In his work, he was a renowned horticulturist (he devised Canada's first plant-hardiness map), but that was because his grandfather had been one and because his parents wanted him to be one too. “It was all they knew,” he says. “They thought I'd be a florist.” He won a scholarship to Cornell University, and travelled Europe to see its great nurseries. But if he could do it over, he would have studied history.
Here is another reason people collect things: because they don't know where their habit will take them. “When I started out,” Larry says, “I had a couple of beer trays. I didn't know what I was gonna get.”
Good point. Who does? You run your course, grabbing as you go, and then at the end you sit down and look at what you picked up along the way, where your heart went, where your mind lingered. This is the approach of the gatherers. The hunters do it differently.
Larry's family are all collectors. There seems to be a collecting gene. His sister likes anything to do with ducks; his brother collected Orange Crush memorabilia. His nephews did buttons, pop cans, Snoopies. “My parents” – seed catalogues – “never threw anything away, and I never throw anything away,” he admits.
That is the collector's nightmare: What do you do with your collection, this conglomeration you cared for, before you die? Few seem to want to sell.
“Unfortunately, right now,” Larry says – he's still on his second beer: he drinks slowly, and always with water – “my house is a mess, and has been for a year or two. That's why I've more or less declared it off limits to friends and collectors.” He's hoping to donate the rest to an institution that wants it.
He never married, choosing instead to travel the country on brewery tours with his beer buddies. “I have a hundred beer trays on my walls, so you know I'm not married,” he says. “You can almost always tell if a collector is married, because their collection never makes it out of the basement.”
Two sips forward, one sip back
I stayed in the glowing bar after Larry left, and drank another half-pint (Dead Elephant Ale from Railway City Brewing in St. Thomas, Ont. – a beautiful label, named for Jumbo, who died on the tracks). I thought about beer, broad and brave, as a companion.
I stepped out to relieve myself, but did not recall at that moment who it was that said frequent urination is a sign of superior intelligence. (It was Henry Miller.)
What I remembered instead was something John Updike wrote in 1964, a lament for the demise of the punch-hole beer can, a thing “as beautiful as a clothespin.” He figured he could flip the new “ugly, shmoo-shaped” tab can upside down and punch it anyway: “What we need is Progress with an escape hatch,” he wrote.
I thought to myself: That's what a collection is. And that's what beer is, too. Cheers to both.
Roughly 600 of the beer labels in the Sherk collection at the Thomas Fisher Rare Books Library can be seen online at: www.flickr.com/
Ian Brown is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail.