Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Keeper of the Time Capsule, Guardian of Nostalgia

I met Tim Hollis about a year and a half ago by phone while researching a story for a newspaper. We later met in person at a brown bag luncheon at the downtown library. A few months later, I pulled him from the background, pushed him into the spotlight and wrote a magazine feature about him because nobody around here does modern history quite like he does. And now, he is splashed across the newspaper with news of the release of his latest book, Vintage Birmingham Signs. By my count, this is his 11th. (He'll correct me if I'm wrong, I'm sure.)

If you're researching anything dealing with the past, Hollis is a one-stop shop--a valuable asset to anyone with any sense of nostalgia. He co-contributes to the website, which is a virtual (and often laugh-out-loud) walk down Memory Lane for people who grew up in the '60s and '70s, whether they grew up in Birmingham or someplace else. Many of his books serve as detailed extensions of the site.

An excerpt from an article I wrote about him last year:

Depending on the topic at hand, Tim Hollis stands either frozen in time, or he is traveling through it as slowly as a Sunday drive. He can discuss the history and former tenants of refurbished downtown buildings as readily as he can mentally sort through the whereabouts of 1960s TV puppeteers.
If it happened in the ’60s or ’70s, or if it happened in Birmingham, Hollis knows about it. The handy thing about that: His memories are your memories. The restaurants, the department and discount stores, the toys and TV shows – he remembers everything you may have long forgotten. And if it’s tangible, you’ll probably find it in his house.
His home, where he has lived since he was 2, is a shrine to all our childhoods and an archive of Birmingham pop culture. It serves as a time capsule of toys, books, games and TV Guides (every issue from November 1972 to November 1992) that could be mistaken as symptoms of a much larger disorder. “Once I find a photo or something concrete, that’s one less thing I have to store in my memory,” he says.
He consciously began building his collection in 1982 by visiting flea markets, but only to buy back things his parents had gotten rid of. “When I did find them, they were ridiculously cheap,” he recalls. He knew the collecting had gotten out of hand when he would buy things he felt he should have had, but never did.
Haven’t we all wished that we owned toys we played with as children? That we had videos of our family vacations? That we had kept better scrapbooks?
Nostalgia is always in style, “but the generation that’s nostalgic changes,” Hollis says. If you’re in your 40s, it’s your turn. A 40-something himself, Hollis has, in a way, been planning for this all his life. As a kid, he knew that the places and things around him and his experiences wouldn’t last, but that his memories would. To ensure he could always look back in time, he stored and archived everything he could and photographed and wrote about everything else.

And finally ...

He has written 10 books that chronicle everything from Birmingham’s broadcasting heritage to Dixie vacations. It’s a sort of thank-you to those who formed his childhood, but it’s also a gift to others stricken with nostalgia.
Hollis’s greatest fear, he says, is forgetting pieces of his life. He sees the forgetfulness in others of his generation, doesn’t understand it and works to prevent it. “I’m trying to force people to remember things they think they’ve forgotten. Life is a big whirlpool of stuff that makes up people’s memories,” he says. “I don’t want to forget anything.”