Hanging on to the past

Some of them collect coins; others go for music on vinyl. They collect for the love of the collectibles.

Story: Leigh Neely and Paula F. Howard
Photos: Anthony Rao and Nicole Hamel

“The Big Bang Theory” TV show brought a lot of people out of the shadows. These were the people who had great collections. The group of scientists (and one engineer) on the show made the comic book store a main part of it, and their “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” memorabilia was the décor in their apartments.

There are a great many collectors in this part of Central Florida, and Style is happy to share their stories.

Lego my set

Dr. Maen Hussein serves on the Florida Cancer Specialists executive board as physician director of finance. He also sits on the board of the Florida Cancer Specialists Foundation and the Florida Society of Clinical Oncology. Needless to say, his work is very serious and can be stressful at times. He relieves that stress the same way he did as a child—by building projects with his favorite LEGO building bricks.

“I’ve been building with LEGOs since I was 6 years old, and I’m 47 now,” Maen says. “I still remember one of the first sets my mother bought me. It was the police station, and I was so excited about it.”

The good doctor thinks he has around 300 sets but admits he lost count long ago. However, many of them are in mint condition and still in the boxes. 

“I gave away lots, too, to the school, my family’s and employees’ kids and friends,” he says.

What was his favorite project? “I enjoy building with ‘Star Wars’ LEGOs, and my last favorite one was the James Bond Aston Martin,” Maen says. “It has lots of gadgets.”

He has around 20 or 30 sets on display between the playroom and the attic in his home. “My son has many that he displays in his room,” Maen adds. 

“My job is very stressful and demanding. Besides activities with the family, there are two activities that relieve my stress: playing soccer—but that requires others and specific times—and building LEGOs, which is something I can do by myself anytime I feel like it,” he says. “It helps me unwind after a long day; it also helps me maintain my focus. It is like a good brain exercise and lots of fun.”

Maen says some people don’t understand why he’s obsessed with LEGOs, but he’s clear on what it brings to him personally.

“To me, it brings the inner child out. It reminds me of days when I enjoyed making words and stories with my brother and best friend while building LEGOs,” the doctor says. “It relieves my stress after a long day, and it is something I also share with my boys, especially my son Zade, who is an amazing LEGO builder. But Zach also loves the space themes. To me, it’s not just a hobby, it is therapy.”

Like many project managers, Maen keeps building, but sometimes he has other objectives in mind.

“My next project is to fight the myth some mothers are spreading about LEGOs being painful to step on,” he says. 

Three coins in the family

Bill Olsen says he’s pretty sure 95 percent of the homes in America have at least one person in them who collects coins.

“Someone usually saves coins. Talk to your relatives,” Bill says, “and learn about what they have.”

Bill began collecting when he was 8 years old, enjoying something that was readily available and easy to collect. Bill is the owner of Seymour Coins, a shop in Tavares that has been around for more than 30 years. Bill worked in construction most of his life and was a customer of Seymour Coins in the 1990s. When the original owner, Mr. Seymour, decided it was time to retire, Bill bought the shop. It is one of only two coin shops in Lake County.

“I became a vest-pocket dealer, which means I would buy, swap, and trade coins to enhance my collection,” Bill says. “You can try to get them cheaper by swapping and trading.”

For the person who’s interested in collecting and doesn’t know where to start, Bill advises them to collect what they want.

“Don’t worry about values. Just whatever you’re comfortable with collecting works best,” he adds. “I began collecting the Morgan dollar series when I was young. They are readily available and fairly impressive.”

This series of coins was minted from 1878 to 1904 and again in 1921. It was the first standard silver dollar minted since the Seated Liberty dollar.

Bill adds that error coins are always a collectible item. These occur when the coin is double-stamped, such as a 1955 penny, or a Buffalo nickel where the animal has only three legs.

“I love all of it. I don’t zero in on one particular coin,” Bill says. “Knowledge is the key. Do reading and research and look at as much material as you can, visit coin shops, join a coin club, or do online research.”

He encourages new collectors to be smart about it. They should learn how to grade coins. Though this is the hardest part, it’s the most important. Once they learn this, they can buy, sell, or trade without worry of someone taking advantage of them.

From baseball cards to a restaurant

“In 1978, my young son came home with a pack of baseball cards and he said, ‘Hey, Dad, I bet you’ve never seen anything like this before,’” says Ben Essex, of The Villages. “So, I took him over to my parents’ house and dug out four shoeboxes of my old baseball cards from 1958 to show him.”

Their father-son bonding took off from there.

 Years later, when his son became more interested in girls and cars, Ben says he stayed interested in girls and cards and then met his second wife, Surita, a watercolor artist who had her own collection of sports items. The Village of Alhambra couple, originally from Illinois, came to Central Florida in 2014 after Ben retired as a deputy sheriff.

“After the cards, I began collecting sports memorabilia with autographs, such as footballs, photos, and other sports objects,” he says. “One prized piece is signed by three sports greats, including Mickey Mantle of the New York Yankees, Willie Mays of the New York Giants, and Duke Snider of the Brooklyn Dodgers framed all together.”

Their Christmas tree is one big homage to all things sports, including wooden sports ornaments and strings of Chicago Bears helmet lights. 

His son now manages Kelly’s Bleachers III in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a sports complex with a restaurant where much of Ben’s valuable collection hangs along the walls. Ben belongs to Sports Memorabilia, a club in The Villages where he displays and sells many of his prized possessions.

Siding with vinyl

Mark Roberts has been a collector since his years in the Marine Corps, beginning in 1993. He was stationed in Japan and had to wait a year for the collectible cards he wanted to reach the Pacific.

Once he returned to the United States, he began collecting in earnest and his interest in baseball and football cards eventually expanded to diecast cars, along with vintage movie and record posters. 

“I worked full time and hit all the flea markets and garage sales on weekends,” Mark says. “I have so much stuff now, it’s in my store, Not Just Cardboard, in a 4,000-square-foot warehouse, and in storage buildings. I collected so much I decided I wanted to help others build their collections, too.”

Collecting is a family affair as Mark’s son and daughter, Lauren and Daniel, and his mother, Peggy, also help out at the store and with inventory. His store is at 709 W. North Blvd. in Leesburg. 

Diecast cars are his passion. The prolific collector has Hot Wheels and Matchbox vehicles, including tanks, trains, boats, and every kind of car out there.

Posters and records have an equal passion with the collector. “I think of my posters as artwork. I really like Marilyn Monroe stuff, and I would hang it in my home if my wife would let me,” Mark says.

“I grew up with Billy Joel, Van Halen, Arlo Guthrie, Kiss, and vinyl is such a big thing now,” he adds. “I think that was because of the amazing cover artwork. I love music. I sang in the high school choir and the church choir. I just like music in general.”

Mark says what he prefers about the “oldies” is you can hear and understand the words of the songs. “That’s what I love. I’ve moved to country music now because those artists still do it that way.”

Baseball cards and daughters

“I really enjoy collecting sports cards,” says Villager Stu Sachs, who describes his collection as huge.

“It started 35 years ago when my daughters liked two baseball players: Gary Carter and Keith Hernandez, both of the New York Mets. So, we bought a few baseball cards. It was a way to bond with them,” Stu says.

When both girls went off to college, Stu inherited their collections, which he plans to keep until the girls want them back.

“I enjoy looking at them and displaying them around the house, which is OK with my wife as long as they’re confined in one place. Of course, you have to preserve them against moisture, dirt, and damage. But collecting helps you to remember things,” he says. 

The most valuable card he ever owned and sold was a Tom Seaver card from 1967 when the future hall of famer was a rookie pitcher for the New York Mets.

“I sold it to an individual for $1,000,” says Stu, who wouldn’t share how much he paid for it.

“The most valuable card out there today is a (1909) Honus Wagner baseball card,” Stu says. The rare card has sold for more than $3 million, according to news reports.

“The old cards came in cigar or cigarette packages back then,” he says. “Then they came with bubblegum until the early 1980s, when other companies besides Topps began putting them on the market. In the late ’50s, cards with bubble gum cost a nickel a pack; today, Topps online is selling a pack of three cards without gum. They have also just launched a set of Marvel comic book collectible cards.”

Ol’ Blue Eyes

When Linda Fernicola was 2 years old, her older brother used to tell her, “Say ‘Oh, Frankie’ and swoon,” which she promptly did. She’s not still swooning over Frank Sinatra, but she’s still collecting memorabilia to add to what she has all over her home in the Village of Alhambra in The Villages.

“I’ve been collecting for more than 25 years and I’ve seen him perform seven times in person,” Linda says. “I saved all my tickets.”

One of her favorite concerts was Frank’s 75th birthday celebrations at Meadowlands Arena in New Jersey, where she also saw Liza Minnelli and Sammy Davis Jr.

“I was on the eighth row, and my daughter taped it. I could see myself in the audience on the tape,” Linda says.

Among her collection items are Frank Sinatra official stamps from the U.S. Postal Service, New Jersey lottery tickets, and a Turner Classic Movies poster of Frank and Gene Kelly singing and dancing in “Anchors Aweigh” that her son-in-law “took” from a display on a train.

Linda has a group of collectible plates with recordings of Frank singing his songs and a group of small figurines that also play his recordings. However, one of the figurines is an instrumental, and Linda called the company about it.

“I told them I didn’t want an instrumental song on any of these. It should always be Frank singing. I was not happy,” she says.

There are photos or something from her Frank Sinatra collection in every room of her house. The laundry room walls are lined with photographs and posters. One of the photos is autographed especially to Linda.

“My husband worked with a man named Ernie who knew Frank, and he kept saying, ‘You gotta get me a picture of Frank,’” Linda says. “Eventually, my husband came home with it, and I love it.”

When asked what it was that made her such a fan of Frank Sinatra, Linda says, “The voice, the phrasing. His whole attitude on life was great. I know he had his dark moods, but most people don’t know about all the good things he did. When his mother died, he paid off the mortgage of the church where the funeral was held. He should have won an Academy Award for ‘The Man with the Golden Arm.’”

Her late brother, who used to make her swoon, had all of Frank’s records, which now belong to his son. “We used to have one of those wind-up Victrolas and we’d listen to him all the time,” Linda says.

Anything to do with Frank Sinatra can be cause for a special event for Linda.

“I had a 100th birthday party with all my friends for him. There was a big sign on my garage that said, ‘Happy Birthday, Ol’ Blue Eyes,’ and I served all Italian dishes,” Linda says. “We had a great time.”

On the anniversary of his death every year, Linda, who is Catholic, sends money to a saint in honor of his memory. She has visited the place where the home he grew in used to be and has a framed copy of his birth certificate and a box of books about him in a closet. She also has a framed photo of Frank with the famous Rat Pack, the group that included Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop, Sammy Davis Jr., and Dean Martin.

“I didn’t see him perform live until after his first retirement,” Linda says. “The first time was at Madison Square Garden. It was in the nose-bleed section, but I was still in the same room with Frank.”

Still loves super heroes

Years ago, Chris Sinclair, of the Village of Silver Lake in The Villages, picked up his first comic book featuring Spiderman at the cost of 20 cents. To his 8-year-old mind, “It was pretty cool. I wanted to swing like that,” he says.

So, naturally, he went out and bought another comic book, which started a lifetime of collecting them. Like most kids who read comic books, Chris learned more than most adults would imagine.

“I still have my first comic book,” he says now at 55, “but it’s in terrible shape.”

Today, he buys them, reads them, and packages them in plastic sleeves before filing them in specially shaped boxes made for comic book collectors. 

“At one time, my collection was well over 20,000, and I needed a storage unit. I met a woman who lived in another state, and when ready to propose, I sold most of my collection to finance the move, the proposal, everything. Two weeks before I was going to leave, she died,” he says. “How tragic. Not only did I miss my fiancée, but I was also mourning most of my comics.”

 He slowly recovered and began rebuilding his collection.

For years, Chris performed around the country as a standup comic, even appearing on his own TV show in Milwaukee until retiring. That part of his life changed, but never his love for the beautiful artwork, the multitude of characters, and the various story arcs of the comics.

The world of comic books encompasses several universes from the mind of the late writer Stan Lee, who is revered. Separate worlds hold the Spiderverse, the Avengers, and the X-Men, who are mutants. 

“That’s the Canadian mutant superhero group,” Chris says. “Back in the 1980s, John Byrne, a Canadian who worked on the X-Men series, wanted his own country represented in the comics. One difference between American and Canadian superheroes is Canadians are more polite. When they bash a villain, they’ll apologize right there in the story: ‘Oops, sorry.’

“The most valuable comics are key issues,” Chris says. “Those are first editions of first appearances of a character. A key issue could also be the death of an important character or even a change in story writers. Those are the kinds of things you want and will definitely pay big bucks for collecting.”

While Chris has a lot of key issues among his thousands of comics, he showed a copy of the first comic he ever bought.

Isn’t that also a first edition?

“Yes, but it’s not the actual comic,” he says. In the world of comic books, publishers may produce a “variant,” which is also a first edition but has a different cover. Collectors are very exacting.

“I just attended Comic Con at the Orange County Convention Center where 75,000 people were buying, selling, and trading,” Chris says. “I loved the new ‘Avengers’ movie and am looking forward to ‘Dark Phoenix,’ a movie coming out soon that features Jean Gray, a mutant from the Marvel Universe.”

His best advice: “Only collect comics if you enjoy them,” Chris says. “Don’t buy comic books if you think it’s a good investment, because that’s not where the enjoyment is. It’s in the beauty of the artwork, the story lines, and the memories.”