News & Features » Cover Story

Paper Trail

In a digital age, John Whiting buys and sells a fading past.

1 comment

IN A GRIPPING scene from “A Beautiful Mind,” the 2001 Oscar-winning movie starring Russell Crowe, more than 200 old Life magazines are plastered all over the walls of an outdoor shed. It's part of a key revelation about a mathematician struggling with reality. For John Whiting, who supplied those magazines to Hollywood, it was a key moment of business success.

It “was the biggest project I was involved with,” says Whiting, who deals in the unsexy, pre-Internet and seemingly forgotten world of paper — smudged fingertips on pulpy newsprint, tactile encounters with glossy magazine paper. He's after the stuff that survived the trash because of remarkable headlines or emotional appeal, clippings stashed away as family archives, snapshots of the day and time.

“Sometimes I have this nightmare that I'm drowning in paper,” Whiting says. Step back in time and into his store, Whiting's Old Paper, near Atlee, and you'll see why.

“Long story short, nostalgia primarily drives the old paper market,” says the man with the graying ponytail, standing in the midst of a stack of old magazines. “There's a sixth sense that tells you if something is valuable. People who run across stashes of old paper products in garages and attics sometimes rely on emotional appeal rather than historical market value in deciding what to do with them.”

Whiting has 36 years of experience cultivating that sixth sense needed to honestly and objectively assess a wide variety of paper products, making him one of the mid-Atlantic's more active paper dealers. His broad focus not on a few select items but on the everyday ephemera that filled most households and businesses from the 18th and 19th centuries, and in some cases up to the 1970s, make the first door on the left upon entering the Hanover Antique Village the quintessential sensory shopping environment for those who like to journey through the past.

Whiting's Old Paper isn't high-brow; visitors won't find fancy, overpriced framed posters amidst classical music, the burble of an espresso machine and strict instructions not to touch. It looks more like a bomb went off in certain sections. But that paradoxically chaotic yet somehow systematic jumble attests to the proprietor's sharp memory and encyclopedic mental filing system that only he seems to understand. “Clutter is my bread and butter” is written in a framed needlepoint by the door of a collection meant for hands-on digging and discovering, not hands-off browsing.

[image-2] AS FOR “A Beautiful Mind,” Whiting's shop has caught the attention of Hollywood more than a dozen times, with his paper products showing up in theatrical releases and movies made for TV. Projects include “Hearts in Atlantis”; the Richmond-made “John Adams” (he supplied pre-1820s letters and receipts for an office scene); and “Iron-Jawed Angels,” in which a “newsstand” sign was made for him that was, unfortunately, cut from the final print. Whiting's also supplied a stack of 1920s-era newspapers for the upcoming film “Water for Elephants.”

Local theater productions also turn to Whiting for props. “I was always in need of vintage magazines, letters and calendars to dress a period set,” retired Richmond artist and former theater-prop supervisor Chuck Scalin says. “I would call John in advance with the needed year for a particular production, and he inevitably came up with bags of materials for me.”

Born on Christmas Eve 1938 in Vermont, Whiting received a bachelor's degree in American civilization from George Washington University, and his master's degree in world religions from Hartford Seminary. After training Peace Corps volunteers for a year in 1966, he became a history instructor at Virginia Union University in 1967, and remained there for nine years.

A paper collector since childhood — his sister proclaimed, “John, this shop is your bedroom!” when visiting a few years ago — Whiting was fond of using pieces of his collection for classroom presentations until the chance acquisition of a large estate in 1975 convinced him to quit teaching and become a full-time paper dealer. He worked Richmond-area flea markets for a year before settling in his current location in July 1977. Whiting is widowed, with two children and five grandchildren.

He believes that nostalgia and the interest in anything retro is the primary driving force behind his business, with the economy limping in a weak second. “In a slow economy I don't generally see a drop in higher-end products, such as this book,” he says, holding an 1801 hardback titled “Modern Europe,” fetched from a rickety stack behind his counter and signed by none other than John Marshall. “But I do see more impact on all the rest.”

“All the rest” consists of uncountable examples of just about every newspaper, magazine, tabloid, postcard, playing card, cigarette card, label, bus schedule, poster, train timetable and matchbook ever printed, somewhat organized in stacks and in drawers and cabinets. He may not carry every National Geographic or Life magazine ever made — it just looks that way. “I have about 2,000 Life magazines here,” he says. Another 6,000 to 8,000 are in storage.

Antiques Village is itself a rarified journey through the past. Walking around, one quickly realizes that this is not your average flea market featuring Beanie Babies, Cabbage Patch dolls or tattered Elvis Presley memorabilia. Whiting's fellow dealers include Sylvia Regelson, who sells extremely rare African Art that wouldn't seem out of place in a museum, and Fred Schneider, whose Civil War Room showcases truly authentic Confederate relics.

Traffic through Whiting's shop, open daily except Wednesday, comes in the form of baby boomer collectors, students, decorators looking for that certain something for a north Richmond late-1950s home, other dealers, even novelists looking for time pieces to give them a feel for the period they're writing about. Jewelry artists hunt for small pieces to place in lockets or rings. Two Hollywood set decorators bought 36 years' worth of Sears catalogs to use as future reference material.

[image-3] A woman identifying herself as Nancy says she visits the shop “occasionally” looking for pre-1940 women's magazines. Another man and his wife bring Whiting a 1911 piano parts catalog, asking for an appraisal.

“Things are getting harder to find,” says Mike Sandusky, a 34-year paper retail veteran, and the owner of, an online paper seller. “People are looking for originals — they will not even buy reproductions anymore.”

The question of the relevance of being a brick-and-mortar paper dealer in an increasingly electronic age hasn't deterred Whiting from his business model, although low-cost Internet services such as Google Books is starting to chip away at it. “Two days ago an excited friend called and said, ‘Guess what I just got in the mail?' I guessed it was a copy of a 1911 catalogue I showed him a couple of weeks ago that is not for sale — I use it only for reference. He couldn't find an original online, but found he could order it through Amazon in a book-on-demand format. So he spent $30 and now has exactly what he wants for reference on a copy that is in much better condition than mine. If mine had been for sale, it would have been at least $75.”

Joe Lipscombe, Whiting's landlord and Antique Village's manager, takes it a step further: “It's not just the internet,” he says. “Young people don't collect anything anymore.” He motions to a bookcase of antique price guides and says that he used to order three to four guides per year, but with online pricing and a scarcity of buyers, almost all are going out of print.

Lipscombe's concern is that a decreasing demand for collectables coupled with a rapidly increasing supply will drive down prices, eventually running dealers out of business. “People used to invest in antiques and collectables like a 401(K),” he says, “knowing that over time value would go up. Now the prices are dropping.”

Whiting has seen the younger generation's lack of interest in collecting too. “Many of the young people who come in are art students looking for source material, not collectors.” he says. “And they see me as a private domain, their well-kept secret, and they are sometimes unwilling to share me with others.”

He acknowledges that general-interest paper stores like his are dwindling, with many sellers streamlining inventory to appeal to a more select clientele or by selling strictly online, like Whiting's Old Paper does not have a dedicated website, and its owner doesn't seem to be in a huge hurry to get one.

“People sometimes leave me to buy or look online, but they almost always come back” because they miss that physical experience, Whiting says. His shop has a strong Eureka factor, reserved for when a browser unearths a hidden treasure in a low file drawer or at the bottom of a dusty 3-foot stack of obscure magazines — a moment missing online, or in a mall, where the inventory is mounted, wrapped in plastic and stamped with bar codes. It's what makes Whiting's fun, a favorite of regional artists and collectors looking for inspiration and their own Eureka moments — whether looking for a precious plastic-wrapped 1879 London Times or a hundred hand-picked Tiger Beat magazines from the 1960s.

Mike Sanchez-Saavedra, a Richmond historian, novelist, Civil War expert and 20-year customer says it's a treasure hunt. “I don't go there with a shopping list,” he says. “It's all serendipity.”

The model for a store like this will be significantly different in 40 years, the longtime patron acknowledges, mostly because newspapers printed after the 1880s will disintegrate because of their high wood pulp content. There will be fewer of them too, creating a “lost generation” of select and very rare paper. “I have newspapers from the late 1600s and they are more like fabric than paper,” Sanchez-Saavedra says. “They are in great shape. After 1880, forget it.” He predicts that “people will then be less interested in paper products and more in collecting the early video games from their youth.”

[image-4] DESPITE A SHOP stuffed wall-to-ceiling in some places, Whiting keeps buying old paper goods, from noncollectors with an armload of attic finds and appraised estates from more serious speculators, which he stores in one of three remote spots. “I like people to call me if they find something,” he says, though he usually has to let them down gently when it comes to value, especially those people with a truckload of National Geographics. “Not interested in any of them this side of 1916,” he says, shaking his head.

“And please, no Reader's Digests.”

On the other hand, “Civil war era, old African-American paper and Halloween postcards from 1905 to around 1916 are all very collectable,” he says. “Most Richmond paper moves well, and I saw a temporary rush on Miller & Rhoads and Thalhimers-related material a few years ago, although it has since slowed down.”

“Interest in newspapers chronicling the Kennedy assassination is high, although they do not command a high price,” he says. “Marilyn Monroe and the Beatles always remain good sellers, but nobody asks for Shirley Temple or Elizabeth Taylor anymore.” A resurgence of John Glenn-related material “lasted about a week” after he piloted the space shuttle years ago. Former Hollywood bombshell Mae West, alas, is no longer hot.

Honestly evaluating a find or a collection is where the credibility of the dealer is at stake. Whiting appraises three to four paper collections a year, and recently gave an estimate for several Civil War-era diaries for the Library of Virginia. Market demand — not the dealer or seller's opinion — sternly dictates value and price. “Even volume 1, number 1 issues are not in that high demand,” he says — “with a few exceptions, like the woman who came to me after a show years ago with the first two issues of Playboy in a brown bag, wanting to know if I was interested in them — which of course I was! And issue number 2 of Playboy is just as valuable as the first [estimate: $2-2,500]” 

“I found another time a newspaper called Grant's Petersburg Progress,” he says. “Research showed that four issues were printed by Ulysses Grant's northern troops when they stormed Petersburg and took over the printing presses.” Was the paper valuable? “A big Civil War collector asked what I wanted for it,” Whiting recalls. “He would not make an offer. That told me a lot.”

A couple of times a year Whiting gets a call from someone claiming to have found a framed copy of the Declaration of Independence. “There were some copies of the declaration made in the 1820s that are worth thousands,” the dealer says, “so I have to make certain.” So far it's always a souvenir copy available at tourist gift shops.

Sometimes the parts are more valuable than the whole, Whiting says. “A Life magazine with big photos by a famous photographer, or with good cigarette ads, can sometimes be cut up and the pieces sold individually for more than the intact magazine can bring.”

“Years ago I bought a collection of pre-1920 needlepoint magazines for $1 each that had a memorable and different Cream of Wheat ad on page two of every copy. I could cut off the cover and sell the ad alone for anywhere from $4 to $7.”

[image-5] Whiting gives talks to collage and decoupage clubs several times a year. Chuck Scalin, who teaches a collage class at the Virginia Museum Studio School, says that the paper dealer has “turned another generation on to the treasures awaiting them in [that] shop,” where his students dig and then return to class with materials — “inspired and ready to produce their own work.”

Seemingly no focus is too narrow in this place. Wall cabinets and recycled Kodak film boxes reveal thousands of seemingly insignificant paper items that go back 100 years or more, which would be almost impossible to accumulate from websites. Need cigar bands and labels or luggage tags? How about wine and beer labels, pocket calendars, decks of playing cards, dress patterns and 1970s Montgomery Ward catalogs? In one box, there's a souvenir program from the 1915 New York premiere of the movie “Birth of a Nation” (seats were $5). Other boxes are labeled for dogs, buses, menus, medical, gardening, magic and cosmetic, among others brimming with potential treasures. Stacks of television and movie magazines from the 1940s to the 1980s rise almost 8 feet. Old matchbooks are everywhere.

Yet the most valuable item Whiting's has uncovered to date isn't paper, but inside it. “I ran across an envelope during an estate evaluation that contained a lock of hair belonging to former Vice President John C. Calhoun, along with a supporting document in an estate collection.” He hasn't handled the purchase or sale of that item — yet.

He's concluded, however, after informally polling customers and other dealers, that there will always be a market and a need for paper dealers in an increasingly electronic age, with slight disagreements on the selling format. “People say ‘yes' when I ask if there is a future in this business, but very few of them know it from a business standpoint.”

“The business model for a successful ephemera store in the future will be significantly different from the one which I am now operating,” he says, stressing that it would be an adaptation to market forces, trends and Internet competition. “The survival of my own may depend on my ability to determine what that model is and to move toward it.”

“The future is very bright,” Sandusky says. “Paper memorabilia will still be around and be even more desirable, because there is something to the feel of paper and having something in your hands. My sister-in-law has an electronic reader and she likes it but she says she misses turning pages.”

“My mission today is to save paper,” Whiting says, smiling, standing amidst a pile of posters and postcards. “It's a stewardship. I'm part of the next generation of paper handlers, here to put it in the right hands.”