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Cambria and the Culture of Collectibles.
My next book, NFTS ARE A SCAM // NFTS ARE THE FUTURE drops in booksellers nationwide on May 16, 2023 (Pre-order today!). The collection of essays originally opened with this mid-pandemic anecdote (below) of running into my friend Cambria at the mall. In mid-2021, I was still trying to make sense of NFTs and why they had taken center stage in my life. Was it the innovative tech, the fast money, or was it the friendships? As I visited collectibles shows like Frank and Son, spent time with my son in sports card shops, and traded sneakers on StockX, I realized the same phenomenon was happening elsewhere - not just in Web3.
While I had become obsessed with NFTs, Cambria had somehow tripped and stumbled into collecting Mid Century Modern glassware. At first glance, hunting and selling MCM looked worlds apart from the crypto pyramid schemes and day-trading frenzy of million-dollar JPEGs, but once I peered inside her subculture, I realized that many of the same dynamics were at play.
At the last second, my publisher and I agreed to excise this chapter because it didn’t quite fit with the tone of the rest of the book. But, I think it’s still a revealing discussion of our social psychology during this fraught and rare season of human history.
Why do we collect? And what do our collectibles say about us?
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The last time I saw Cambria, she was modeling. Cambria’s the textbook definition of California beach blonde. With layered, windblown tresses framing ocean blue eyes and sunkissed freckles, she’s a retro ‘70s ad you’ve caught in a faded surf magazine. I ran into Cambria at the Grove. She and her husband - my old friend Ian - were trailing their son as he hobbled back and forth across the water fountain bridge. Ian and I have music in common but what we really like to talk about are collectibles, namely sports cards. As we compared notes on which NBA rookies were gaining in the marketplace, Ian pointed to Cambria and said, “Speaking of which, you should talk to her about what she’s fallen into.”
“What do you mean?”
“I know you’re deep-diving into crypto and NFTs,” Ian remarked, “Cambria’s kinda doing a similar thing in a different space.”
Ian called Cambria over and left us to walk their son to a kiosk.
“So, what’s this? You’re a collector too now?,” I inquired nosily.
Cambria smiles when she speaks, a full Julia Roberts set of teeth across Margot Robbie countenance. “It’s so crazy. Do you know anything about mid-century modern glass?”
“Mid-century glass? What’s that? Like vintage bongs?”
“No, it’s like old glassware. Here, look.”
Cambria opened her Instagram to a profile checkered with photos of thrift store kitchen objects and decorative items.
“Wait, whose page is this?” I wondered. “This isn’t the account I follow. You have a finsta?”
“This is my anonymous account – poppywildflowervintage - for collecting and selling mid-century modern glass. It then branches out into kitschy things…kinda like cutesy, vintage home goods. Usually made in Japan or Taiwan.”
On her grid, there were rows of colorful glass vases with cartoonishly long, narrow necks. They looked almost alien or Seussian.
“These are called swung vases, because the artists put the vase of the glass in a mold and swing the vase. As it’s swinging, the glass stretches. Every swung vase is given a unique mouth. That was my biggest obsession,” she continued, “where my collecting started.”
From the 1940s to the 1970s, companies around the world manufactured all sorts of art glass pieces for the home. The Jetsons-style bowls, candle holders, and dinnerware were inspired by the design trends of the time: modern, with simple, sensual lines, and funky shapes remindful of Eames chairs and Noguchi tables. When Cambria and Ian bought their first home outside of Los Angeles, the house’s mid-century modern architecture influenced her to stumble into the world of kitsch and vintage housewares. She walked into thrift shops and secondhand stores to buy furniture and accessories to match the house and would leave feeling curious about the funky odds and ends crowding the rusty shelves.
It wasn’t until Cambria saw a friend selling Fire King glassware, that she caught the bug, however. Search up “Kimberly mugs” and you’ll find charming drinking cups in a rainbow of gradient hues like bright orange, green and blue. The mugs are stackable and wrapped in a geometric diamond pattern. Although Kimberlys originated in the mid-20th century, you can still find plenty of affordable vintage pieces on eBay and in thrift shops. That’s exactly what snagged Cambria. Kimberly mugs led her to other pieces under the Fire King brand, which then bubbled up on her Explore page and introduced her to influencers in the space like Mid Mod Marion. She started researching and buying more and more mid-century modern (MCM) glass until the day she realized she’d crossed the line.
“I was like, ‘What am I gonna do with all this stuff?’” she laughed, “It’s not like I can return it…” So, then, Cambria started to sell it. You can guess what happened next. The camera loves Cambria, so once she took to IG Live and hosted her own shows, selling vintage treasures like speckled lucite candles and fairy lamps, she had an accidental business on her hands. Still, she wasn’t just in it for the money. She was quick to express, “This is my fun place. This is my escape.”
Years earlier, when Cambria’s pregnancy started showing, she left her modeling agency and never returned. MCM glass filled that creative void by starting off as a curiosity, then a hobby, before blossoming into a full-blown obsession.
“I think this community really took off because of COVID times. If you look at when people started their shops, it totally aligns. Because of so much uncertainty, so many people are not at their jobs, working from home… People’s wheels started spinning, ‘What else can I be doing?’ For me, it was, ‘I can turn a passion into a job.’”
The more I asked Cambria about kitsch and MCM glass, however, the more it became apparent that the appeal went beyond the objects themselves. While the art and design lured her into the space, there were two other factors that compelled her to dig deeper. For one, she talked about the people in the culture more than anything else. In March, she met a fellow collector named Dan (Atomic Emporium), who became not just her show co-host, but a close confidante. Even though they’ve never met in-person, “We are genuine friends,” she tells me, because their relationship now flourishes past the boundaries of collecting. Cambria also talks about pseudonyms and anonymity amongst collectors, as well as the dynamics of drama and beef in the tight-knit, online community. And she’s also appreciative of how MCM glass remains a fairly neutral, apolitical space where people can set aside their differences.
She recounts one IG Live show where a woman with “Trump” in her Instagram handle entered the room and was jeered by another viewer. The host (who Cambria claims, “I know for a fact she didn’t vote for Trump”) booted the heckling troll instead, reminding everyone to keep it civil in the comments.
“In here, it gets shut down. This is a safe place. Even if you have Trump flying in your handle, you can come in here and bid.”
Even though Cambria might hold opposing political views from another collector, the fact that she has a sanctuary to retreat from the divisive vitriol splashed across social media nowadays is reason enough to stay in MCM glass. “Anytime I click onto my personal page, I have to get out of there. Here, I’m in this blissful place.”
The other thing that keeps Cambria around is less in her control. Watching her come alive when she talks about MCM glass, it reminds me of sneaker collectors lined up at streetwear boutiques or art collectors darting from booth to booth at the art fairs. Go to the flea market and watch denim collectors sift through piles of used Levi’s and vintage T-shirts for hours. On Saturdays, I drive out to the California Cactus Center in Pasadena and listen to hardcore cactus heads unspool about repotting opuntias and how much sun an African Milk Tree needs. All of these collectors are in it for the love, but there’s also the shared code and camaraderie underlying the pastime, not to mention the prospect of striking resale gold.
Cambria tries to explain, “I feel like it just takes over my brain. I don’t know if it’s because it’s still so fresh for me. But, I will scroll and scroll on eBay and I’m hearting things, favorite-ing them. I’m just obsessed with it.”
At the turn of the millennium, I moved to Japan because of the burgeoning otaku subculture that was fanning out across Tokyo and the major cities. The term otaku comes from Akio Nakamori’s hentai manga magazine, Manga Burikko, and initially described geeky, nerdlike obsessions around anime. Although otaku went on to encompass cultlike followings around other pop culture like video games, vinyl toys, and streetwear, otaku entered the Japanese lexicon as a negative phenomenon because of its socially corrosive effects. I remember meeting up with my friend, the artist Usugrow, in a coffee shop in Roppongi on a cold November evening where he cautioned me on the dark evils hiding behind otaku. Watching me walk the halls of Harajuku and explore the otaku underground, Usugrow worried that I’d also get sucked into the insatiable obsessiveness.
Even in MCM glass, Cambria shares some of the same worries. “People are definitely addicted to vintage. It is a real thing. I’ve definitely known peoples’ personal experiences where they’re complaining about bills or borrowing money and then I’ll see them in a LIVE buying tons of stuff.”
I’m not sure if I’d paint Cambria’s hobby as otaku, but it feels uncannily familiar to the consuming zeal and passion that I’ve experienced with NFTs. In the midst of the pandemic, NFTs landed on my lap, and I haven’t been able to pull away since. Is it about the digital art or is it about the technology? Was I into it because of COVID boredom or was it stimulating because it opened a new creative lane? I often say that I’m mostly here for the conversation and community, having found a language that a very small group of people in the world speaks. Over the lockdown, I was starved for meaningful connection and was nourished by a society that was open to building a better future with me. While NFTs were making a lot of people money in 2021, we celebrated together over the thrill of victories. After the market slid in 2022, we realized the bonds were forged much stronger than crypto profits as friendships thrived.
There’s also something romantic about NFTs and crypto. In a spiritually bleak and apocalyptically dark time, there’s less and less to look forward to. Everywhere we turn, it’s a dead-end: climate crisis, civil war, quiet quitting jobs, and a depressed economy. Web3 is shapeless and mystical, but there are signs of promise in the atmosphere. It’s uncharted and the upside is game-changing for all. The most inspiring part is that, by its very nature, the only way crypto and Web3 succeed is if enough people believe in it - and believe in each other.
The sun is setting over the Cheesecake Factory sign at the Grove and Ian’s returning with their son. Cambria shares an anecdote from earlier that day.
“I was in a Goodwill and there was this goofy pumpkin, made out of something like paper mache. And I thought to myself, ‘This looks like something.’ Sure enough, I turned it over and it said ‘Bethany Lowe.’ I went straight to Google Lens and eBay immediately pulled up $875! Meanwhile, this thing is sitting in front of me with a sticker of $10 at Goodwill. It’s adrenaline. It’s exciting. Even if I sold it for $40, I’ve made money! That’s a huge part of it for me: The hunt. That’s so much a part of it – re-selling, vintage T-shirts, any of this stuff. Everyone’s looking for the unicorn.”
It was nice to run into Ian and Cambria. Even outside of the pandemic, it’d been years since we’d seen each other because of the busyness of life and family obligations. I gave them both big hugs and walked to the parking lot, wondering if maybe it’s not the NFTs or the MCM glass or the rare sneakers, Pokémon cards, Funko Pops, watches, and luxury handbags. Maybe it’s us. Maybe we are the unicorns we’re searching for.