I’ve got it figured out. That is: Why the fall plate meet in Grimsby feels different from the spring meet in Acton.
I was e-mailing a newcomer during the weeks leading up to Grimsby, who contacted me and was thinking of attending for the first time. He asked me what they were like. “Are they the same?” he asked. My answer is a wishy-washy “Yes and no,” but I’ve never been able to put my finger right on it accurately. I’ve got it figured out now, but in order to know the answer, you’ll have to wade your way through the story.
I originally wasn’t hopeful of attending Grimsby this year, since I robbed my family of an entire week this past summer when I went to the ALPCA Convention in Rochester. But in my marvellous performance of husband-and-father responsibilities through the three months that ensued, I managed to secure enough points to receive the blessing of my family to make the 27-hour return trip.
The first source of relief came during the week prior to Grimsby. Whenever possible, I’ll scout the classifieds for people who are selling old license plates, either in a lot or a-la-carte, and make small detours along the way. It’s been a dry year for finding raw YOM stock in this way for my business, and honestly, I’d been running either low on, or out of, key YOM years. However, four detours’ worth of plates suddenly appeared out of the woodwork in the few days before the meet.
My usual travelling companion, Eric Vettoretti, was unable to make the trip this year. His wife was nine months pregnant and ready to pop, with her due date being early the following week. I joked with Eric that Kate should try to hold on until the following weekend—otherwise, Eric could be stuck hosting kiddie birthday parties, during the Grimsby weekend, for years to come!
I managed to leave Ottawa at about 5:30 on Friday afternoon. The sun was ready to set and I had a full tank of gas, ready to head into the sunset, past the GTA and into the Golden Horseshoe. My first pre-arranged stop was in the small village of Maitland, to pick up a set of 1951 plates, which turned out to be in better condition than I expected. They may only need a cleaning, instead of a full-on-restoration. I was pleased as I turned the car around and headed along the dark, tree-lined road back to the 401.
When I’m on road trips like this, I form a strong mental association between the places I pass and the music that I’m listening to. I don’t try to do this—it’s just automatic. One strategy I’ve begun to use when writing these columns, in order to recall interesting-but-forgettable events, is to look at the song playlist. There are some songs that don’t “feel” right unless I’m heading west on the 401, at night, bound for a place like Grimsby. I have one whole album that can only be listened to properly while heading down the 401 / DVP / Gardiner corridor at night, in light traffic, when I can whiz past everything. For this trip, rather than shuffle the songs, I ordered them all so they’d be played while I was in approximately the correct area. I enjoy the music and the drive immensely more when they’re played in the right situation. I know that practice might sound odd to most people –spending all the time and effort ordering the songs so I’ll hear “Together” while on the DVP—and I don’t know why I derive more pleasure from the trip when I arrange my music in this way. You’d think that simply being alone in the car, without refereeing any children in the back seats, would be treat enough.
My second stop was in Whitby to pick up a rusty-but-solid pair of 1930 plates. I suspect that the person who posted the ad on Kijiji might have been a teenager, because a woman answered the door who was just a little older than me, and she did the transaction on behalf of the seller, whose name was Tanner. You don’t typically see middle-aged guys with trendy names like that, so I figured Tanner himself might have been out at the high school dance, or something.
I breezed through downtown Toronto, and stuttered along the QEW past some closed lanes through Mississauga, before leaving the highway and heading north to Waterdown to pick up yet another set of plates. It was getting late, and I was periodically in touch with the seller, making sure that my arrival wouldn’t be too late, but it was all good. I picked up a set of 1929s and then made my way down the escarpment, through Hamilton, into wine country.
I looked at my fuel gauge for the first time in an hour and noted the amber warning light glowing feebly beneath the needle, which had moved into the “take your chances” zone beyond the letter E. I was still about 10 km from my destination, so I played it safe and exited the highway, and instructed my GPS to find the nearest gas station. It was nearly 11:30, and I wasn’t exactly in an area that bustled with activity during the height of day, so I crossed my fingers that this gas station was a 24-hour beacon of hope. I doubled back a few kilometres and finally saw some bright lights ahead. It was open, much to my relief. I filled the tank as I realized that I’d driven from Ottawa to Grimsby on a single tank of gas, albeit with nothing to spare.
I finally made my way into Vineland, where Grimsby meet founder Don Goodfellow lives. I volunteer as co-host for the Grimsby meet now, and Don was kind enough to offer me a bed for the night, even though I didn’t get there until quarter to midnight.
After a short sleep and a quick breakfast, we left the house at seven to drive through Beamsville and into Grimsby. We arrived there by around 7:20, and there were some eager collectors all set to enter the hall, including Bob Cornelius, Terry Ellsworth, Joe Sallmen and Bill & Lynda Thoman.
I was particularly pleased to see Bill and Lynda. They had done a big favour for me the weekend before. A person in the Windsor area had a collection of plates for sale, and I was keenly interested, but of course, I live in Ottawa, which is 800 km away from Windsor. The seller had indicated that he’d be willing to deliver them, so I asked Bill and Lynda if they’d be willing to take delivery of the plates and bring them to Grimsby, and they were happy to help. As it turns out, Bill had known the seller for many years, and delivery to the Thoman residence was very swift, and Bill had a chance to catch up with an old friend. The cornerstone of this collection was a 1911 three-digit porcelain, with a slightly higher number than the one I already had, but there was a significant improvement in condition, with barely any chips, better gloss, and a more vibrant blue background. I was relieved that the plate was as nice as advertised. Bill also brought a small display of early motorcycles and a couple of low-number plates, including a stunning two-digit plate from 1918.
Bob had a conflict and was forced to leave the swap meet just a little after nine, but I did acquire a set of plates from him before he left. He`s still driving with his triple-1 plates. Looking at them never gets old. I was overjoyed to see Dave Steckley in Grimsby this fall. He expected not to make the meet, as a family situation had arisen that would probably preclude his attendance in Grimsby. But in talking to Dave, he said he needed a few hours of relief… a mental break, if you will.
I was later gabbing with Norm Ratcliffe, and told him how Eric was at home and expecting a baby any day. Norm used to find himself in a similar situation during our Acton meets for a few years—his daughter`s birthday is the same week as the Acton meet, and on a few occasions, Normy was at home supervising her birthday party. “It killed me not to be at the meet,” he said, “Because I need times like these, just to get away for a couple of hours.” I understood-- A mental break. For plate geeks like us, there’s nowhere else to go to talk about die variations or YOM.
Ned Flynn was also in Grimsby, as usual. Ned, as you may know, was ALPCA’s official legal counsel, but after 35 years, he retired from his practice, and subsequently resigned as ALPCA’s attorney. He is still the convention chair, and he’s had to deal with many club members who just have no concept as to how complicated it is to organize a multi-faceted event as the ALPCA Convention. He takes it all in stride, but the endless “why don’t you have it in Mytownville, it would be perfect” would drive me nuts. He told me a couple of amusing stories from his years of planning conventions. Let’s just say that the man knows how to read a contract, and it’s because of his savvy that the club has avoided a couple of certain disasters by refusing to sign contracts with some outrageous conditions added.
I had dispensed with all of my bulk trade stock six months ago in Acton, and I now keep a single box with higher end traders that are pulled from my collection as I slowly upgrade. For example, I brought to Grimsby the 1912 and 1917 plates that I’d upgraded back in Rochester, and they sold. I also brought three pairs that I restored for YOM, which were casualties of the MTO’s 2013 changing of the eligibility criteria, and rendered unusable. Two of them sold, much to my surprise. I sold a few other odds and sods as well, including a bunch of nice lower-numbered four-digit passenger plates from the 1960s, for $20 each. It was nice to see some attention paid to my table.
Don and I raffled off the door prizes as the morning wore on. We had trouble finding a winner for a new copy of a license plate book—apparently, we called several numbers in a row that belonged to people who had left early. I joked with the crowd that there was no shame in winning door prizes (Several people had won cookies in Acton last spring, but declined to come forward to accept). Finally, Matt Embro came forward to claim the book. “I’m tired of holding this damn thing up,” I said. “I don’t care what the number is on your ticket—the book’s yours!”
There were about 45 people who entered the swap meet, including spouses and walk-ins. And older gentleman had heard about our meet and had brought a box of plates to sell. Of course, the smell of new plates is enough to catch our attention in an instant, but the box contained either later quarterly truck plates or 1970s and 1980s passenger plates. I had to tell the guy that the entire box had a value of around $30. Naturally, he wanted a second opinion, and I invited him to ask around. He ultimately appeared to sell his plates to Joe Sallmen, who I imagine might have given him a similar value to the one I figured. He seemed disappointed that the box wasn’t worth more, but the majority of the plates people find aren’t very lucrative.
It was time to pack up. A few collectors remained by 11:30, including Matt, as well as Arnie Lukas and Alan Bones, and they gave Don and I a hand at stowing the tables and chairs. Two talkative collectors remained after that—Joe and Martine—and they seemed to have a deal brewing and weren’t ready to pack up. Don thanked me for my help and gave me the OK to head home, given my long drive ahead. With that, I headed to the highway. I hadn’t had lunch yet— but I wanted to make one more detour first, and I decided lunch could wait until afterward. My GPS pulled me off the highway early and forced me along a meandering route through the heart of industrial Hamilton, with nothing but elevated roads surrounded by steel plants and smoke stacks. That eventually gave way to a run-down residential area, which gave way to the inner harbour and downtown. After what seemed like a long time, I finally found myself on former Highway 8 and headed to the town of Dundas. Dundas has a really steep cliff on its western edge as it runs into the Niagara Escarpment, and the road climbs the Cliffside while zigzagging to allow an old rail line to pass overhead. I first stumbled on this road twenty-one years prior, when my father and I were heading into Hamilton so I could check out McMaster University (I didn’t matriculate there in the end).
I stopped at an antique market on Hatt Street that appeared to have lots of plates available. There were many uninteresting quarterly plates, to be sure, but there were a few interesting ones, too. I scored a pair of 1969s for my YOM business. It was a good store for a guy like me—lots of plates scattered through different vendors, old telephones, drug store signs, and even a GM bus driver’s manual. I limited my purchasing to just the one pair of plates before leaving and having lunch at a nearby Tim Horton’s.
Traffic through Toronto was a nuisance on the way home—it was a case of “pick your poison” with my GPS… either I'd be waiting 27 minutes in a construction zone on the QEW in Oakville, or I’d plod through an indeterminate delay on the 401. I picked the 401 and sat through some stop-and-go that finally cleared up at the Yonge interchange. The drive home was smooth sailing after that, and I got home by 8 o’clock… early enough to read my kids a story and put them to bed. Of course, with the go-go-go aspect of my plate geek road trips, I was exhausted. I spent the next day writing this column because I was still too physically tired to go farting around with my boxes of acquired plates. And it was then that I realized the difference between Acton and Grimsby. Acton, being at the start of the spring, is a high-energy event where most of us are just raring to go after spending a winter of doing nothing. But Grimsby, for me anyway, is a mental break. A steam relief valve. A getaway from everything. I may not do as much trading in Grimsby, and I’m often too physically tired afterward to even unpack for a couple of days, but the lower-key “feel” of Grimsby lets me relax and forget about life while I chat with old and new friends.
As it turns out, it was a wise decision for Eric not to attend the meet. His wife went into labour early Sunday morning, and by sunrise, they were the proud parents of a healthy baby girl! Congrats all around. Better start planning those birthday parties!