A funny thing happened to me recently. But like any good yarn, the lead-up and delivery are everything, and I simply cannot pass up a golden opportunity to come full circle. Therefore, I have no choice but to bring you back in time to October, 1995.
It was a magical time, really. I had only been a member of ALPCA for a few weeks. The postman was delivering letters from other license plate collectors on a near-daily basis. I had trades to work out with these folks, and plates to expect in the mail. The idea that I wasn’t alone in my hobby was still a revelation. It was difficult not to become caught up in it.
My mid-term exams wouldn’t be coming for another couple of weeks, and I had no upcoming assignments that were so pressing that they couldn’t be pushed aside. So I took Sunday off; hopped aboard Marie Christine, my aging Mercury; and made the drive to Grand Bend, Ontario; nearly an hour away. I had heard about a really good antique place just south of the town. Dale’s. I wanted to see if they had any plates.
It was a sunny morning, albeit cold. The auburn leaves clung to the trees that dotted the edges of the farm fields. I popped in a mix tape, and “Wiser Time” by the Black Crowes came on. I had a thing for that song. It was new to me, and I rewound the tape a few times to hear the song again because it just suited my mood.
I arrived in Grand Bend from (then) Highway 81, and turned left down (still) Highway 21. A few kilometres down the road, I came cross a large log-cabin structure on the right, adorned with old petroliana relics. It was Dale’s. However, I’d gotten there a shade early. If I recall, the owners were attending their church, and the establishment wouldn’t open until eleven o’clock. I killed the time by driving around a little, and when I next passed by, the store was open.
I walked inside and found a plethora of wooden furniture, and a healthy amount of additional petroliana. It seemed as though I might find plates in a few different spots, so I browsed slowly and carefully. I found a wooden crate of plates near the front door, with a blanket price of $4 per plate. I started flipping through them. I don’t really remember most of what was in the crate, because really, only one Ontario plate was memorable. It was a red one.
My mentor in the hobby at the time was Joey Koldys, from Ohio. I discovered a news article about him and was able to make contact. He introduced me to ALPCA. He had put some of his own plates on a photocopier, and enclosed the copies with his correspondence, in order to help me learn about the different types of Ontario non-passenger plates. Because of that, I knew that an Ontario diplomat plate always started with the letters “CD” and was red—just like the 1962 plate that I had pulled from the box. It had the numbers CD-188 on it. I bought it for four bucks cash.
I knew it was a good deal, but just how good wouldn’t really be apparent for at least a decade. As I spent more time collecting and reading about Ontario plates, it became clearer that there were some specific CD years that were next to impossible to collect, such as ’86, ’73, ’67, ’62 and ’59. To this day, I know of only four 1962 CD plates that exist. The mate to my plate apparently belonged to deceased long-time collector John Craig, although how mine ultimately found its way into a bargain box at Dale’s is anyone’s guess. As it turns out, that 1962 plate was the first acquisition of what ultimately became my CD baseplate run, which is now complete back to 1959 (the first red plate for that type). I hadn’t seen another CD from 1962 until last year. Talk about rare! There seem to be more leather Ontario first-issues out there than there are '62 diplomats.
Fast-forward 18-plus years.
I had the day off, and my kids were in daycare, so I took some “me” time and went to a little-known, junky antique store in the south end of Ottawa. This place is located on what was once a dead-end street off a main drag, but the street was extended, and the area next door was subsequently zoned residential, and so this odd little shop is now surrounded with some newer, higher-end homes. I had been here once before, maybe five years prior. I had asked the proprietor at the time if he had any plates, and he said there were none. I’m not really sure why I decided to go back there—I almost didn’t bother. My pal Eric has been living in Ottawa all his life and has a much better “ear to the ground” for finding plates in Ottawa stores than I do. I figured that Eric would have probably combed the store already.
I entered the shop and started slowly looking through the densely-packed shelves of stuff. There were old books, magazines, pennants, videos (VHS and Beta), cans, postcards, records, comics, and a superfluity of countless other items. In other words, it’s my kind of store.
I was crouched down, going through a floor basket of miscellaneous paper items such as maps and placemats. I was there for a good couple of minutes before I looked slightly upward. Right in front of my nose was a box that said “License plates $10 each.” But before I could finish reading the label of the box, I could see that the front plate within this box had a reflective red background with white characters. The serial ended with a J. The valtag showed a December 2011 expiry. I was looking at a diplomat plate—a modern, reflective one. The kind that are so tightly controlled that only three or four people I know have one. The kind that fetched nearly four figures on eBay during a flash-in-the-pan auction a year or two ago.
I couldn’t believe it. A goddamn diplomat plate. In this shop, of all places. I grabbed my phone and just took a picture of the box, as I had found it, before pulling the plate out for a look. Surely, it was going to be damaged with half of it torn off, or something… but no. It was a little dirty, but in great condition. How did it get there? Roadkill? A garage sale? I had no clue. I thumbed through the rest of the box, but it contained mostly California plates with a few older Ontario singles… much more typical stuff to find in a shop like this. There was no mate to this jewel of a plate-- just a single.
I already had my eye on a couple of other items in the shop, so I collected them and went to see the proprietor up front. Everything in the store was half off the marked price, so I ended up buying the plate, a pennant, a book, a decal, and a magazine, for a grand total of ten bucks cash.
When I got the plate home, I washed it and it shined up nicely. I don’t think there’s going to be any chance of replacing it anytime soon. Not only is it a rare plate, but I’ve got a story to tell about it, and really, those are the best kinds of collectibles to have. I already had one in my collection, but it had four rivet holes – one punched into each corner – and it was a no-brainer that my junk shop find would easily upgrade the one that I already had.
I thought briefly about going the eBay route and holding my riveted CD plate for a few hundred dollars ransom, but I couldn’t deny the fact that I acquired the plate directly in trade with a good-willed collector, over ten years before, in what was largely an act of kindness. So, I offered it privately to another long-time collector friend and ALPCA veteran who had previously provided me with a goodie or two. He knows who he is, and if he wants to crow publicly about his new acquisition, that’s his call. But it’s a done deal. One of the items coming my way is a 1942 prototype, which will fit nicely into my run of prototypes and test plates of that era. I suppose I’ll bring a display of those to Acton this year.
Antique shops are strange. Most of the time, you find overpriced commonplace items, but that one percent of the time, you really hit paydirt. But only if you’ve taught yourself not to expect anything.