Behind the brick walls of an old industrial building in the unsuspecting town of Norwood, Massachusetts, lies a time capsule like none other.
Into the belly of the beast, select visitors are greeted with a peculiar array of pop culture relics by the thousands: artwork, records, dolls, T-shirts, shoes (a room full of them), antique radios, magazines, pins, buttons, hats, jackets, ticket stubs, yams- you name it, this building houses it.
This one of a kind wonderland is known as The David Bieber Archives, which is a multi-disciplined pop culture media and memorabilia facility that houses over one million artifacts and stories to match.
Within the vast factory space are several long display cases filled with oddities, library-like shelving units all meticulously organized with records, magazines, books, movies, and other forms of media, boxes on boxes stacked to the ceiling with things like “Frank Zappa” or “The Grateful Dead” written with Sharpie on them, Steve Urkel dolls keeping a keen eye on you as you peruse, and the list goes on. It’s not laid out like a boring old “museum,” but rather if your really hip uncle curated it.
So just who is the king of this castle?
Ohio-born and Boston-bred collector David Bieber has endured a decades-long tenure working in the music business as a journalist, radio DJ, promoter, and more, and throughout that time, he’s kept damn near everything that’s come across his proverbial desk. His archives represent 50-plus years of collecting and preserving pop culture, music, and media of the 20th and 21st centuries. In acquiring these many relics of days gone by, he believes that “the transitory creations of today are the treasures of the future.”
Following business studies at Miami (of Ohio) University and Public Relations at Kent State, he received a Masters degree in Journalism from Boston University. While in college, Bieber reported for Billboard Magazine, interviewing dozens of entertainers, from Ray Charles and Louis Armstrong, to Frankie Valli and Johnny Carson.
On a phone call with Bieber earlier this summer, he discussed his interview with Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane, and how he was the first person he saw use cocaine. “I interviewed him after a concert from around midnight to five-a-clock in the morning. He had this vile and kept using it,” he said with a chuckle.
Bieber also spoke of finagling his way backstage at a Velvet Underground show in Ohio under his Billboard credentials, to which he got his photo taken with the group in epic album cover fashion. Later on, someone in his life would make a T-shirt from it as a gift, which I had the pleasure of witnessing first hand upon my visit to the Archives back in April.
His career included positions as Creative Services Director at WBCN-FM, Director of Special Projects at the Boston Phoenix/WFNX-FM, Music Director at WBUR-FM and freelance contributor and consultant to the Smithsonian Museum among other notable positions.
While working these jobs, he dealt with the influx of promotional materials sent to his station, sifting though the mounds of record label knick-knacks, movie and TV novelties, and the like. And what did he do? He kept it all.
“When we did a promotion with the Prince film Purple Rain, I’d get the big gigantic life-size Prince-on-a-motorcycle theater display, and I’d just keep it.” And this was but one example of the many throughout his tenure. “In the 70s I could still live with everything I was acquiring, but when I got the full-time job at WBCN in ’78, the onslaught of content was so overwhelming, that I had to start taking warehouse space.”
Bieber has dedicated his entire life to the preservation of what is ultimately American culture through the years, with a focus on music. And his fascination with collecting started at a young age back in Cleveland, Ohio.
“Well, like everyone else, we have our historical moments starting in childhood when we were pure and innocent,” Bieber said. “I think the earliest collection I had was at 4-years-old. My family was doing a road trip summer vacation from Cleveland to Montgomery, Alabama, where my father had been stationed during WWII. We would stop at gas stations, and there would be soda coolers, and built into the machines were bottle openers. And I would reach into the little deposit area where the bottle caps went, and I’d bring out a fistful of them. I was intrigued by the fact that they had regional brands that didn’t exist in Cleveland. All along that journey I saved all the different bottle caps from the regional brands.”
Little did he know the avalanche of collecting that would later consume his life.
But with The David Bieber Archives, he made it clear he doesn’t do this to make a buck. In fact, none of it is for sale.
“It’s about preserving the culture, and I sometimes ask myself, ‘Who appointed me the minister of cultural preservation?,'” Bieber said with a laugh. “I feel a compulsion to do it, and I also really enjoy hearing from people. I’m not one of these unpleasant people who think if you put a thumbprint on the shrink wrap of a still-sealed vinyl album it diminishes the value. I know people get fanatical about that.”
Bieber does however lease his memorabilia out to a host of businesses, organizations, non-profits, and other entities for display based on their needs. Need Eric Clapton gear? Done. The Clash? Done. Springsteen? Definitely done. Establishments that work with The David Bieber Archives include the Folk Americana Roots Hall of Fame (FARHOF), The Verb Hotel, and others.
And as mentioned above, he’s not trying to provide some antiquated museum experience.
“I want people to see where our culture came from and connect the dots where culture has spawned, and where everything along the way has led to today, and that’s the exciting thing. You don’t have to be overly scholarly to get people curious about where things came from and where things are going.”
With the help of Lance VanDyke Salemo and Brian Coleman, he also published a book titled Off Our Backs: 150 T-Shirts From the David Bieber Archives.
The relics and time capsules within The Archives are beyond vast, beyond rich in history, and beyond treasures of the times. It’s its own organism unique to David and his life. It’s an empire of history that he caretakes, and while he owns these pieces, he is merely the vessel taking care of and representing them. He is a torchbearer of American pop culture influence like none other.
So if you find yourself in the Boston area, be sure to investigate The Bieber Archives, and see if you’re lucky enough to meet with the legend himself, who couldn’t be nicer and more willing to talk shop.