ROBIN FINN,, 26 April 2011

An unlikely hybrid of curator, hoarder, historian and D.I.Y.-er, extreme hobbyists do not just accumulate memorabilia, they define their existence by it. Occasionally, they overdo it. “You see them all the time, people with this compulsion to collect,” says Philip Weiss, the owner of Philip Weiss Auctions on Long Island and a frequent appraiser on the “Antiques Roadshow” circuit. He should know: by age 8, he was already appraising other people’s stamp collections while honing his own. The essence of the extreme hobbyist is a variable mix of obsession, acquisitiveness and nostalgia, said Allan Spitz, the owner of the Red Caboose, the quirky Midtown Manhattan mecca for discriminating model-builders. “We are the hedgehogs of the universe,” he says. “We know everything about something very small in the big scheme of things.” The five hands-on hobbyists here exemplify the breed. The intensity of their passion is exceeded only by the scope of their collections.

Model Trains

Mr. Weinstein, chairman of a family business, General Tools and Instruments, is a self-described industrial archaeologist. He does not just research antique steam engines; he builds them. Docked at Pier 40 is a steamship he is helping to restore. But his main passion is resurrecting, in miniature, the New York Central Railroad’s Hudson division from the 1950s glory days, when he used to take its 20th Century Limited, considered the apex of industrial design, to visit his grandparents at their house in Garrison, N.Y.

Mr. Weinstein’s O-scale endeavor harks back to the Lionel train sets he ran in his basement as a child, except that this project of a lifetime has been fomenting since 1996 and will not, he estimates, be finished for another decade. The cost? Somewhere in the six-figures once he gets the final, computer-operated prototype on the tracks and completes the landscaping.

Mr. Weinstein’s project occupies a 20-foot-by-60-foot space at his firm in Lower Manhattan; the completed version may require nearly twice that. “I have a vision,” he said. “Some people might think it crazy, but if I did, I’d be paying for a model railroad and a shrink.”

Credit: Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times

Antique Dolls

When Ms. Libraty’s doll collection, now in the thousands after 20 years, outgrew her house in Midwood, she and her husband bought a 14-room Victorian in Prospect Park South. The sprawling attic has been transformed into a “doll hospital,” where Ms. Libraty restores less-than-pristine finds. (There’s one drawer for disembodied eyeballs, another for orphan limbs.) A former music room is outfitted with display cabinetry to show off its inhabitants, mostly German or French dolls circa 1900.

In the 1980s, Ms. Libraty found four boxes of discarded dolls in a trash bin. “I fell in love, learned how to restore them, and after a while, I began selling them to support my habit of collecting them,” she said. But she has some ground rules: “The dolls do not live in certain rooms, and I do not name them anymore.” Her favorites are miniatures because she can sneak them into the house without her husband noticing.

Ms. Libraty did not grow up cuddling dolls. When she was 4, she said, after she and her sister fought over Barbie dolls, her mother took the dolls away. Ms. Libraty said her mother “broke off their heads and told me I would never have another doll again.”

Credit: Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times

Board Games

Mr. Machacek, a technician at Honeywell, and his wife, a school principal, say their fascination with board games predates their marriage. Both grew up on a steady diet of Yahtzee, Risk, Sorry! and marathon sessions of Monopoly.

The couple built a dedicated gaming room in their attic, and, at last count, there were more than 6,000 games in a collection that, according to Ms. Machacek, peaked at 12,000. The gem of the bunch is the $400 edition of War of the Ring, a “Lord of the Rings” spin-off housed in a wooden case with a leather-bound instruction book. “We’re always building more shelves to hold the games,” she said.

“I’m not typical of most collectors in that most of what I buy, I actually play,” Mr. Machacek said, “and that’s sacrilege to those who buy the game and leave it in the shrink-wrap. To me, the game has no life if I don’t play it.” Their son, Ken III, carries on the legacy in a more modern medium; he collects video games and produces a video podcast, “Fox News Gamers Weekly.”

Credit: Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times


Mr. Fitzpatrick was 6 years old and already a fan of dinosaurs when he saw the original “Godzilla” film one evening on Channel 9’s “Million Dollar Movie.” That was more than 50 years ago, and he is still mesmerized. “I was fortunate that my father encouraged my interest in dinosaurs and monsters; if there was a choice on TV between Lawrence Welk and a Godzilla movie, he’d take Godzilla every time,” said Mr. Fitzpatrick, known as Mr. Fitz at the various toy shops he has frequented since he began collecting in earnest around 1979.

His home is a Godzilla shrine: he estimates that he has more than 2,000 monsters, including Godzilla and the creature’s enemies, some that he built from kits; some ready-made in plastic vinyl and stretching more than four feet. Mr. Fitzpatrick, who worked in the container ship industry in New Jersey, is confident that he owns every Godzilla in every form. He stores them, along with his comics collection, in their original boxes in what he calls his “Room of Doom.”

“I’m 59 now, but I still love monsters with big teeth who like to eat humans,” he said. “And Godzilla, he’s the king of the monsters.”

Credit: Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times