What We Think About When We Think About Coke.

The Coca-Cola Collectors Club chose Springfield as the site of their annual convention. We sent Stry.us’ Zach Crizer, a Coke collector in his own right, to find out what makes the club tick.

story by Zach Crizer / photos by Zach Crizer
published July 20, 2012

Dick McChesney is wearing a red apron and sitting in a slightly hunched position in the corner of a makeshift booth, a jolly grin and a twinkle from his spectacles glowing from under a full head of white hair and a white goatee. He’s in a ballroom of Springfield’s University Plaza hotel. On the table next to him, Coca-Cola memorabilia — serving trays, old signs, a bottle or two — is on display. Some of it is for sale at this, the 38th annual Coca-Cola Collectors Club convention.

He is comfortable, looking up with a wave or a quick head nod as collectors pass by the elder statesman’s corner booth. He picks up a faded piece of red paper with bold, curling type. It is the newsletter from the club’s founding convention, a 1975 meeting at an Atlanta hotel. McChesney has it because he was there. And he’s been at every convention since.

His granddaughter, 14-year-old Lexie, is alongside — this is her fifth convention. When McChesney was her age, Coke was already a major part of his life. At age 13, he started “lugging bottles” for a small beverage company that delivered, retrieved, refilled and then once again delivered six-and-a-half-ounce glass bottles of Coca-Cola to homes and small businesses.

He eventually bought the business, Home Beverage Company, and still operates it out of Minneapolis. But it isn’t quite the same.

The difference? Coke doesn’t offer refillable bottles anymore. In fact, in most parts of the country it doesn’t use six-and-a-half-ounce bottles, which have been largely replaced by the eight-ounce glass bottles found in most grocery stores. But McChesney has access to a rare local bottler that still uses the bottle he grew up with, and he drinks it from that bottle whenever possible. “I like a fresh Coke every six-and-a-half ounces,” he says to conclude his explanation of why glass bottles offer the best drinking experience, but he is preaching to the choir.

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Dick Chesney talks shop with a few fellow Coca-Cola aficionados at the 38th annual Coca-Cola Collectors Club convention held at Springfield’s University Plaza hotel.

Dick Chesney talks shop with a few fellow Coca-Cola aficionados at the 38th annual Coca-Cola Collectors Club convention held at Springfield’s University Plaza hotel.

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There are 700 due-paying, name-tag-wearing members of the Coca-Cola Collectors Club in Springfield this weekend. From a quick glance around the parking lot, it’s clear the club’s annual convention has drawn collectors from across the continent, and that many of them chose to drive to Springfield — presumably so they could arrive with their collections in tow.

Walking toward the entrance of the convention center, I’m in a bit of a daze, watching heat waves bubble out of the pavement and then disappear just before I can step on them. Collecting glass Coca-Cola bottles is a habit that, over the past decade, has turned into a more formal status quo for me: I’m building a collection. I’m not particularly shy about it. I explain it to friends and my family knows to point out glass soda bottles in restaurants if I for some reason miss them. But while the collecting has perplexed some waiters and dinner acquaintances — most people just smile and nod — mine has always been a casual pursuit. I’ve never huddled around the open trunk of a hatchback to scout Coke memorabilia, like the two men I pass on my left, and in fact I’ve never sought out the company of anyone else with the same interest. My collection has been built from opportunity. The bottles are acquired in the course of my day-to-day life; they don’t direct it.

Of course, today I’m introducing myself to a community of people who will traverse North America — or half of the globe — to indulge their interest in Coca-Cola. But for me, even this convention was a result of being in the right place at the right time. Or at least that’s what I tell myself as I enter the convention center and turn a corner into the ballroom where the group’s swap meet has put memorabilia on display. My pupils dilate, I stop in place and scan the room. I see the caramel color under the shine of finely aged bottles. I see the logo, I see red.

I suddenly find I’m kneeling next to a battalion of classic commemorative Coca-Cola glass bottles lined up for display, arranged on mini-shelves acting as risers. Just a few days ago, my habit was a personality quirk, just a bit of humor thrown into my writer bio. Then my editor noticed that Springfield was hosting something called the Coca-Cola Collectors Club Convention. And he thought to himself, “Who do I know…?”

Why, I wonder, is the largest annual event for this particular community — which I was totally unaware of until my editor approached me about it — in Springfield? When I stand up and pry myself away from the bottles, I begin my search for the club’s president.

When I finally track down Dennis Bardin, a Texan who started collecting 25 years ago, he is pausing to tell his wife that he’s willing to spend up to $400 on a gleaming plastic home soda fountain — it has four dispensers, one of which is already labeled for Coke — that a member of the public has brought to the convention, probably out of their attic. The swap meet, Bardin says, is the only portion of the convention open to the public. [1]

I tell him that I’m glad there was an open portion of the event for me to attend. But, the bigger question, what brought this club to this city? Some of the club’s convention locations are easy to understand. Atlanta is home to Coca-Cola headquarters and hosts the convention about once every five years. Next year’s convention is in Charlotte, a major metropolitan area that fits well in the club’s base of members, most of whom reside in the southeast or midwest United States.

The reasoning for picking Springfield is less transparent.

Bardin says several factors drove the club to pick this Southwest Missouri hub. The convention locations are selected several years in advance, and Bardin says the struggling economy was of particular concern to the club’s leaders when the 2012 convention was being planned. One of his top priorities at the time was finding a centrally-located, reasonably-priced destination so costs wouldn’t deter attendance.

The city earned bonus points for the Springfield Cardinals’ nearby ballpark and a glut of downtown dining possibilities. Still, Bardin worried about the size of Springfield, as it is one of the smallest cities in recent memory to host the club’s convention. Surveying the bustling swap meet, Bardin is pleasantly surprised. He’s been receiving positive feedback from the membership — an admittedly aging group that usually finds its favorite view in the rearview mirror [2] — because it reminds them of the club’s old days.

For many people, for me, Coca-Cola bottles are everyday opportunities to open that cap and let the memories bubble to the top for a second. The red label asks me to stop, to slow down for a second and enjoy the moment, to absorb it so thoroughly that I truly know it.

Specifically, they’re pleased with the hotel — especially the atrium that allows members to look around the hotel and pick out rooms that are open for memorabilia trading each night. “It might give us an opportunity to go back to the way the club was in the early years,” he says.

Susan Wade, public relations manager for the Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the city gives many groups the opportunity to have the town to themselves. “When they meet in Springfield, they’re not a small fish in a big pond — they’re a big fish in a small pond,” she says. Indeed, the Coca-Cola Collectors Club is slightly larger than the average group that meets in Springfield, according to Wade. Over the past decade, the city has hosted, on average, about 66 group events per year. Springfield can accommodate up to 10,000 people for a convention, but the average group hovers around 500 people.

The types of groups that hold their events in town vary, but Wade said the factors that led the Coca-Cola collectors here are fairly common — travel distance and cost. She says meeting in Southwest Missouri means nobody has to travel from coast to coast hauling a truckload of Coca-Cola memorabilia, and the hotel costs are relatively inexpensive. Wade says the city pitches its benefits to any group that can “put heads in beds,” and has secured events ranging from massive bowling tournaments to the Model T Ford Club of America convention.

Springfield represents an American crossroads, where the South meets the Midwest and modern convention amenities meet tucked away mom-and-pop stores draped in Coca-Cola red. And that seems to be the main reason Bardin deems this a refreshing convention, that numerous members tell him the smaller town is more welcoming, that it reminds them of conventions past. [3] And to Coke collectors, that is almost universally a positive thing.

McChesney, of course, can tell you how similar this convention is to the club’s original meetings. He was one of the 60 people who met in that Atlanta hotel in August of 1975 — including Coca-Cola’s official archivist at the time, Wilbur Kurtz — and formed this community for people who collect Coca-Cola memorabilia. [4]

Having, by that time, already assembled a 15-foot by 8-foot Coca-Cola display in his Minnesota hometown, his love of Coke items was not new. But sharing the passion with a nationwide network of fellow collectors, that was the novel concept.

Sitting down behind McChesney’s booth, having never met anyone else who walks out of a restaurant with empty soda bottles, I’m curious if these veritable Coca-Cola fanatics are drawn to the imagery of the beverage for the same reasons I am. Amid the maze of Coke signs and bottles and shelves of other mementos, it’s hard to look past the last vintage item, nearly impossible to comprehend the reason we are all here — a single carbonated beverage has captured a place in the personal histories of everyone in the room. McChesney, holding the newsletter from that first convention under his glasses, reads the overwhelmed words inaugural president Bill Buffalo wrote about what must have been a similar feeling.

“This must surely be heaven for Coca-Cola collectors.”

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Serving trays, in their heyday, were both works of art and ways to carry Coca-Cola from the kitchen to the table or the back yard. The company created hundreds of different trays — almost always featuring a red-haired female model.

Serving trays, in their heyday, were both works of art and ways to carry Coca-Cola from the kitchen to the table or the back yard. The company created hundreds of different trays — almost always featuring a red-haired female model.

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Most days, the closest you can come to Coca-Cola heaven in Missouri is Larry’s Collectibles. There are white and red signs along I-44 heading toward Joplin. And it’s a good thing. The collector’s haven stands off an anonymous exit, around a bend and across a sparse gravel lot from a convenience store and gas station.

But behind the door — complete with a silver Coca-Cola bottle handle — Coca-Cola paraphernalia lines the walls. Larry’s wife, Cindy Brown, is behind the cash register, a counter lodged between shelves packed with bottles and a wall of glass cases holding valuable Coke artifacts.

Since 1998, Brown and her husband have been ardently collecting Coca-Cola memorabilia and stocking their store. Their store is particularly stocked with Coca-Cola signs, some of which could absorb entire walls of a home. Over the years, their pursuit of the signs has led them on a tour of North America. The South, Brown says, is a treasure trove of the old signs. While eBay and auctions are prominent ways of acquiring the merchandise, Brown has put forth some tremendous effort to bring some pieces to this corner of Missouri.

On the large wall that separates the store from a small cafe, one sign is centrally placed. It advertises Coca-Cola, just like the rest of the items that surround it, but it does so in French. To obtain the sign, Brown and her husband had to travel to Canada in their SUV. On the license plate, the couple has a phrase that also serves as the store’s online name: Coke4U.

Which had never been a problem until it was read by customs officials at the Canadian border in Vermont.

“They kept asking questions. We said we’re just picking up a sign,” Brown recalls with a smile. “They wouldn’t hardly buy that.”

But the Browns are proud of their Coke habit, not only because it is perfectly legal, but also because of the effect the store has on people. She says the items are reminders of several bygone eras, reminders that bring smiles to faces — “even the old grouchy ones.”

More often though, items are powerful because of their personal meaning. Several years ago, two siblings stopped by the store by chance and ended up fixated on a glass case in a corner of the store. There, they were looking at the display of Coca-Cola serving trays. Serving trays, in their hey-day, were both works of art and ways to carry Coca-Cola from the kitchen to the table or the back yard. The company created hundreds of different trays — almost always featuring a red-haired female model — and Brown has a book that she keeps handy to classify and price them.

Staring at a $50 tray, the siblings couldn’t believe it. The model could have surely been their grandmother’s twin sister. They left without buying the tray, but soon after they returned to tell Brown that their grandmother, who was living in a Springfield nursing home, was the model for the “menu tray,” a notably popular item that was produced from 1953-1960. [5]

Brown describes her Coca-Cola collecting as a bit of an accident that grew from a couple gifts from her kids. But collections that overwhelm houses, fill trailers and blanket all flat surfaces of a store run a bit deeper than that. Putting down the book that indexes the trays, Brown is turning back toward the front of the store when a gleaming, vintage Coca-Cola vending machine grabs hold of her gaze. When she was a girl, she struggled with this type of machine. “I wasn’t strong enough to pull the pop out,” she says while looking at the box’s smooth, rounded edges. “I just lost the money in the machines.”

When her eyes snap back away from the machine, she suddenly says, “So you collect Coke stuff?”

I do, I tell her, and in the moment I only muster a story about how I just kept interesting bottles from restaurants or sporting events, the annual Christmas bottles, and eventually realized I was collecting. Meanwhile, she moves toward the little cafe.

“Would you like a Coke?” she asks. “We’ve got the regular bottles or the Mexican bottles with real sugar.”

Trailing off, in an afterthought, she throws in, “Or we also have the plastic…”

“I’ll have the regular glass bottle,” I jump in. She’s behind a red ice chest. She pulls out the small, eight-ounce bottle and opens it on the back side of the chest. And as I lift the glass to my mouth — the white vapor dancing into my face, the first beads of sweat appearing on its lip — the crisp jolt of the first taste reminds me what I should have told her moments before.

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In August 1975, Dick McChesney met with 60 other people in Atlanta to form this community for people who collect Coca-Cola memorabilia.

In August 1975, Dick McChesney met with 60 other people in Atlanta to form this community for people who collect Coca-Cola memorabilia.

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I used to live in the dwindling Appalachian mill town where my father grew up. It was a mountain-walled hamlet of fading signs and dark, dusty windows. Downtown, my mother liked to stop by ‘Grand Piano,’ which was her colloquial term for local mainstay Grand Home Furnishings, the store that had supplied much of the furniture in our house.

When we walked into the cool, dimly lit showroom, little bells rang over the door and a well-dressed furniture salesperson emerged from one direction or another and reached for the ice chest sitting at the side of the entrance.

“Would you like a Coke?”

Elementary-school me always wanted a Coke. Sure, I had it most days at lunch, and occasionally got some of the caffeine-free version at home, but the Coca-Cola in that ice chest was different. It was in glass bottles.

It glistened under the chandeliers, clinked against the bottle opener and fit perfectly in my hands. Walking quietly through the still, aromatic air of the store, between bed posts and giant piles of rugs, I tried to hush the popping sound of my lips releasing the top of the thick glass bottle. Removed from the cooler, the glass fogged up and then cleared up gradually as I drank eight ounces of ‘original formula’ Coca-Cola in what I thought was surely the ‘original’ form of delivery. [6]

The glass bottle made it different. The glass bottle made me — with my bowl cut and pint-sized Nike sneakers — feel older and sophisticated, even as the bottles took other generations back to a different era. When I got older — not much older — I started holding on to glass soda bottles, Coke and otherwise, that were unique or memorable. It wasn’t thought out. I didn’t have any idea why I wanted to keep empty glass bottles in paper holders on a shelf in our garage. My first steps as a collector were akin to buying a hat at a sporting event or a souvenir T-shirt on vacation. The bottles were my beverage at a good restaurant and then became the memento of the occasion. The bottles were interesting stories from a road trip and then became the prop for my numerous recollections.

Soon I realized I didn’t just keep glass bottles from restaurants I liked. I had more enjoyable meals at restaurants that served their sodas the old-fashioned way. The bottles, like the restaurants, often accentuated the year they came into existence or told the story of their heritage.

Coca-Cola evokes the good old days, and as the last drops of caramel-colored fizz hug the side of the green-tinted glass, the feeling of satisfaction can either transport the drinker to a time and place or transcend memory altogether. And that’s the difference. You can see right through plastic. When it’s empty, there’s nothing left to see. But gaze through a glass bottle and you think you can see the complexities and the contours of history. Sure, the glass simply shows the history of a corporation, but the reflections, the reflections say something about you.

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An ice-cold tub of Coca-Cola, made in Mexico with sugar -- not corn syrup.

More often than not, collectors of Coca-Cola memorabilia get their start by collecting glass bottles.

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I’m staring through a line of bottles, through generations of Coca-Cola, seeking for an answer, when John Langlois introduces himself. His interest in Coke appears self-explanatory. He is from Stone Mountain, Ga., just down the road from Coca-Cola’s Atlanta headquarters, but he’s brought his family here to Springfield for the national convention.

“Everybody needs to collect something,” Langlois says before explaining that his daughter collects Campbell’s soup memorabilia.

But what about our personalities has drawn us to Coca-Cola? What about this soft drink makes it a central thread in our lives?

McChesney, who’s had plenty of time to think about this, seems fairly confident about one thing: “It can’t just be the product.” Even when discussing rival soda Pepsi, he says his loyalty to Coke has little to do with what’s in the bottles.

“I don’t think it’s the taste of either, honestly,” he says. “They both have quality products.”

Call him a heretic if you dare, but McChesney pinpoints a different reason for Coke’s following: the way the company produced the “artist quality” items drawing admiration around the room. “They made things that were to be kept,” he says. “People couldn’t throw away a Coke clock. Utility was the key word in those early years.”

He can tell the complete story of the drink’s early years — and I listened happily — but the company’s brilliant marketing strategies from the 1950s are only part of the story. Coca-Cola continues to perpetuate the idea that its soda is a touchstone for people around the world. There are several ways it happens — the word “Classic” that appears in reference to the recipe is a not-so-subtle reminder — but perhaps the current practice that draws the most people in is the commemorative bottle program.

That’s what got David Bernard. In 1992, his hometown of Fort Smith, Ark., was featured on a bottle. He picked one up. Then he noticed there were bottles for his favorite football team, the Dallas Cowboys. Soon he was scouting a local flea market for new bottles that he found interesting. Then he became friends with a collector at the flea market. Now, he has his own booth here in Springfield, and this is his 15th national convention. [7]

The commemorative bottles are produced for literally thousands of occasions, often in very limited runs, and account for much of the variety in bottle collections. Bernard points out that Coca-Cola recently produced a bottle for the anniversary of Walmart’s founding — a relatively large release. Back at Larry’s Collectibles, there is a commemorative bottle for the founding of the Springfield Cardinals baseball franchise. In my garage, there are bottles commemorating the graduating class of 2008. Those particular bottles are generic and released nationwide, but my mom bought enough of them to stock the fridge for the whole summer.

Bernard says the thrill of the hunt for a new bottle has fueled his collecting — he has gone through anyone from Coke plant managers to a U.S. Senator to obtain bottles — but he still has that original bottle. And he’s not the only one whose collection has an indispensable piece. Bardin, the club’s president, started his collecting with what “just happened to be” a Coke poster while decorating a game room, but he says a small 1950s-era Coke machine that dispensed drinks for a nickel is his favorite.

His daughter and her friends grew up playing with it. “They thought it was the neatest thing that you could drink Coke out of a glass bottle,” he says of his daughter’s friends. Years later, they still ask him about it. “They say they want it.”

Bardin is objectively estimating the value of items on tables and setting a cost he won’t go beyond. But that machine represents something more, something that can’t be quantified, only valued. I’ve been here for almost three hours talking to people who seemingly share virtually nothing except a love of Coke. [8]

Still, everyone has mentioned a child, a parent, a sibling, a memory. And out of the many things that are actually discussed at the convention, none of them actually explain why someone would walk to the ends of the Earth for a glass bottle of Coke that they don’t intend to drink. Coca-Cola, to me and to the members of this club, isn’t about sharing rare or vintage memorabilia. It isn’t about who has the most pristine bottle collection. It isn’t even about history or the good old days.

McChesney, I realize, has taken me through several generations of his family, several eras of his own life. He has described his first job, a whirlwind trip halfway across the world, his daughter’s wedding and introduced me to his granddaughter. And that is probably what he thinks about every time he pops the lid off of a glass bottle of Coca-Cola. “The fun parts, the memory parts, no one can take away from you,” he says. “You can’t put a price on it, either.” Langlois was right. What seemed like a hyperbole, a rationalization disguised as words of wisdom — everybody has to collect something — is undeniably true.

I’ve been walking around for three hours — haven’t bought a thing [9] — but I’ve added to the collection that brought me to this ballroom. The club members are swapping Coca-Cola memorabilia, but they’re also actively dealing in another market: memories.

For many people, for me, Coca-Cola bottles are everyday opportunities to open that cap and let the memories bubble to the top for a second. That first sip out of a glass bottle, with its pop and fizz, jolts me out of the day-to-day grind. The red label asks me to stop, to slow down for a second and enjoy the moment, to absorb it so thoroughly that I truly know it.

The Coca-Cola bottle, McChesney explains somewhere in the middle of his oral history of the company, was designed so even a blind man could immediately identify it as a Coke, so he would immediately realize he was holding something classic. Coca-Cola, from the beginning, was asking people to associate its beverage with all the senses; taste was just one piece of the puzzle. A Coke bottle has a look, a sound, a feel, a taste and a fizz that stimulates the end of your nose. It creates a complete sensory experience and asks you to take notice.

Langlois hands me one of his common bottles, a commemorative release celebrating the company’s museum, the World of Coca-Cola. I get distracted, another collector explains that Coca-Cola is the most recognizable brand in the world, just ahead of Disney. As I walk off toward another stand, Langlois catches me. “Don’t forget your bottle,” he says, pointing to the bottle sitting outside the neat rows on his table. I pick it up and thank him with a handshake. It’s another one for my collection.