Salt and Pepper: Not just a passing fancy

Shaker collectors have a good time, but they’re serious about their hobby

By Sue Vorenberg, Columbian features reporter

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photoLarry Carey shows off a host of decorative salt and pepper shakers at the Novelty Salt and Pepper Shakers Club convention in Vancouver. He has several thousand of the decorative shakers at his home in Philadelphia, he said.

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photoThe crowd reacts to the costume contest. Participants dressed as shaker sets from their own collections.

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photoLarry Carey shows off about 800 shakers that he brought to sell at the convention. He’s been collecting the sets for almost 60 years, he said.

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photoContestants in the costume contest pose for photos at the Novelty Salt and Pepper Shakers Club convention. Participants had to prove their costumes were based on shakers in their collections by providing photos or bringing the shakers to the event.

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Don’t mention condiments if you happen to meet members of the Novelty Salt and Pepper Shakers Club in Vancouver this weekend.

It’s one thing to collect the unusually shaped containers — but putting salt or pepper in them? That’s just wrong, said Louise Davis, chairwoman of the international club’s 2011 convention taking place at the Red Lion at the Quay.

“It’s an unwritten rule,” Davis said, cocking an eyebrow. “We do not put salt and pepper in these.”

Davis, who lives in Portland and is a member of Northwest Shakers Will Travel, has 2,500 sets of novelty shakers, a relatively modest amount compared with some of the convention’s other participants. One member has 27,000.

But you won’t find any of Davis’ set pieces on her kitchen table.

“Pfft,” she said at the notion. “At home I use Tupperware or cardboard shakers. Salt is corrosive.”

The annual convention has drawn about 160 people from all over the world to Vancouver, including members from Germany, Belgium and Canada. Participants range in age from toddlers and teens to adults and seniors in their 80s.

The opportunity to share what they jokingly call their affliction with others is something members look forward to all year, said Kate Okolisan, who came from Ontario for the festivities.

“It’s a whole week with people who understand our condition,” Okolisan said with a laugh. “It’s great.”

Okolisan, like the 30 other sellers, flies a little flag outside of her hotel room to indicate she’s open for business.

Her room has a few small tables with shakers she’d like to sell.

Some participants bring carloads of them, but she was only able to fill a suitcase, she said apologetically.

“We try to switch up what we bring and what we take home,” Okolisan said. “We’ll sell some, then buy enough that the suitcases will be full again on the way back.”

She also carries a photo album with pictures from her home collection — which has quite a few sets of shakers with anthropomorphic flower people sitting on boxes.

She’s quick to point out her favorite pair, which have tiny flower legs trailing down their respective boxes.

“I told my kids that when I die they can split my ashes between the two and each one of them can have one,” Okolisan said. “They sort of groan at that.”

Larry Carey, who goes by the moniker “The Salt & Pepper Man,” had a much larger collection of shakers for sale out of his hotel room on Friday. About 800 shaker sets were laid out in boxes across the beds, dresser and every other available inch of space.

At home, he has between 8,000 and 10,000 sets, he said.

“I’m a bachelor, and at home I have a three-bedroom ranch house,” Carey said. “Every room is full of cabinets, and they’re all packed with salt and pepper shakers.”

Commemorative and hard-to-find shakers are the most valuable, he said.

Delicately holding a shaker set of Abraham Lincoln sitting with two small black children, he mentioned that he has a similar one at home. But it’s an even more valuable version with gold trim and cost him $1,100, he said.

Perhaps the biggest draw at the convention is the annual costume contest. Members dress up as their favorite salt and pepper shaker set, which they either have to bring or show a photograph of to participate.

On Friday afternoon, a packed convention hall got to view contestants dressed as Elvis with his guitar, the Cat in the Hat, good and bad Catholic nuns, a cowgirl and her horse, a sunflower in a pot and a handful of other designs. One popular one was Alice in Wonderland and the Mad Hatter — which drew extra applause as Alice was actually a man with a snowy white mustache to match his delicately arrayed blond wig.

“He’s very secure in his masculinity, so I know I can do this to him,” said Cheryl Lenhart, who came up with the costume idea for herself and her friend, Phil Mays. “The most important thing is we have fun doing it together.”

Lenhart had a bit of a wardrobe malfunction as the Mad Hatter, with her prosthetic nose falling off repeatedly as the pair stood on stage waiting to be judged.

After the contest, Mays seemed eager to get out of the powder blue dress, but he stood around for a few minutes, with a smirk on his face, getting back slaps from some other longtime members of the group.

“Cheryl and I have been doing these contests for about five years,” Mays said. “The best part is that if you win, you can win a (free) room for the night.”

The novelty shaker club actually isn’t the only group in the country focused on salt and pepper shakers. The group split off from a larger organization in the mid-1980s because about half of the members wanted to focus on antique shakers while the other half were more interested in unusual designs, Davis said.

“We’re the rebellious, young group,” Davis said with a laugh.

Davis started collecting novelty shakers in the late 1980s and has been hooked ever since. Her first set, she thinks, was a pair of donkeys that her parents brought home from a yard sale, she said.

Visitors are welcome to come by the convention today, which is the last day, she said. A day pass costs $10.

The club would love to have more local members with whom to share their unusual hobby, she said.

“Some people look at what we collect and give it a funny look,” Davis said. “But everybody collects something. I have a friend who collects Wrigley’s gum wrappers from all over the world. I just tell him, ‘You know, I understand.’”