Michael Stern’s wife jokes that he’s a hoarder.
When most spouses say this, they’re referring to the dusty collection of high school varsity jackets and vinyls that their partner has tucked away in the basement.
Michael Stern’s case is different. (Although, he does have a collection of vinyls.)
Unlike other people’s old “junk,” even strangers can see the value in the collection of things that have taken up space in every room in Stern’s basement.
About 25 years ago, the Atlanta native started collecting pieces that encapsulated the 1960s and 1970s. About 5,000 items later, his eclectic collection has been used to create an exhibit on the original site of the 1969 Woodstock Music & Art Fair.
“Love for Sale: The Commercialization of the Counterculture” will be on display at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts museum in New York starting April 1 through the end of the year. Using a 1970s home as the backdrop, Stern’s collection will invite attendees to explore the “pervasive influence of the Counterculture on American popular culture and commerce.”
“It’s a generation that really created so much of what we have today and it can’t be repeated,” Stern said. “This was an era of freedom and experimentation, whether it was drugs or sex. We also had horrible issues such as the Vietnam War and Kent State.”
Based around the “love, peace and psychadelica” themes from that era, much of Stern’s collection is currently organized by theme on giant bookshelves in his basement. A President Nixon bong, “All in the Family” lunch boxes and Jimi Hendridx’s beaded necklace, are just a few of the items that are set up along the walls of his basement.
Occasionally during our visit to Stern's home, he ducks into another room and comes back with black light posters or other collectible items that aren’t on display in the main room.
“If you were to go out and try to find any of this today, you couldn’t,” he said.
A businessman with companies that deal in landscaping and 401K’s, Stern started collecting memorabilia from the '60s and '70s after writing a series of price guides on The Beatles. A few years prior, he’d written price guides on Disney and collected Walt Disney Enterprises memorabilia, but turned to the British quartet after becoming bored with the previous collection. The Beatles collection eventually expanded into a collection on the generation during which they thrived.
Stern said the idea for the Bethel Woods exhibit first came up last summer.
“I bought a collection of original Woodstock photos in an auction and they had to be from a festival organizer,” he said.
Knowing the mission of the museum is to explore the culture that led to the Woodstock festival, the infamous event itself and its cultural effects, Stern reached out to the museum to share the posters and learned a curator was in Savannah for a wedding.
Stern invited the curator to come to his home and view the rest of his collection.
The Atlanta businessman who considers collecting a "hobby" says he’s hoping the attention from this exhibit will inspire other museums or institutions, especially ones in his hometown, to become interested in creating an exhibit of their own based on his collection.
Bethel Woods isn’t displaying the Atlanta specific items, but Stern has collected tickets, handheld fans and posters from festivals such as the Atlanta International Pop Festival, along with a Beatles advertisement created for the Atlanta Transit System in 1965.
Among the items in Stern's basement that will soon be on display at the Bethel Woods museum are items from later eras, including a Macintosh computer and the white fedora from rehearsals for Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” video.
Perhaps Stern is already beginning to think about his next pop culture collection.
If you're planning to be in New York later this year and want to check out some of Stern's collection as a part of the “Love for Sale: The Commercialization of the Counterculture” exhibit, you can learn more about the museum's hours and ticket information here.