The 55th Annual ALPCA Convention was quite a success. I had a pretty good time, but it wasn’t the best convention for me, personally. I’d rate this one an 8 out of 10. It wasn’t a collection-altering, life-affirming event, but the good significantly outweighed the bad. Considering that I hadn’t been to a convention since Providence in 2004, I was very glad to have attended, even though I was really tired for much of my waking hours.
I deprived myself of sleep in the two days leading up to my arrival at the Convention, in order to facilitate my red-eye travel plans. I didn’t want to miss any hall time, so I slept from mid-afternoon until midnight, and then drove right through the night (never done that before). I crossed the US border at Hill Island at about 2:30 am, and went through without any hassles, although I was asked why I was crossing in the middle of the night. I drove down I-81 to Syracuse, and saw maybe 5 vehicles total in the southbound lanes (all of them as I was getting close to Syracuse). I then hopped on the New York Thruway at about 3:30 am. It’s a toll highway, so the booths are manned 24 hours a day. “Mornin’, boss,” the young graveyard shifter said pleasantly. I drove until the sky was just starting to light up before I found a deserted service area outside Rochester with an open Tim Horton’s. A large coffee at Tim’s USA is the same as an extra-large at Tim’s Canada, but it tastes just as good. Traffic picked up as the sun rose, and after what seemed like forever, I was past Buffalo. I figured #Erie was right next to it, but it took another hour to even cross the Pennsylvania line. I finally arrived in Erie at about 8 am.
Erie is undergoing some urban renewal issues. Some parts are very nice, whereas some parts are less nice. Since I spent my time either in the hall or sleeping, I didn’t pay much notice to the spotty dilapidation of the city, although I find urban decay interesting and snapped a couple of pictures. The area where the tracks cross State Street was particularly derelict.
I unloaded the contents of my car onto a large cart. I had eight bins of plates, plus my Ontario passenger run display. I arrived on the second day of the show, so most of the wall space was already taken up by other displays. Unfortunately, my display was 26 feet long, so it took some looking to find a suitable spot. I found about 20 feet along a wall near an entrance, so I arranged the hinged panels along the wall, accordion-style. It fit perfectly. The display had exactly 100 plates in it, the majority of which were different plates from those the display I entered in Niagara Falls during the 2002 convention.
The display boards I built for the Cumberland Museum exhibit in May were very easy to build and transport. I planned on using them for the ALPCA Convention, but I only had six panels totalling 12 feet. I considered doing mini runs of farm, historic, dealer, and MPP plates and just tacking them onto the boards. Then, I figured that such a mishmash of plates wouldn’t qualify for a display award, and if I was going to go to the trouble of bringing a display, I wanted to win a prize. The awards this year were designed by Joe Sallmen. The first-place award was a porcelain tribute to the 1915 Pennsylvania plates, with many of the 1915 design aspects incorporated into the plate. I set my sights thusly and assembled an Ontario passenger run. However, I had to build seven more boards to accompany the six I had already built, and I did it with only about a week to go before the convention. It wasn’t as pretty-looking as my 2002 display in Niagara, but it had natural sticker plates all the way up to 2009, and had a running narrative to read throughout.
With my display assembled and looking good, I turned my attention to my tables (which, by the way, were the two lowest-numbered tables at the convention: A1 and A2… I kept the table tags… I oughtta eBay them). I priced my plates with the generous help of my table-mate, Eric Vettoretti. People like me, who are from north of the border, are not recommended to have price tags on plates when venturing southward, which causes us less travelling grief, but keeps us busy during the convention. We finished the job in about an hour.
I wanted to start shopping, but my table attracted some attention as I was setting up. I wound up making about $60 in sales without even trying, or even interacting with my customers, as I was pretty busy pricing my stuff. Sales were fairly steady through the day.
When I finally got down to some shopping, I really didn’t find much Canadian content. Much of the CanCon was provided by the Canadian members, but most folks from the US didn’t really have any Canadian plates. The only plates I managed to find that I bought were a couple of red quarterly truck Ontario plates and a 1966 Ontario with a cool number… and that was pretty much it. I found an awesome 1926 somewhere, and even took a picture, but the seller wasn't at his table. That plate was foremost on my mind, and I returned to try and buy it, but the table was unmarked, in the middle of the hall, and was clustered amongst several other tables with similar-looking boxes. I tried, a half-dozen times over the convention, to find the table where the 1926 plate was, but I was never able to triangulate the plate, table and owner simultaneously. I didn’t end up buying the plate, simply because I was unable to do so. It was the best 1926 Ontario plate I've ever seen.
I donated my first item to the ALPCA fake plate collection this year (and also my second, but more on that in a subsequent column). Regular readers may recall that I purchased a reproduction 1903 Ontario leather plate at a swap meet one-and-a-half years ago, for the sole purpose of donating it to ALPCA at my next opportunity. The leather shield had been reproduced quite well, and it could have been nice enough to fool a newer collector into thinking it was the real thing, which is dangerous—If one pays $400 for a plate and then later finds out it’s fake, one has essentially been bilked out of $400, which could prompt one to collect the debt from a subsequent unwitting buyer. I bought it with full disclosure for $40, and hung onto it until I could put it with the other fakes in Erie.
There are many patient wives present at an ALPCA convention, but rumour has it that one marriage ended on the spot in the hall on the first day of the convention. I heard it went something like, “You’re going too far. Either choose me, or choose the plates.” After the husband considered that he had only been married for 20 years, but had owned some of his plates for 30 or 40 years, he apparently chose in favour of the plates, and told his wife goodbye. An irreconcilable difference? It has been so for a number of plate collectors over the years.
If you collect license plates, and have never been to an ALPCA convention, might I suggest that you try one out. The first-timers I spoke to this year (Terry, Pierre, Eric, Matt) all used the same word to describe it: Overwhelming. You step into a hall with hundreds of tables, all covered in license plates for trade, and it’s often hard to know where to start. Who has the one weird type you’re looking for? Will someone else get it first? Who is offering the best deals? The hall is open for 8 or 10 hours, and believe me, time never seems to pass more quickly.
Well, quickly it did pass, and before I knew it, it was coming on 7 pm. Eric and I wound up heading to Applebee’s for dinner with a bunch of other guys, including Manny, Tim, Dave Steckley, Darrell Dady, Dave Faas, Mike Maloney and Joey Koldys. It was a delightful dinner in all respects—great conversation, excellent service, delicious food (even my light beer was great), and generous portions at a great price. No wonder Roger Haynes swears by Applebee’s.
I rolled myself back into my hotel room, and although my roommates were awake and the anemic A/C barely touched the air around us, I had been awake for a full 24 hours and I fell immediately asleep, thus ending my first convention day.
I awoke in my hotel room to find my three roommates blinking in the diffused sunlight that limped through our spider-webbed, single-paned window. I split a room with Craig Hardesty, and we subsequently opened our room up to Andrew Turnbull, as well as Craig’s pal Chris, a non-collector who came along for the ride. I slept well enough, but my back ached after a night on an Avalon mattress.
I pride myself on being a low-maintenance roommate, but I’m ashamed to say that I was I who took longest in the washroom and held the rest of the guys up in leaving the dingy hotel. If there’s one thing the Avalon Hotel did well for us, it’s that the hotel gave us motivation to leave early for the convention hall and to stay out late. I’ve stayed in worse places, but the Avalon wasn’t great. It’s rated three-stars from a couple of review sites I read, but really, it was more like a one-star. The water faucet dripped and was hard to operate, and the bathroom ceiling had mold / mildew growth, and the A/C worked hard for three days to finally lower the room temperature by a couple of degrees during our last night. The windows were very thin, and I felt sorry for those guests like Dave and Manny whose room faced the front of the hotel and had to listen to the outdoor rock concert that was playing the next block over. There were bugs around the windowpane, and even worse, the eighth-floor soda machine ate my dollar-fifty. Probably the worst thing about the Avalon is that the basement parking consists of a single level only, with room for maybe 50 cars. It fills up every night, and the overflow spills onto the city-run lots in the neighbourhood. I would learn later that Dave Steckley’s car was damaged slightly during an apparent break-in attempt overnight. I found the Avalon to be adequate, but little more.
Anyway, enough about that. We piled into Craig’s truck for the drive to the immaculacy of the Bayfront Convention Centre (sleeping on the floor there would have been preferable, in retrospect). The Centre was probably the nicest facility that I have ever had the pleasure of using for an ALPCA Convention. Loading and parking were very easy, and the washrooms / snack bar / lobby / on-shore breeze from the lake were fantastic.
Eric and I both collect Ontario plates, but hadn’t found much of anything during the convention. Neither of us had spent much, and we were beginning to chomp at the bit-- we felt we were letting the time waste without adding cool plates to our collections. So I came up with an idea to help us make the day more interesting: The Five-Dollar Challenge.
Our mission, should we choose to accept it, would be to scout the entire convention with a maximum budget of only $5, and use it to purchase the single weirdest, craziest, or ugliest plate possible. Plates priced at more than $5 were considered legal if the seller could be haggled down to $5. We chose not to have a running clock during the challenge, but we may as well have—both of us had made our selections within an hour.
Eric used his five bucks to buy a Florida State of the Arts plate, reviled for its turquoise, salmon and teal background, with embossed characters of purple. He took the prize for ugliest plate, that’s for sure. I used my five bucks to buy a weird-looking Paraguay plate with a cool holographic seal on it. The ALPCA Archives would later tell me that it’s a passenger plate from the Department (state?) of Presidente Hayes, and more specifically, it was issued in the town of Benjamin Aceval (which used Q-prefix plates and displayed the town name across the top edge). Everything about the plate, aside from the hologram, looks like it would have been issued in 1949—weird dimensions, unusual number fonts, and spotty rust along the plate face. But, no! The “99” at the top right isn’t an obscure code, it’s actually the year it was issued (meaning 1999, not 1899). It wasn’t until around 2002 that Paraguay finally adopted a contemporary 6 x 12 plate with modern dies and screened background. Not only have I learned all this new information, but I now have a neat plate too, and all for five bucks! Maybe I’ll make the Five-Dollar Challenge a ritual for every convention I attend.
Eric and I knew prior to the convention that we were getting low on plate bags. The last time I attended, which was 2004 in Providence, I bought a big stash of bags that was intended to last me for 2-3 years, and I picked some up for Eric, too. Shipping of plate bags to Canada is very expensive, so the best way to get them is to stock up en masse at a convention. There weren’t many sellers of bags this time around, so we went to Mike Weiner’s table. He always has high-quality bags at low, low prices. We bought a case of 6x12 bags and another case of 7x16 bags, and then split them. The 7x16 bags were for storing the tall Ontario plates from 1940 to 1954—we have a lot of those between us.
To continue my spending on things plate-related, but not plates themselves, I bought one of the cool Pennsylvania '09 T-shirts at the registration table for $20. I have too many T-shirts, but this one was really cool—it featured the same colours as most PA plates—a navy blue background emblazoned with school-bus-yellow PA license plates. While not a bona fide convention T-shirt with the ALPCA logo or the native American in his canoe, it’s still a cool shirt. So between the shirt and the bags, I wound up spending close to $100 on the day, and almost none of it on plates.
I spent much of the day wandering around and taking in all the displays. I was hopeful that I would be up for an award. This was the first convention I had experienced with the new de-categorized awarding rules. They make sense, too-- an awesome display should get a first-place award, even if it can't easily be categorized. It would be a shame if there were four outstanding passenger displays but only three awards available.
By about four o’clock, about a third of the tables in the hall had been covered with sheets, indicating that people were packing up for the day. The hall was to close at five o’clock, and the annual donation auction would begin at six-thirty. Eric and I decided to leave early and get something to eat. Some of the other folks with whom we dined the previous evening were headed over to a fish place on a nearby wharf. I’m not a fan of fish, and given the splendid meal from the night before, Eric and I decided to give Applebee’s another whirl. Roger was right once again—they did not disappoint.
To be honest, I wasn’t looking forward to the donation auction. I mean, it’s good wholesome fun, but I usually start falling asleep all over the place, and I figured it would be the same narcoleptic story with me this year as it had been in most others (except in 2001 at Peoria, when I stayed to the bitter end).
The auction began promptly with little ado at six-thirty. I scored an early win by getting a lot of about 30 nice Kentucky graphic plates for $20. I jumped into the ring on a few other occasions, but even my more reckless bids were killed by more zealous competitors, who would outbid each other by the narrowest of margins so quickly that the auctioneer had trouble keeping up:
Chuck: “Seventy, seventy two, seventy four, seventy…. Six?”
And some bidders were drawn in by the promise of something good, only to be let down in the end:
Chuck: “Here’s a couple of mint motorcycle plates! But they’re Minnesota.”
None were probably more zealous than Joe Sallmen, who bought lot after lot after lot of mixed US plates. I know that he has buyers for plates that most ALPCAns would pass on, so it makes excellent sense for him to place bids on job lots, even if the condition may be iffy. Nonetheless, others simply attribute his bidding practices to auction fever (getting excited and bidding on junk for no reason, as I once did eleven years before). The auctioneers began to egg him on as his pile of bought lots became higher and higher:
Chuck: “You get a pick-up truck plate in West Virginia? That’s a passenger.”
Mike: “$22 from Tiger Joe, the imitation Canadian.”
Mike: “Iowa… Texas… Illinois… I hear birdhouses calling!”
Mike: “Joe, more stuff for you! Minnesota… Minnesota… more Minnesota… Oh, finally! Ohio! The two toughest states.”
Aside from the kibitz-based entertainment, of which there was plenty, there was also a very poignant moment during the auction, sponsored by the late Shib Pixley, who passed away last summer after attending the 2008 convention. Shib’s family had consigned his collection of #18 ALPCA souvenir plates, going all the way back to 1987, the first year they were numbered. Rather than sell them off to the highest bidder (subject to an undisclosed reserve), it was suggested that the club buy them by asking interested members to donate $5 in to a hat toward a purchase by the club. The auctioneers up front took the lead by dropping in tens and twenties. ALPCA President Jeff Francis threw in a fifty. The hat made its way through the room, and we collected $652.25, which was enough to surpass the reserve and secure the collection for the ALPCA Archive. As such, the collection will now travel and be on display at the annual convention. Outside of that time, it will be on display at Jeff Francis’ automotive museum in Butte, Montana.
I took the liberty of taping some amateur video of the scene. The camerawork leaves a bit to be desired, but I was seated and using a point-n-shoot compact camera that happens to take video as well.
The auction apparently went until 12:30, from what Craig told me—he stayed to the bitter end. I caught a ride back to the hotel with Manny and Dave at about ten or so, and managed to prevent myself from falling asleep until my head hit the pillow, at which time I began dreaming about the upcoming last day of the convention…
Saturday was sort of a blur. I awoke in my sub-par hotel room, and the first thing I noticed was that the air temperature was actually comfortable. The A/C had been running for close to three days, and only now was it putting a dent in the stale air created by four sleeping ALPCAns.
I wasted little time in packing up my gear and heading down to my car. I hadn’t used it since arriving in Erie, and I found it just as I left it, to my relief. I drove down to the convention centre and parked in the loading dock area. There was lots of room, and I knew the staff wouldn’t tow me—they were ecstatic to have a convention like ours come into town. Of course, the convention floor wouldn’t yet be open, so I walked around the building and savoured the cool lake breeze, went inside, and strolled up the main corridor. There was a continental breakfast on a series of silver carts, with some club members chatting casually here and there. I chowed down on a muffin and gabbed a while until I noticed that the annual business meeting was starting, so I went over and grabbed a chair.
I like the business meeting. It’s neat to see the wheels turn a bit, although they surely turn much more in the closed board meetings. There are people who address the board with good ideas, and others with no grip on reality. I find it somewhat like reality TV where they get contestants to audition from off the street—some are surprisingly refreshing, while others are total slugs. There was one wise suggestion that ALPCA conduct a self-audit of its finances every couple of years—there was some messy record-keeping in past years, and apparently, ALPCA is on the IRS radar for surprise audits. Makes sense to keep the numbers in order for the next time the Man comes knocking. There was another suggestion that a long-standing ex-member who knowingly sold fake porcelain plates should be reinstated to the club after a couple of years of suspension. That discussion went around the room, and it has continued to litter the plate geek e-mail groups. The member was asked to cease and desist, and he chose not to, so he was booted from the club, and he has not sought reinstatement. These are all choices he made, yet there are some bleeding hearts who want to come to his rescue and bring him back into the fold, assuming incorrectly that he had been victimized somehow.
Fake porcelains are dangerous, because forty years from now, when they look a little more worn and torn, they could more easily be mistaken for the real thing. How would you like to drop $500 on a rare 1910 porcelain, only to find out that it’s a fake made in a sign shop in 1970? You’re stuck with a worthless plate that you can’t trade to someone else, and you’re out $500. More on that in a moment.
The display awards were given out during the meeting, and to my surprise and delight, I won a first-place award for my Ontario passenger run. Mission accomplished! I saw the porcelain design of the first-place awards, and knew that’s what I wanted to win, although I must say that the second-place awards, with a real 1954 Pennsylvania plate bolted to them, were also quite neat to look at, and I wouldn’t have been disappointed to come in second. I’m quite pleased—I’m three-for-four. I won at Niagara in 2002 (1st place), Providence in 2004 (2nd place), and now Erie in 2009. The only time I brought a display that didn’t win an award was for my “Close But No Cigar” board in 2001 that had a few examples of plates with almost-repeating numbers—maybe 10 or 12 plates in total. I didn’t expect an award for that, anyway... I may not have entered it for judging. I forget.
The meeting could have gone on longer, but it was adjourned so we could all get back into the hall and start trading, or in some cases, packing up. After the meeting was done, I noticed Joe Sallmen off to one side of the room, where the auction had been the night before, sorting about a dozen grape crates of plates. I felt compelled to give him a hand, as did Manny. It was mentally exhausting work, though—we sorted the plates into passenger traders, non-passenger traders, Indiana-plates-with-rounded-D, aluminum scrap, and steel scrap. I helped him sort two or three crates for about 20 minutes. Joe was planning on calling a local scrapyard to see if he could unload the worthless junk plates for scrap value. He asked me to call, but I’m one of about 70 people left in the world who don’t carry a cell phone. Apparently, Joe is also one of those 70 people, so without a cell phone, the call couldn’t be placed. He advised me to watch for his fire sale of surplus auction plates, which would be coming up soon.
I went to my table and saw that after a good Thursday, my sales had dwindled on Friday and I still wanted to lighten my load before I went home. The people across from me had vacated their tables, so I laid out a bunch of my traders until no tabletop could be seen beneath them, and then employed my booming PA voice that I use to get the attention of my excited grade 9 students after a fire drill:
“HEY now, everybody, we got a HALF PRICE sale down in this corner! HALF PRICE on any plate on this table! Hawaii! Canada! Europe! Old and new! HALF PRICE, that’s HALF PRICE down at table A1!” (Well, technically across from table A1, but “table Z16” didn’t have the same ring to it.)
A feeding frenzy erupted in front of me, and Eric, bless him, helped me keep track of which plates went, and for how much. I always follow the “round down” rule when doing a sale like this—if the plate is priced with an odd number, like $7, cut it in half and then round down to the nearest dollar to make it $3. It entices people to buy more, and besides, with all those people buying my plates, who has time to deal with coins?
I made about $70 on my half price sale, which was nice—I would probably have made $0 at full price, and these were all plates that I had gotten cheaply, or from lots with really cool traders that had already paid for themselves. I attracted the attention of a bulk dealer, who was looking for the best deals possible. I wound up selling him a stack of plates at better than half price, for about $40 total. And presto—just like that, I had lightened my load by a couple of storage crates.
I turned my attention to another matter—a plate sitting in a box under my table. A plate that I formerly liked very much, and paid $75 to get. It was back in Tucson, 2003, that I was interested in international plates and picked up a few from an older man with a long white beard, including an Indonesia police plate (multi-coloured with a flag painted on it) and a dual-language plate from Ras al-Khaimah, in the United Arab Emirates. I enjoyed having that plate in my wall for a time, but my interests changed, and I decided to sell off. I soon received my first indication that the UAE plate may not have been what it seemed. Joe Sallmen was actually going to buy it, when a prominent collector from Europlate advised him that it was a prototype, and didn’t match anything that had been used in the UAE. Joe decided he didn’t want it after that. No problem, I thought. People do collect prototypes.
Then, during the convention here in Erie, a Eurpoean collector saw the plate and expressed concerns that it was a fake. He was very polite and well-meaning, and used the word “prototype”, but the gist of his meaning was that the plate was likely not authentic—a fake, in other words. I brought it over to Tim Stentiford, who travels the world spotting and collecting plates, and shared with him what I had been told. He thought the plate looked okay, as it seemed to have evidence of use around the bolt holes, but the English portion of the plate seemed wrong. Ras al-Khaimah should be denoted by the letters RAK, not R.KH. That’s all he could offer, but it was enough.
I concluded that the plate was a fake, and went over to the registration table, and had it dropped into the fake plate box, where it would be added to the travelling club display of counterfeit plates, including my fabricated 1903 Ontario leather shield that I donated on Thursday. That’s a $75 expenditure down the drain, but I can't collect that debt from an unsuspecting collector. ALPCA has a no-reproduction policy to try and minimize situations like this.
The morning was wearing on. Eric packed up his plates and departed. I hadn’t yet packed anything up and still had my table open. There was one final thing I wanted to do before I would be ready to leave… but I first had to wait for the mob of people to disperse from Joe’s fire sale of surplus auction plates. I took a look at a couple of half-price sales, and bought a couple of curiosities, but nothing to write home about.
When the crowd had subsided, Joe showed me the mini-run of Sault Ste. Marie bicycle plates that he had acquired. I’m a former Sault resident, having lived there nearly 20 years, and I am actively running Sault bicycle plates. I wanted most of the ones he had, so we agreed on a value, and I obtained them for my collection. At long last, I had found my prize for my collection. I had sold a ton of plates, won an award, donated two fakes to the club, but hadn’t yet found any long-lost goodies to fill holes in my runs. Finally, I had made the signature acquisition that defines Erie for me.
And with that, it was time to leave. I folded my display and wheeled it out to my strategically parked station wagon. Then I returned to my table, stacked my trader boxes and assorted gear, and moved it out to the car, also. I packed everything up in the back, thought I had misplaced my passport, found my passport, thought I had misplaced my wallet, found my wallet, and began the 700 km trip home (exactly 700 km according to my trip meter, and that’s 435 miles for you metricphobes). The drive home wasn’t as fun, but I did get to see the roadside fireworks and martial arts shop that advertised SWORDS – KNIVES – PEPPER SPRAY and STUN GUNS all in one convenient location, just as I was leaving Pennsylvania.
I was around Watertown, New York, when I tried getting CBC radio Ottawa, and it came in loud and clear… so I listened to Randy Bachman’s Vinyl Tap the rest of the way home. That’s the radio show I find myself listening to when I’m restoring YOM plates on a Saturday night in the garage. We all have our rituals.