Lifelong passion turns collector into living encyclopedia
PHOENIX – The words come spinning out of Charlie Smith.
He is desperate to talk about his passion – collecting newspapers – and he knows that a moment will come, maybe soon, when the listener begins to feel a little uncomfortable or, worse, bored.
So he holds the listener by the wrist as the words gather momentum.
He talks about his oldest papers, his most important papers, where he got them and how.
The first newspaper Charlie bought was the Dec. 12, 1936, edition of The Phoenix Gazette with the headline: “Edward Trades Throne for Love; Prepares to Join Wally in Exile.”
It was the start of a lifelong addiction.
“I was a newspaper boy, and I was spending all my money on newspapers,” he said.
And he never stopped collecting.
He bought papers wholesale and retail and by the truckful.
He once found a man in St. Louis with every edition of the New York Times between 1927 and 1944.
“He paid me $100 to take them from him,” Charlie said.
He saved them and read them and cared for them.
Now those newspapers are paying him back. The yellowed pages with stories about moments both grand and forgotten keep an old man happy and relevant.
After more than 70 years collecting newspapers, Charlie still cannot tell you why.
He likes them, he says. He says he finds them interesting.
Neither answer is enough to justify why his home in northeast Phoenix is filled – literally – with old newspapers from around the world.
The truth may be that he collects them because he can’t imagine not collecting them, and because they keep him in the game.
Newspapers now serve as Charlie’s ticket. Charlie and his papers go to schools and libraries and town halls.
Last month, he took them to Chaparral High School in Scottsdale. Freshmen and sophomores in Mr. Speirs’ World History class walked among the newspapers.
“I don’t think of them as commodities,” Charlie said. “I think of how interesting the schoolkids will find them.”
It all started for Charlie when his Aunt May in Chicago sent him a Christmas present back in 1933.
As a gift for its readers, the Chicago Tribune made a replica set of important front pages and sent them to readers.
Aunt May sent them to Charlie. “The Chicago Fire. The Titanic Sinks. I was just enthralled,” Charlie said.
Then he enlisted and was collecting newspapers about the war while he was fighting in it.
In 1950, Charlie started what he calls the “world’s first newspaper collectors’ club.”
In 1969, with the moon landing approaching, Charlie sent more than 600 letters to papers in 120 countries asking editors for their editions of the historic day.
This was when Charlie learned what may have been the secret to his success: Newspapers love people who love newspapers.
In 1981, Charlie’s hobby evolved into a lucrative side business. He bought 60,000 newspapers from the Arizona State Library for $1,100.
“You see, nobody else wanted them,” Charlie said. “I was in seventh heaven, but what an awful mess.”
Charlie began what he called the Day-You-Were-Born business.
He started selling the papers he bought for less than 2 cents per copy to people who wanted them for gifts.
“I was selling them for $5. The money just rolled in. I paid for a $69,000 house in two years.”
Charlie recently moved into an assisted-living apartment. His old home remains filled with papers, which is a problem for his daughter, who is going to try to sell the house.
“His house is a nightmare,” Susan Hurtado, 43, said. “You have no idea.”
Charlie’s oldest newspaper is from 1541 (written in German), and he has plenty from each century that followed.
He has become an expert on news events, which was a benefit to his daughter when she was in school and continues to be for his grandchildren.
“I never had to research anything in my whole life,” Hurtado said, putting her hand on her father’s shoulder. “He always knows. Now my two boys will call him late at night. He always knows.”
He says he is done collecting papers, but then confesses that he sent out letters to historically Black papers so he could see their front pages on the morning after Barack Obama’s election.
His daughter dropped her hands in disbelief. “You did what?”
But Charlie can’t help himself.
“I think it’s so interesting,” he said. “Don’t you?”