There’s a certain art to collecting that a few people excel at. Anyone can accumulate stuff, but how many can collect relatively common stuff people will actually want later? This is often a problem for collectors who invest years or decades into amassing a veritable museum exhibition worth of material only to find that there either isn’t a buyer interested in paying the asking price or worse, there isn’t a market at all. This isn’t the case for a collector in Virginia who has put their entire 25,000-piece Hot Wheels collection up for sale for the seemingly low price of $5 per car, which works out to a respectable US$125,000. While reading about the sale, I thought back to the things I used to collect and thanked the stars I’m not still making space for the things I really enjoyed having in my home as a young adult; books, CDs, and anime.

CDs and anime were huge passions of mine up until the autumn of 2000 when the basement apartment I lived in was robbed. It was a fought loss, as there were clear signs that the perpetrator had been watching me for some time. In addition to working full time at an appliance repair store, I ran a computer assembly and repair shop out of my apartment. This meant that someone watching me would see boxes on an almost daily basis for things like cases, CPUs, monitors, and the like. The computer shop was completely self-financed and unregistered, meaning there was no insurance policy on any of the stock that would be on hand at any given time. Me being me, I made sure that my machine was top of the line as much as possible, and it was left running [email protected] for the entire day while I was at the day job.

You can probably see what happened next.

One fateful day I received a phone call from the landlord who suggested I come home right away because our places were ransacked. Between my basement apartment and the landlord’s house was a thin door made essentially of cardboard. It took nothing for the perpetrator to break through it and go through both homes while we were out at work. Someone watching the house would know that nobody would be present between 8:30am and 4:30pm. That’s a lot of time to peruse an undefended building. I was unable to leave work early but, come 7:00pm, I locked up the store and headed straight home to find a police cruiser parked outside and my landlord on the lawn talking to a pair of officers. After introducing myself, I was allowed downstairs to determine what had been taken or damaged.

It's probably easier to say what wasn't taken or damaged.

  1. the fridge
  2. the dirty dishes
  3. the TV
  4. the laundry
  5. the book collection1
  6. half of my workstation-grade computer

Everything else was gone. 150+ CDs. 60+ anime DVDs, many of which were imported from Japan at great expense. The good, professional-grade kitchen knife set2. The partially completed computers I was building for clients. The RAM, video card, new Pentium III CPU, and DVD burner from my workstation. And, if that wasn't bad enough, the rat bastard took my favourite coffee mug; a large, black X-Files mug.

The police asked me to compile a list of everything missing and fax it to them the following day. I asked if there was any chance of the things being returned but, of course, this almost never happens. Given the sheer amount of stuff that was taken and how much it would have weighed, the culprit was obviously a neighbour. My bet was that someone in the low-apartments next to the house was spying and hit at the right moment. All in all, I was out several thousand dollars. I didn't have insurance, because what sort of 19 year old buys insurance?

My girlfriend at the time3 didn't much care, as nothing she was interested in was taken. Her father, however, imparted some very wise words:

The more you have, the more you have to worry about.

He was hardly a minimalist, but he was incredibly pragmatic. He also had an affinity for hard alcohol and introduced me to a number of liqueurs that I would binge on half a year later4.

After the robbery, I was very careful about the things that I bought. What was the point of collecting things?, I wondered. Most of the time they just collect dust on a shelf5.

This was when I consciously decided that if I could get a digital version of a thing, that would be the way to go. When something is digital, it's much harder to eradicate every copy. The one exception to this, though, was the book collection. There is something alluring about a physical book. While I did occasionally buy digital books from PalmReader, Chapters was my go-to for a good read … until July 2007, when I had to make a number of tough decisions about what moves to Japan and what stays behind in Canada. Books are lovely tomes of knowledge and/or make-believe, but they're also incredibly heavy. So much so, that UPS quoted me just over $1000 to send the book collection by sea to the new home.

The decision was not an easy one, but the book collection had to stay behind. I sold some of the technical books to friends and friends of friends, then donated the rest to the library down the street. Almost a thousand books. Left behind.

Again, the question went through my head: What is the point of collecting things?

There is certainly an appeal to acquiring and maintaining items that bring a certain modicum of joy. My father has a collection of 1957 Chevrolet BelAir toys, and even managed to receive a real '57 Chevy for his 60th birthday6. For a time he and I also collected hockey and Star Trek cards. Watching the collections grow, sharing the joy with interested people, and doing the research on the nascent Internet to locate "rare" items was incredibly fun. Seeing the collections disappear, though ….

So now here I am, a dozen years after moving to Japan, having zero physical collections to my name. The digital photos, music, movies, books, podcasts, documents, and other items that I consider irreplaceable are backed up to a NAS in my home as well as two cloud services. My home could burn to the ground and Japan could sink into the ocean like Atlantis, but my most important data will be recoverable.

The more stuff we have, the more stuff we have to worry about. Data is not classified the same way as "stuff" in my mind. While data is forever accumulating, the amount of physical space it requires is perpetually shrinking. So, for me, this is the way to go. It may never have the same resale value as a Hot Wheels collection or a Wayne Gretzky rookie card, and it never has to.

  1. 100+ Star Trek books, a ton of other science fiction, and technical books on subjects like C++ and Sybase. There was also a large number of religious studies books, as this was about 18 months after "the incident" that pushed me away from organised religion, but they were seldom looked at when I lived on my own.

  2. I had bought these from a friend who worked as a salesman for one of the door-to-door cutlery companies of the time. I can't remember the name … something like CutCo, I think.

  3. One day I should write about this odd relationship. Not today, though.

  4. Another story for another time, perhaps.

  5. The CDs were all ripped so that I didn't scratch the disc or break those flimsy cases. The anime was also ripped so that I wouldn't scratch the disc or get fingerprints all over the cases. As usual, I paid attention to all the wrong things.

  6. It's been slowly restored over the last three years and might be "complete" at some point this coming spring.