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the splurge

This continues our new series called The Splurge, where we take a look at how entrepreneurs have spent their money on indulgences -- purchases that may be interesting, fun, satisfying or enjoyable, but not necessary!

Barkley was the first dog to come into Marlene Cook's life.

She bought the soft-coated wheaten terrier 17 years ago for her son, who was 10 at the time. The puppy's arrival started a passionate love affair with dogs that spawned both her business, running North America's largest dog festival, and her pleasure, a collection of vintage dog memorabilia.

The president of Woofstock Inc. as well as a company that runs the Sunday Antique Market at St. Lawrence Market owns about 8,000 pieces of dog memorabilia – everything from postcards and photographs to oil paintings and ceramics.

She estimates the collection is worth $200,000.

"I have a lot of crazy things," she said from her Toronto home. "I have rooms in my house that I guess would qualify me to go on Hoarding: Buried Alive ."

Ms. Cook has been an avid collector since her late teens. She says she always loved vintage items and bought vintage paper and clothing, along with a few tintypes and other photographs of dogs.

Ms. Cook, who graduated from the Ontario College of Art with an associate art degree in photography, gradually turned her taste for antiques into a thriving business.

In 1979, she set up two vintage markets – an old paper show and an old clothing show.

Ten years later, she took over the Sunday Antique Market at St. Lawrence Market in Toronto – the largest antique market in Canada.

Woofstock, which she describes as a festival for "ordinary household dogs," followed nine years ago and has since grown into the largest event of its kind in North America. It features canine beauty pageants, celebrity look-a-like contests and a posh lounge for dogs and their owners, as well as dozens of stands selling the latest in dog paraphernalia.

Although Ms. Cook bought her first vintage dog treasure, a tintype of a pit bull, when she was 17, she only started collecting canine items in earnest after Barkley arrived.

"I knew I liked the tintype and some of the other pieces with dogs that I had purchased, but I didn't know how much I loved dogs," she said.

She found most of her collection at the St. Lawrence antique market, but also sometimes shops on e-Bay or finds items through friends who scout out antique markets across North America.

Her most recent purchase is a 1.2 meter by one meter oil painting of an elderly hound and a terrier puppy gazing out a window.

"The hound is looking soulfully into the painter's eyes. You know he is the older dog and the top dog too," Ms. Cook said.

Her favourite piece is a rare French-made paper maché bulldog pull toy on wheels, with bulging eyes, a nodding head and a horsehair collar, made in 1906. Ms. Cook said it is "remarkable" that the fragile toy has survived.

Her other favourites include a collection of late 19th-century posed photographs of dogs, early 20th-century postcards that depict farmers with dogs dressed up in items such as straw hats and corncob pipes or posed on horseback, and postcards from the 1950s and 1960s showing dogs dressed as people and doing things like sitting at a table waiting for their meals with napkins tied around their neck.

"It's about how people loved their dogs through the decades," she said, adding that it would have been expensive and time-consuming to get a dog to sit for a photograph in the late 1800s.

"Even though they weren't buying them expensive collars and those sorts of things, it's obvious that people's dogs were important to them."

Ms. Cook said she has become more selective about what she buys, and now favours items that depict terriers and only buys unique items of high quality.

She said she has started selling some of the massive collection of her other vintage treasures but will probably always keep the dog memorabilia.

"It's an emotional thing for me," she said. "I recently sold a collection of 8,000 snapshots, but I could not sell even one photo of a dog."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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