WESTMONT – Down the stairs and into the basement, Joe Wagner carefully watched his step before turning a sharp corner, reaching for the doorway. In passing, the 68-year-old Wagner pointed to the flaps of matchboxes glued to a low ceiling and the couple of rows of hats outlining the narrow, dimly lit staircase.
Each one uniquely designed, the matchbooks – which look like tiny tiles from a distance – offer just a glimpse into Wagner’s creativity as a collector. He joked about how instead of repainting the ceiling, he’d just stick that matchbook right on, but the more he looked at it, the more he thought about what they meant to him, another memory on the books.
The faded logos and little caricatures tell the story of yesteryear, a time and a place where he and his wife, Pam, traveled to. By this point, more than a handful of those hotels and restaurants no longer exist, Wagner said. The hats, however, are freebies, from business conferences or local events.
Upon entering his basement, Wagner is ready to unveil his greatest masterpiece, his keychain collection. In the past 30 years, Wagner has amassed more than 30,000, but only his favorites have a spot on the wall. Inside shadow boxes, his special keychains are partnered with a dated ad, a movie poster or a cut-out image from Life magazine.
“I found an ad for underwear,” said Wagner, laughing, as he showed off one of his frames that displayed a mini men’s white brief keychain.
Wagner continued with a roll call as he looked around the room: “Boy Scouts, jukeboxes, Lifesavers, Welch’s grape, Spam. You know, Where’s Waldo?”
“Are you like sort of overwhelmed right now?” asked 66-year-old Pam, who trailed behind and stood near the staircase.
Joe smiled and walked over to the bathroom, revealing another surprise. He had already took down a few of Pam’s paintings to make room for another of his framed keychains, this one following a Legos theme.
This is a tamed version of their basement, the longtime Westmont couple said.
“All the walls, the ceiling was just lined, and I outgrew it,” Joe said. “What happens is when you start going alphabetical and then every time you get like two or three more [keychains], you run out of room. So, you’ve got to move everything.”
In the laundry room, Joe shows off a pile of boxes labeled from A to Z and a filing cabinet stuffed with more of his prized possessions. On a recent summer trip to Alaska, Joe came home with at least 30 keychains that honored the state nicknamed the Last Frontier.
By trade, Joe was a locksmith.
“I rekeyed someone’s house or store, they’d say, ‘Keep the keys,’ and there’d be a keychain on there,” he said of how it all began. “I took the keychains off and put them into a can. I got a little board, got a bigger board, [went into] the basement, and now, it’s just nuts!”
Aside from making rounds at flea markets, garage sales and antique stores across the United States, Joe has received keychains as gifts from friends and family, some of whom have traveled abroad. Joe said that he’s even enlisted the help of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Westmont to translate the language depicted on a couple of his keychains.
Beyond that, Joe’s massive collection also includes keychains as mementos from strangers who have caught wind about his pastime.
Upstairs, on the kitchen table, Joe opened a book with handwritten letters from people near and far, all of them accompanied by a keychain. One of them is a real rabbit’s foot, another is from a local motel.
“We all struggle in school with history because it’s in a book, but when you get to live it with this or go on vacation ...” Joe said, as his voice trailed off while flipping through the pages of his makeshift keepsake.
Tub after tub, bag after bag, Joe dumped his keychains on the table. They come in different shapes and sizes. There are shoes, glasses, binoculars and motorcycle jackets; others have names of organizations, addresses and phone numbers printed across. They are made out of plastic, brass and leather, all of which determine their monetary value and need for care.
“I read an article once about a keychain collector who said you’re not a collector unless you have aliens,” he said, laughing. “So, there’s all my aliens.”
At the edge of the table is Joe’s “Bible,” a thick, black binder sectioned off by bright, colorful folders and their matching categories. Joe keeps an itemized list, tallying his treasures. “You name a subject,” he said.
Every now and then, Joe thinks about the future of his collection, who will inherit it or what will become of it.
“The big question is what do I do when I die?” he reflected. “I got two kids and three grandkids. Nobody [has] stepped forward by saying, ‘Yeah, I’d like it.’ ”
Pam chimed in: “Actually my daughters-in-law look at each other and [say] like, ‘Oh, no, you can have it. No, no, you can have it!’ ’’
He’s thought of offering them to the village of Westmont or working with an organization to put them on display in a museum-like setting as a way to preserve them. But until that day comes, they are all here at his house where they are kept safe and sound.
“Well, there’s history in here,” Joe said.