Joseph F. Berenato
Locals show off unique collections
For many, collecting certain items is a lifelong passion, beginning at an early age.
For Keith Gazzara, his interest in collecting started because his mother told him “to get a hobby.”
“She said, ‘You need something to occupy yourself.’ Back in the day, stamp collecting was the thing from President Roosevelt, and my uncles collected stamps. I started collecting stamps and I really enjoyed the artwork on them. Then, I gravitated towards coins, especially looking at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics collectors’ coins that were being put out by the U.S. Mint. I thought they were pretty nice,” Gazzara said.
Gazzara said that collecting coins grew into a “passion of collecting for the artwork and the beauty of it, but also collecting the coins as an investment.”
“I expanded my collection beyond U.S. Mint proof coins to collecting other countries. When my daughter was born in 2019, I made it a mission to buy coins for her from various banks around the world from the year she was born so that she has them when she’s older. I have the complete commemorative set from the U.S. Mint. I have the commemorative set from Royal Mint from England and one from Switzerland, and I’m waiting for a friend of mine to get me a set from Greece,” Gazzara said.
Gazzara said that he now has thousands of coins in his collection.
“I start cataloging them a few years ago, and I’m about halfway through. Life took a detour when my daughter was born, and I’ve put that on hold for the past couple of years,” Gazzara said.
Many of the coins in Gazzara’s collection may not hold much by way of monetary value—beyond face value—but he is drawn to their historic significance, particularly with his oldest coin, which was minted during the Roman Empire.
“It’s a bronze coin; it’s still covered in mud and grit. It has no value other than its historical value, but it’s interesting that it came from the first century. I also own a coin from Spain from the 16th century. You’re holding a piece of metal in your hand, and who could have held it? Who knows the story behind it? It’s romantic to think about the history of it,” Gazzara said.
The majority of his collection, Gazzara said, consists of mint proof coins—including his two favorite sets.
“The U.S. Mint put out a coin set for the 500th anniversary of the landing of Christopher Columbus. I have two silver coins and the gold coin that goes along with it. It’s a proof mint set, and that set really is probably my most-prized one ... However, my overall favorite is my £5 2010 silver proof coin of John Lennon from the Royal Mint, because it combines two of my favorites: coin collecting and The Beatles,” Gazzara said.
Even given their value, Gazzara has no plans to part with them—or any of the others.
“They’ll stay in my collection, and I hope one day to give them to my daughter,” Gazzara said.
Some individuals revel in collecting unconventional items. For Jane Velazquez, that comes by way of sewing patterns—a passion that first began in high school.
“When I started sewing at 16 in high school, Mrs. [Rose Rita] Guerere taught us to treat our patterns well so we could use them over and over again. I thought that was so cool. They’re very delicate. I knew I’d keep sewing in college, and through my life, so I wanted to save them forever,” Velazquez said.
Velazquez, who holds a bachelor of fine arts in fashion design, now has more than 200 patterns in her collection. She noted that sewing patterns are “made cheaply, even though they’re expensive to buy.”
“When I use one I pack it back up nicely to use again. If people are giving some away, I have to take them. I used to buy them up when they went on clearance just to have them,” Velazquez said.
Keeping track of them, Velazquez said, is relatively easy.
“As an artist, nothing in my life is organized, but I know where all my patterns are, and bought cubbies to keep them in—plus totes in the basement, garage and even the trunk of my car,” Velazquez said.
Velazquez’s collection of patterns—which has been growing for 25 years and runs the gamut from clothing to handbags, stuffed animals, baby accessories and more—is a diverse mix of varying fashion tastes and seasonal items.
“Sometimes you buy a pattern just because it’s cool, and you might use it someday, like buying Halloween costume patterns—which are my favorite—off-season. Some of my favorites are the severely outdated styles like men’s Nehru jackets. I’ll never use it, but I had to have it ... I love old or out-of-print patterns. They’re so nostalgic. I have a lot from the ‘70s and ‘80s,” Velazquez said.
Nostalgia has also driven Greg White in his passion for collecting—in his case, model trains.
“I was a kid of the ‘50s, so my dad had Lionel trains. We had a big display in the basement; it was O-scale at the time, and it was a pretty big layout. Kids would come over, and we’d all have fun around the trains and stuff. I’d fly around the corner and hit the oil tank, and it would go down to the floor—which didn’t go over so big,” he said.
White met his wife-to-be, Debb, in Syracuse, N.Y. when he began a collection of his own.
“When we were young marrieds, I started into HO-scale trains. I was in a corporate environment, so, as I was promoted we ended up moving, and I had built a very big layout in New Hampshire. We moved to Reading, Pa., then we moved to St. Louis, Mo. to corporate headquarters. I got tired of taking this thing apart and putting it back together with each move. There was a pending move coming, and I decided to sell it all. I sold all the rolling stock—about 200 pieces—to a coal miner in Illinois, and I was stuck with this big table that was the equivalent of seven four-by-eight sheets, laid out for HO. I advertised it, and one day a priest pulled up, we loaded it up and it went to the rectory ... Other than having a big G-scale train—which I have outside and inside—I was totally away from trains,” he said.
When their oldest daughter, Jessica, moved to Hammonton, Greg and Debb White soon followed, and settled in town in May of 2017.
“Three years before we even bought this house, I started collecting trains for this thing that I had in my head that I would be building, so one of the main things when we were moving to Hammonton was finding a suitable basement ... It was kind of a nostalgia thing, getting back into trains, but it was also a way for me to release my creativity,” he said.
The “thing” that Greg White built is a multi-tiered platform which he said took “about two and a half years before I finished all the plywood decking.”
“The top two layers were fully completed within three months ... It’s 32 feet long by about 10 at its deepest,” he said.
The pandemic afforded Greg White more time to work on the massive diorama.
“That’s when I started having fun putting the lower level in, which is G scaled. It’s almost a forced perspective as you’re looking up a hill ... There’s seven full main lines: two in the top, three in the middle and two in the bottom. They can all run at once; I actually run two of the trains on one of the lower G-scale layouts, so I can run eight trains at once,” he said.
The train diorama has its own room, and is the centerpiece of his collection, which, between engines and cars, contains approximately 200 pieces—and also includes more than 250 railroad artifacts throughout the house.
“The intent, for me, as a retirement thing, my whole goal was to keep it simple. I’m not a person that likes to switch and couple; I like to turn them on, lean back with something to drink, and watch them run. I’m in my own little fantasy world,” he said.
Greg White isn’t the only collector in the house. Debb White has her share of collectibles, though she was quick to point out that she doesn’t “have any collections that are near the size of Greg’s.
“I tend to go from one thing to another and then back again. It’s a very eclectic type of collecting sometimes,” she said.
Among her collectibles are various pieces of Stickley furniture, an old diner-style jukebox, a large coffee grinder and more, but there are certain pieces that form a theme.
“I have quite a few horses and kids’ riding toys. I have a lot of them,” she said.
Debb White said that her fascination with such pieces probably began with her husband’s interest in ride-on trains.
“That soon turned into anything that kids could use as small children, like our Mobo walking snail. It walks across the floor, and the horses do the same thing,” she said.
Debb White said that she has other vintage toys in her collection, many of them made from tin. She noted that, though seemingly eclectic, her collection is carefully curated.
“You could spend thousands and thousands of dollars on some of the tin toys, but the ones that we have, have particular relevance to us. Greg and I remember going to carnivals in the ‘50s, where rollercoasters looked like that and Ferris wheels looked like that. Sometimes, we just buy things to remind us of that. In one of our rooms, we have a pinball machine; it’s a state fair pinball machine. Greg and I went to the state fair in Syracuse, N.Y. when we were dating,” she said.
Another jewel in her collection is a large post office counter that originated in Grubville, Mo.
“We found that in the basement of an old antique place ... I just fell in love with it. We lived in a little town in New Hampshire that had a general store, and the post office was in the store—and it looked just like that,” she said.
The desire to collect pieces from their shared life together is what drives much of their selection.
“A lot of these things bring us back to some point in our own history. That’s what makes our collection; they’re things that are memorable to us,” Debb White said.