I’ve never been called a conduit before. It’s a plumbing term, I think.
He’s the nicest guy, huge bristly mane of sandy hair (a very important detail about him, but more on that later) and he projects his voice, like he’s an actor on a stage in Huntington Beach, Calif., where he lives, and his audience is in Kuala Lumpur.
�KEITH,� he’s still screaming. He’s always screaming. �YOU’RE THE CONDUIT! DON’T FORGET THAT! YOU’RE THE CONDUIT!�
I’ve just left his house, which is unlike any house I’ve ever visited.
This bellowing man has such an ordinary name — Mark Shapiro. If he were known as the Incredible Inedible Unforgettable Mark Shapiro, or something like that, it would sound so much more appropriate.
Shapiro, 60, is obsessed with a long-dead author of children’s books who has taken over his life, and he wants this story to attract other people to his obsession because he has no idea what to do with the fruits of his obsession now that he is really obsessed.
Or at least that’s what I think he’s talking about.
I am just the conduit.
Since he was a little kid, Mark Shapiro has lived at a high decibel level.
�You should read my early report cards,� he said. �The teachers would always say, ‘Mark is a good boy, but he talks loud.’ I have heard that my entire life, mostly because I get excited in expressing myself. It really is a sign of me being happy.�
When he was 5, Shapiro’s mother took him to a doctor who told him that he was unusually sensitive and perceptive for a child his age. It was a defining moment for the boy.
Since that diagnosis, he has believed he is special.
�I can read people,� he said. �I CAN READ YOU!�
Shapiro then proceeded to tell me that I was a �truthteller� and that I have a bit of natural suspicion about the things people tell me. Of course, I was suspicious of his attempt to �read� me.
For the better part of his adult life, Mark Shapiro has been hairy.
He went to college to be a journalist. But instead of sticking with journalism, he decided to try teaching.
�YOU GET THREE MONTHS OFF!� Shapiro yelled.
He taught for 30 years. Many of them at a continuation school, where he taught all subjects to teenage mothers.
�It was tremendous,� he said of his teaching career. �I got them to feel good about themselves. I got them to finish school.�
Shapiro was a hippie-looking teacher with so much voluminous hair hanging over his shoulders his students began calling him �The Lion King.�
�THAT’S JUST ME!� he yelled. �THAT’S NOT AN ACT!�
One day in the 1980s, Shapiro and his wife, Michelle, were desperately trying to find something they could enjoy together.
They decided to start going to swap meets and collecting stuff. Collecting stayed, the wife left. They divorced in 1992.
He started with 45-rpm records. (He now says he has 25,000.) Then he bought phonographs (25). Then jukeboxes (10).
His house is crammed with 200-year-old newspapers, autographed movie posters, musical instruments, kitsch of all kinds.
There is memorabilia in his bathroom.
He lives in an overgrown garden of Americana.
In his nearly 15 years of collecting, Shapiro has become widely known for one thing.
In 1992 at a swap meet in Long Beach, Calif., he saw a book for sale — �The Wonderful Wizard of Oz� by L. Frank Baum. He bought it for 50 cents.
A couple of months later, he saw a magazine that listed some valuable collectibles.
His 50-cent book had a listed value of $10,000 (now $18,000).
Shapiro began researching Baum, a former journalist (like Shapiro), who wrote 14 Oz books between 1900 and 1919, when he died. Shapiro bought books, board games, posters, trinkets — anything related to Baum.
He retired from teaching in 2001 and devoted most of his life to finding all things Baum.
He said he uses winnings from his other passion — horse racing — to pay for memorabilia.
He usually buys Baum collectibles on the Internet from people who don’t know they’re worth very much. He said he rarely spends more than a couple hundred bucks.
�THEY NEVER KNOW WHAT THEY’VE GOT,� he yelled.
He now says he owns two first-edition, first-state books (those �first state� books were created on the first run of the presses before some corrections were made).
A mint condition first-edition, first-state �Wonderful Wizard of Oz� book has a $35,000 to $45,000 price tag at AbeBooks.com and BookFinder.com.
�I’ve seen other Baum books offered for $37,000 or $39,000, and they’re not in the condition his are,� said Mark Kirchner, a hand bookbinder in Newport Beach, Calif. �His are better.�
Kirchner will never forget the first time he met Shapiro.
�I thought, ‘My God, the Cowardly Lion just walked in,’� Kirchner said.
Shapiro says he has 310 firstedition Baum books. Most are second-state. The most he has ever paid for a book is $4,000.
Shapiro has asked himself how, with so little money, he is able to win eBay auctions for all this valuable material? His answer: Baum is helping him.
�HIS SPIRIT IS IN ME!� he yelled. �THIS IS SPIRITUAL! I AM MEANT TO DO THIS!�
His theory is that Baum’s spirit, knowing that Shapiro doesn’t resell his items, wants him to have all the books.
Here’s the problem with Shapiro’s collection. People rarely see it.
Since his divorce, he said, about 10 people have visited. He realizes that this is a problem.
That’s where I come in. He wants this story to spread the word. Maybe someone from a museum will call and offer him some space. Maybe an elementary school will set up a tour.
Maybe someone will tell him what he’s supposed to do with all this stuff. Baum’s spirit, as powerful as it is, hasn’t written an ending yet.
�IT’S FATE, KEITH!� he screams at me. �THIS MAY BE ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT STORIES YOU’VE EVER DONE!�