Jack Cook’s fascination with presidential memorabilia started 45 years ago, when he purchased a box filled with various items at an auction. At the bottom of the box were “I Like Ike” buttons, used during Dwight D. Eisenhower’s run for president in 1952. These buttons ignited his passion for collecting memorabilia of former presidents and the “wannabes,” those who ran and lost. Since finding the Eisenhower buttons, Cook has gone on to collect many interesting and rare items, such as framed tickets for the impeachment trials of Bill Clinton and Andrew Johnson. Though there were only a few tickets printed for Clinton’s trial, Cook was able to score Sen. Carl Levin’s after the trial ended. Other rare items include cigarettes encased in the presidential seal and matchbooks distributed by the White House, which are no longer given out, as the White House is now smoke free, Cook said.
Cook originally had no plans of showing and selling off parts of his collection, but when the Maple Street Mall in Mason contacted him last August about setting up a booth, he agreed to a three-month trial. Today he has no plans of leaving. He estimates about 20 percent of his collection is on display at his booth in the antique mall. The rest is stored at his house.
At the request of his wife, Cook plans to purge some of his inventory this weekend at the 49th Antiquarian Book & Paper Show, where he’ll join dealers from eight states operating 200 booths. Show organizer Ray Walsh encouraged Cook to sell at the show, which mostly features old books and ephemera, because of the rare and unusual items in his collection.
Cook has noticed some major changes since he first began collecting memorabilia more than four decades ago. For starters, there is a lot more memorabilia today than before, and it’s becoming a popular hobby, especially during our most recent election. Cook has already collected a many items from the campaigns of President Obama and hopeful John McCain. One of the more unique items from the past election are bottles of Jones Soda with labels featuring McCain or Obama, which sold out incredibly fast. “Twenty years ago, someone would have said, ‘Are you nuts? Where would you find this stuff?’ but the Internet makes everything so much easier, and I’m able to find things in so many places,” Cook said.
Cook’s been in the game long enough that he doesn’t even have to spend hours scouring the Web for his finds; people contact him about items they wish to sell.
Cook said one of the biggest concerns facing collectors today is counterfeiting. With an influx of imitation items from places like China, Cook said even professionals are having a hard time distinguishing the real memorabilia from the fakes. “If something seems like a really good bargain, it probably isn’t real,” said Cook, who prices his items based on how rare they are and how similar items are priced at the political memorabilia shows he attends.
What once started as an inexpensive hobby can now be incredibly costly. Cook sells several items in the $3,000 range, but he stresses that he has many inexpensive items, too. The cheapest include buttons and bubble gum cigars, featuring the slogan “Win with Dick” from the Richard Nixon campaign, all costing $1. Some of his other low-cost items include political playing cards ($3) and presidential potholders ($2).
However, Cook admits his prices are not set in stone. “People will try to bargain with me, and that’s OK,” he said. “We don’t discount, we negotiate.”
Collecting presidential memorabilia has become more than a hobby for Cook. He plans the vacations he and his wife take around former presidents, opting to visit the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum in Abilene, Kan., instead of some other leisure location. Through his hobby, Cook has met four presidents, but he said nothing compares to his most awe-inspiring moment: being inside the Oval Office.
“I think I forgot to breathe,” said Cook, who got to go where very few people are allowed by befriending an aide to President Ronald Reagan. “It’s a pretty awesome thing, and it’s all part of the hobby. These memories will be with me forever. They can’t be sold.”
49 th Michigan Antiquarian Book & Paper Show
a.m. – 5 p.m. Sunday, March 29 Lansing Center, 333 E. Michigan Ave.,
Lansing $4.50, free for children 13 and younger (517) 332-0112 www.curiousbooks.com/ show/abf.html