- Associated Press - Thursday, October 9, 2014

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) - You might think that the most memorable thing about Tim Hollis‘ Walker County home is the wall of 100 lunchboxes.

Or maybe the exact replica of his childhood bedroom in the basement. Or perhaps the 20-year-old box of Batman cereal.

When Hollis decided in 1981 to start collecting toys from his childhood, he had no idea what it would turn into.

“That was the first step was organizing what I already had,” he says. “As I tell people, it kind of got out of hand from there.”

What it turned into was a full-fledged museum, which Hollis houses in an addition to his home that would be equivalent to a two-story garage. There, he has on display his collection of toys and pop culture memorabilia, including 50-year-old Kentucky Fried Chicken buckets and a Peanuts collection that dates back to 1958.

Hollis, 51, was inspired to begin his collection after seeing a story in a magazine about a collector while waiting in a dentist office.

“There was photo of him sitting in front of a wall with all of these games, puzzles and bubble bath toys and things behind him,” he says. “When I saw that photo, I realized everything that he had was something that I used to have, or it was something that I still had that we had kept from when I was a kid. I thought if this fella can do it, so can I.”

Hollis organizes his vast collection by groups.

There is a table dedicated to birthday party decorations for children, mixed in with items used for some of his childhood parties. There’s a cartoon character bubble bath table. Childhood icons such as Ronald McDonald, Winnie The Pooh, the Peanuts and Hanna Barbera characters all have their own spaces.

Hollis reserved the top floor of his museum for toys, games and figurines. Downstairs is dedicated to pop culture and things from Birmingham’s past, such as shopping bags from local department stores and trading stamps from the old Bruno’s grocery.

The bottom half of the museum contains things more personal to Hollis.

There is a school section that includes the desk he used at home as a child and his late schoolteacher father’s old bulletin board. The right-hand side of the basement contains a replica of both Hollis‘ crib and childhood bedroom. There is also a truncated version of his childhood kitchen and his first television set.

Hollis comes by his love of collecting honestly. It came from his parents, who moved into the Walker County home in 1965. Some may call his collection over-the-top, but it’s all fairly normal to Hollis.

“It’s kind of hard to explain because it’s never not been around me,” he says. “I’ve lived with it all my life. I was living in a museum before I ever built a museum. My parents labeled everything. My dad would write these long captions on the back of family photos explaining what was going on in them.

“They saved the memory of everything we did,” Hollis says.

This desire to collect would also inform his career as a writer. Hollis has written 23 books about the history of the Magic City and the South, including “Vintage Birmingham Signs,” ”Birmingham’s Theater and Retail District” and “Dixie Before Disney: 100 Years of Roadside Fun.” Hollis also contributes to Birmingham Rewound, a website dedicated to the history of the city.

True to his collecting nature, he even preserved the first typewriter he ever used, complete with the first page he ever typed on.

30 years’ worth of Birmingham TV guides and Birmingham News editions going back 100 years line the walls of a room the size of a small den in another part of Hollis‘ house.

Back in the basement portion of his museum, figurines, maps and other souvenirs mark all the places that Hollis has been in the travel section.

He also included a general store section with vintage fast-food containers and grocery items.

A holiday-themed section on the back wall is broken up into black-lit Halloween decorations in one corner, an Easter table and a Christmas section, complete with Christmas trees and some of the original props from Birmingham’s historic department stores, such as a moose from Pizitz’s annual enchanted forest Christmas display.

Hollis says the moose is the most expensive thing he’s collected so far.

“This moose is the only figure that I know of that survived,” he says. “When the store had its fixture sale, some fella went and bought the moose and kept it in his living room for about 20 years and then he sold it to me for a couple of arms and a leg.”

Hollis also has a section dedicated to his history with local television legend and friend “Cousin” Cliff Holman. Hollis played the characters Corky and Kim on Holman’s show in the 1990s for a short time, and Holman’s family gave the two puppets to Hollis on permanent loan to display in the museum.

“The good thing about Cliff is that he and I knew every old joke that had ever been invented,” Hollis says. “So, if one of us started into on the other one knew where we were going with it. We’d have a script, but we’d go off the script and just start talking to each other.”

Hollis plans his vacation around trips to antique stores throughout the country. He visits local shops a couple of weekends out of the month. He doesn’t shop on eBay often because he never knows what he’s looking for specifically.

“I never really know what I’m looking for when I walk into an antique store,” Hollis says. “It’s just if I see it, I get it. A lot of times when I go to check out, I get funny looks because the stuff that I’ve gotten is so eclectic. I might have a Bugs Bunny lunchbox and I might have an empty can of Hawaiian Punch. People can’t understand how all of this stuff fits together. “

Hollis‘ collection may be all over the place, but Steve Gilmer, co-owner of downtown Birmingham antique store What’s On Second, calls it a “remarkable collection of popular culture.”

“Older people can identify with it if they grew up with it themselves, like a bucket from Kentucky Fried Chicken or some costume from Halloween that they remember,” Gilmer says. “Young people will see it and see the coolness of it because it has ultimately led to the popular culture items that we have today as collectibles, the ‘Star Wars,’ all of the space and robot-related stuff.”

Gilmer says that Hollis, who he’s known since the ‘70s, has always been a serious collector.

“He would come into the Birmingham Flea Market with his mother when he was really not much more than a kid and was very focused on what he was looking for even then: Hanna Barbera toys and advertisement items,” Gilmer recalls. “He would buy an odd assortment of things. He was a serious buyer, even in those days. That collecting matured as time went on.”

His first time seeing the collection after the museum left him speechless, even though the collection was only half as large as it is now, according to Gilmer.

“I ran out of superlatives and adjectives like six feet into the place to express my amazement,” he said. “It was pretty awe-inspiring. I guess anybody is capable of appreciating what he’s put together, but being in this business, I know how difficult it is to find a lot of the things that he has and he was been on the trail for decades. His collection is a mature collection of the most fun stuff ever made in the 20th century.”

According to Gilmer, Hollis‘ museum is a local treasure that should be preserved.

“I think that it would be a sad day in Birmingham if that collection was ever dispersed or sent to reside in another location,” he said. “We need to find some way of preserving that locally for future generations. It is worthy of museum status. It has earned that title.”

Hollis said he doesn’t trade or sell his items, but does sometimes give away duplicates to children visiting the museum.

“That way, kids have their own collection,” he said.

He may not share his collection, but he’s more than willing to share his knowledge, according to What’s On Second partner Ian Philips.

“That’s a rare thing for somebody who writes collector books to so freely share information,” he Philips says. “It just seems like a lot of people guard their information very closely. It’s always refreshing to find someone who’s willing to educate.”

Hollis says that he’ll never been finished collecting.

“I don’t get as much stuff as when I first started and was just constantly finding things that I used to have and so forth,” he says. “I still do pretty well. I’ll keep it up as long as I’m able to.

“It’s really become bigger than me,” Hollis says. “I’ve realized that it’s not just my memories anymore, it’s preserving everyone’s memories.”

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