able to get whatever I wanted at the attached diner. To a ten year old kid, that made living in a motel pretty cool. Eventually, we got back on our feet, but years later, I couldn't quite get the association of motels with unease and excitement out of my mind. As you'd imagine, a steady diet of motel-themed horror movies--Psycho, Motel Hell, and the like--only added to the allure.
Yet, strangely enough, back in 1996, when my family took our first real road trip for fun, I'd long forgotten the details of my motel fascination. I simply found motels to be aesthetically pleasing in their compact efforts to recreate some semblance of place. Often old and shabby, the Mom and Pop motel reflected a sort of cultural detritus, of times that had come and gone. I particularly sought out the streamline-modern masterpieces of stucco and glass block, for they reminded me of William Gibson's semiotic ghosts, bits and pieces of yesterday's tomorrow. So motels were all about photographs and interviews back then. Yet on that trip I spotted a postcard of the Sunset Motel, south of St. Louis. It was a "new" version of the same motel I'd seen on that same trip, a vision of what its original owners intended and a sharp contrast to what it had become in the intervening years. That sealed the deal for me, when I discovered that postcards could serve as vivid comparisons between then and now. On that trip I decided I would collect motel memorabilia.
ephemera: Your postcard story reminds me of the Tom Waits' song Time, in which Tom sings about being East of St. Louis "and the wind is making speeches". This vintage motel ephemera has that Waitsesque feel to it, which I really love. It's pure Americana like Waits. What challenges or obstacles do you encounter in collecting this material? How do you overcome these challenges?
Wood: These are great days to collect ephemera. When I started, collecting required sifting for hours through antique shops, bemoaning the owner's lack of organization. "Sure we have postcards, a whole box of 'em," they'd say with a smile. But the box was usually a few hundred chrome-era cards, mostly of European castles, and maybe--maybe--a Holiday Inn or two. I enjoyed listening to the forties-era music and chatting with fellow collectors, but I wished I could be more efficient in finding what I wanted. Eventually, I began to attend large shows, such as the wonderful Cow Palace collectibles expo near San Francisco, buying stacks of gorgeous linen cards, and sometimes getting some huge bargains. And then came eBay . Now I can find pretty much any card I want, or I can leave a reminder for eBay to contact me should a long-sought card appear. The prices are generally reasonable, though the collective intelligence of the market means that I find fewer bargains, since at least one other person in the world knows the value of a card that I seek. The remaining obstacles, of course, are sniping and other forms of artificial price inflation.
ephemera: What are your favorite items in your collection?
Wood: It's impossible to choose. While I collect linen motel postcards, even that focus allows a number of specializations. On a given day, I'll point out my sub-collection of Wigwam Villages, Alamo Plazas, sombrero-themed motel postcards, or art deco-streamline modern motels. But, if I had to point out a couple of my favorite cards, I'd probably show off my Blue Swallow and Coral Court postcards. The Blue Swallow is recognized as the quintessential Mom and Pop motel, particularly when it was run by Lillian Redman. I feel particularly honored to have met her and gotten her signature on a card. The Coral Court was demolished before I started hitting the highway, so I treasure my gorgeous linen card as a keepsake of those places I never got to visit.
ephemera: I never thought of a motel owner as a celebrity. That's a great story about getting her autograph on the card. What's your advice for achieving success as a collector?
Wood: Collect for the pleasure of collecting--don't get wrapped up in comparative values. A card collection is kind of like buying an expensive house. Both require care and maintenance, and both may increase in value or lose value through the vagaries of the market. So, buy because you enjoy the object itself; buy because having and sharing the object gives you joy. If you can make some sort of profit later on, that's nice too, but don't define your pleasures from the choices of other collectors. That being said, there's nothing sadder than a poorly maintained postcard collection. So, don't skimp on archival quality materials. You want to enjoy your collection--and potentially pass it to a loved one--for years and years.
ephemera: That's great advice--something I've heard from quite a number of the collectors I've spoken with over the years. What resources do you recommend to would-be collectors of roadside Americana?
Wood: Since so much of my collection is based on knowledge of roadside Americana, I try to read as much as I can about the great two-lane highways of the United States, remembering references to meaningful and historically significant motels. Like many fans of Route 66, I started with the Rittenhouse and Snyder Guides and the Wallis book. My reading list has expanded much since then, but the practice remains the same: When I hear about a great motel, I try to visit the site once or twice and learn something of its history. Then I search and search--again, often using eBay--to find the cards that help me maintain some of that motel's memory. Once a card goes into my collection, it'll be scanned, and then placed in a rigid sleeve in an acid-free box. I keep me postcard boxes in a cool, dry space, but I frequently sift through the cards to enjoy the memories that they contain.
ephemera: Yeah, it's important to strike a balance between protecting your collection and being able to really enjoy it. That's a great point. Thanks for sharing your collection with us, Andy. It's really been a treat.
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