If you're reading this, you either clicked on the marble animation or the obscure (and clumsy) literary reference on the front page of Midwest Rock Lobster. I'll dispense with referring to myself in third person.
LOBSTER VISITS MOON
I kept hearing about this place, Moon Marble Company out in Bonner Springs. In an age where shooting marbles may be the only game losing popularity faster than bridge, I couldn't think of an unlikelier business. But it's been there for years, so I figured either a wealthy lunatic was living out a dream in retirement, or it was just a hobby for someone, like how I keep plugging away at writing a novel, but it's my day job as a production artist that subsidizes me writing 'Wealth Effects.'
We tried to go last weekend actually, they had their annual 'Marble Mania' wingding, but when we got there, people were lined up outside the shop. You couldn't even park there, you had to park in another area of Bonner Springs and ride a little school bus to get in line.
It takes a lot to shock a Lobster, but I was just slack jawed. And there was no way I was going to park and wait for a shuttle to take me over to stand in line by the railroad tracks with two squirelly kids.
First I called ahead before our second attempt.
"Are you making marbles today?" I asked.
"Yep, we'll be making marbles until 2:00."
"Are there people lined up outside?"
"Nope, we're not too busy. Last weekend was just our once a year thing."
Not too busy, it turns out, was only two field trips of kids. This isn't a real big shop, so twenty or so kids is quite a bit.
My wife remembered to bring the digital camera, and gave it to me while she worked on supervising our younger daughter. Bruce is from New England, you can hear it in his accent, but he doesn't have that taciturnity the region's known for. He told us about how in the middle ages, they'd take an oil or paraffin lamp and hot-rod it with a bellows to get the 2000 degree temperature you need to melt glass. About how glass is considered a liquid, even when it's hard (basically a glass bottle is frozen glass). He got into the refinements in the 19th Century to technique, told us what his tools were called, that even though he was using a torch with propane and oxygen it was still called lamp work. About how machine made marbles didn't even exist until the early 20th century, about how the antique hand-made marbles have belly-buttons. About these being rare and sometimes selling for five figures.
All this while he worked the glass rods of various colors. He put double shaded polka-dots on it one dot at a time. It was beautiful, amazing stuff that had me so fully mesmerized I forgot to take a picture of it. Fortunately, their web site has a pretty good shot of the workbench.
The major glass blowing centers like Bohemia were also the great marble making centers in the old days. They do glass blown marbles at Moon Marble, too, but I don't know if they demo it. I'll ask next time I'm there, because of course I'm going back.
I asked Bruce if there were any lobster glass shapes or marbles available.
"Are ya from New England," he asks me.
"No, I'm a Midwest Rock Lobster," I said.
Which, you know, is a long story and I was way more interested in his story. Bruce is the kind of guy a writer just loves. I mean, he's the kind of guy anyone would love, but every question brings a story out of Bruce, and the sort of guy who'd start a marble works as a business is the sort of guy who has great stories.
"I don't have any lobster marbles for sale," he says. "I've got one in my personal collection." He tells me about how he'd made it because of being from New England, about how it cost him quite a bit to get the stuff to do it (you gotta figure anything you're planning to embed in a marble has to be able to take the 2000 degree heat). And he really loved this marble, and he showed it to a man in the store and the guy boosted it.
I know, step back. It's weird enough that there's enough interest in marbles to support an artisan based shop. Grown men stealing marbles?
Anyway, so a couple years go by and this kid comes in the shop and asks Bruce if he'd like to buy a marble. Yep, the lobster marble.
"I asked the kid, 'where'd you get this?'" he says. The kid said he'd bought it at a flea market.
Me, I'd probably have told the kid he was in possession of stolen property. But Bruce, he just asks the kid, "How much ya want for it?"
So he pays the kid $25 for the marble he made that some asshole stole from him.
Besides the cool marbles, this place is just packed with goodies. Moon Marble, also sells semi-precious stones by the pound. They've got a whole section of piratical novelties. I bought a Funky Fresh air freshener for my truck in the shape of a skull & crossbones. They even had black rubber duckies with the Jolly Roger emblem. Rubber sushi, wind-up lobsters, glass shapes, metal lunch boxes. The care package I got from Chuck Palahniuk, he could have gotten nearly everything but the autographed copy of 'Fight Club' and the letter he wrote in this store.
I didn't' have the bread for the Roy Rogers and Trigger set, but I did buy a wind-up lobster that crawls around.
I suspect I've stumbled on the tip of a cultural iceberg. Moon Marble, they've got machine made marbles, a million kinds, up front, but in the back where the hand-made stuff is, they've got display cases of marbles by various marble artists. There's marbles the size of a ball point for a pen, marbles that look like real human eyes, marbles with stuff embedded in them, and marbes in sizes that look impossible. Crystal ball size marbles. They've got hand made marbles for under ten bucks, but they've also got them at $100. And those crystal ball size ones, I didn't even ask what they cost.
And that doesn't take into account the collectors paying ten grand for antique hand-mades. The process with lamp work leaves a belly-button. Bruce fills this, makes the marble smooth and perfect. But the old tradition, before there were machines to make marbles, was to leave that little dimple there. And since marbles were common and inexpensive in the 19th century, they went the way so many every-day things go.
I mean, look around eBay, or watch the Antique's Road Show.
It's the stuff we take for granted and throw out, the disposable stuff, that brings in the big bucks. Plus, with marbles being made of glass, tons of them must have been smashed. They're made to be hard and not brittle, with a slow cool in the kiln after the lamp work, but there's a limit, it's still glass.
Still, ten grand for a marble? It's hard enough for me to get my mind around the $25 marble. The prices would seem to indicate that there are a lot of these marble freaks out there. I can think of a lot of things that would make 19th century marbles rare, but not that rare. A few hundred or even a few thousand people couldn't drive that sort of thing.
I can't see myself becoming a marble collector. I have more hobbies than I can keep up with already. My Dad says he doesn't know how he ever had time to work with all the stuff he gets busy with since he retired. I have at least three hobbies that could eat up the time of my full time job. And a family. Still, I had to buy a handmade marble. Something unique, hand made. I love that sort of thing.
I settled for a $3.50 'fiberoptic' one. It's purple, and I remembered Bruce, while he was making the marble, said purple glass is a tricky thing. The fiberoptic part is that it's got a white streak that makes it look like a purple Jupiter (sort of, it's not quite that swirly, but you get the idea). That band of white is clear glass and if you hold it just so, you can read through it. Well, you could read through the bigger fiberoptics better.
Not that you'd actually use it to read with. It's just a cool, the fact that you can see through it. And the distortion of a concave/convex dual lenses is neat to see. And the bigger ones were more expensive, and I didn't see any purple ones.
Is there a twelve-step program somewhere for people who get in too deep with marbles? Is one of the warning signs that you got excited by buying a single marble? Or that you really put some thought into it, deciding on size versus getting your favorite color?
I can just see it. If you name your marbles, you might have a marble problem.
For the record, mine's named Willie. It's on my desk along with my power animals (the wind-up lobster and the skunk Chuck Palahniuk sent me.