Bob Mench has been filling a building for years. Now he's ready to sell.
Bob Mench is a guy who collects stuff – lots and lots of stuff. Unlike most people, however, he doesn’t keep it all in a spare bedroom at his Smyrna-area home. He’s collected so much he’s had to build a 5,000-square-foot warehouse to store it all.
And, unlike collections seen on reality shows such as “American Pickers,” where everything is piled on top of everything else until it looks as if it will topple over, Mench’s collectibles are neatly arranged and cataloged with many reside inside glass cases.
Although he’s got thousands of items, his passion is the Ford Thunderbird. The centerpiece of the collection is a 1990 T-Bird and T-Bird memorabilia that takes up one end of the warehouse. Mench has been known to grab just about anything having to do with the iconic car.
Suddenly, lots of extra room
A Pennsylvania native, Mench learned carpentry in trade school, graduating in 1954.
After completing school, he put his woodworking skills to use building cabinets at a Pennsylvania wood mill while also running a small, personal workshop where he created hand-crafted furniture.
Later, he went into the furniture business full time, eventually selling the firm in the late 1960s and starting a new business buying and selling Thunderbird car parts. With the sale of his woodworking business, Mench suddenly had a lot of extra room, and so his collection, which he’d started amassing years earlier, began to fill up the empty space.
“Your hobby expands to the space you have available, for whatever reason,” he said.
Even today, he’s got one room set aside filled with nothing but John Wayne memorabilia.
“A lot of it just followed me home,” he said. “If I liked it, I’d buy it.”
I’ll see something interesting’
Even Mench can’t quite define what makes something catch his eye.
“Some guys I’ve met collect things like empty Hershey’s ice cream containers or airline barf bags,” he said. “Except for Thunderbirds, I’m not that specialized. I’ll collect whatever interests me at the time.”
Wandering through his warehouse, one can find neat stacks of magazines from the 1940s, stuffed toys, paintings, pewter cups and trophies, player piano rolls, baseball caps, coffee mugs, Hot Wheels cars, capped soda bottles, the shell of a Cessna aircraft and a half-scale World War I British fighter.
He admits finding something special or odd means he’ll pick up items he wasn’t looking for.
“I’ll be at a sale and I’ll see something interesting,” he said. “Who knows what it might be.”
For example, in Pennsylvania, he met a man who was selling several dozen model airplane kits. He and another buyer split the hoard, with Mench keeping half while the other man sold off his stash.
He had those boxes of model kits for years, eventually bringing them to the warehouse when he moved to Delaware. The other seller eventually bought that lot and sold them after making one phone call.
Once, attending an estate sale in Dover, Mench came upon a collection of more than 1,800 railroading books. He bought them all and now they take up an entire aisle in the warehouse.
A favorite piece of the collection is a shoebox, bought near Smyrna, filled with letters between a soldier and his girlfriend during World War II.
“You can follow their relationship as they went through the war,” Mench said. “It’s really beautiful; it’s interesting that someone let it go. It’s a real piece of history.”
He bought a collection of GI Joes at a church sale, and once bought the assets of a T-shirt transfer business to own the 24-foot trailer in which they were stored. He also owns a 1938 pinball machine, a working jukebox from the 1960s and a World War I U.S. Army doctor’s medical footlocker.
“It’s all the toys you couldn’t afford as a kid,” he said. “It’s kind of like that.”
“I never had any intention of building a museum,” Mench said. “I bought the stuff and took it home and stuffed it somewhere.”
Frederica’s Rod Accetta was somewhat agog while touring Mench’s warehouse on a recent Tuesday morning.
“It’s very unusual. There’s a little bit of everything,” he said. “There’s all kinds of stuff in here, it’s unbelievable. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.”
Friend Sid Williams agreed.
Mench’s collection could please just about anyone, Williams said.
“There’s a little bit of everything for everybody. It is an eclectic collection that spans time,” he said.
Despite the gargantuan size and variety in the collection, his love for Thunderbirds is at its heart and soul.
That passion began years ago during an innocuous trip to an automobile dealership while still working at his furniture business.
“I was in a car lot looking for a van,” he said. “In the showroom, they had a 1966 Thunderbird. It wasn’t new, and it wasn’t real valuable, but it was a good looking car.”
The lure of that car proved irresistible.
“It was a burgundy color with a black top,” he said. “I could not walk away from it.”
But the car had mechanical issues, and Mench was facing something familiar to classic auto collectors: a lack of spare parts.
“I had taken it home and discovered it needed a lower left ball joint,” he said. “We looked, but no one had one.”
A trip to a scrapyard followed, as did a little bit of good, old-fashioned blind luck.
“While we were at the junkyard, in comes a truck towing a ’66 T-Bird,” he said.
“I took the parts I needed from that car and fixed mine.”
Caught up in what only can be described as T-Bird fever, Mench started going to auto shows.
“I saw that everyone was having the same problem I did, that they couldn’t find parts,” he said.
That discovery led to a business venture, Bob’s Bird House, which Mench established as a way of helping other owners find parts for their classic T-Birds. He sold the Townsend-based firm in 2010 after about 30 years in business, but it folded in 2017, with the entire inventory sold at a Delaware City auction.
Mench estimates he bought and parted out at least 400 cars in the years he owned the Bird House.
Who needs the Pickers?
Mench’s collection of Thunderbirds – he estimates he’s owned about a dozen – now is down to a single vehicle, a 1990 35th anniversary special. But he still has hundreds, perhaps thousands of pieces of T-Bird memorabilia and car parts, including die-cast models, ashtrays, coffee cups and boxes that once contained “genuine Ford Motorcraft” parts.
T-Bird-related items include bottles of Thunderbird fortified wines, a slot machine based on the 1960s-era Thunderbirds TV adventure show and signs, banners and other paraphernalia from the Air Force Thunderbirds aerial demonstration team.
Given its size, you’d think that someone from the television show “American Pickers” might be interested in Mench’s hoard.
Mench is dismissive of the reality program, which features two antique collectors scouring the American countryside in search of various items to resell.
“Some years ago I heard they were coming to Delaware, so I called them,” Mench said. “I talked to a girl there and sent them some pictures, but I never heard back.”
Mench thinks what he had to offer simply wasn’t of interest to the Pickers.
“They’re out looking to find old, dilapidated buildings full of junk,” he said. “That’s what they live off of. They’re TV personalities, and that’s what they get paid for. They don’t make a living selling that stuff.”
It’s all for sale
Mench admits building his collection has been a lot of fun, and it’s been a good hobby.
But now, with a few exceptions, everything is on the block. The reason is pretty straightforward.
“I’m 84 years old now, and I don’t have any family members willing to take it all over,” he said. “My wife has said that now I’m not allowed to buy anything. I’ve had to take a step back and realize I can’t take it with me. It’s time for someone else to enjoy it all. Before, people have asked me if something or other was for sale, and I’d say it wasn’t. Now I say it’s all for sale.”
Mench still visits toy and train shows, but to hand out advertising fliers.
“I prefer to sell to dealers. They’ll buy, they’ll pay me and you don’t have to hassle a lot.”
Although he is willing to sell off the collection in parts, Mench would prefer it remains intact. But with his family uninterested in the collection, he doesn’t know if that’s possible.
“The bottom line is at some point in your life, the kids will call in the auctioneer and you’ll get 10 cents on the dollar,” he said. “It may end up that way someday, I don’t know. It’ll be a shame.”
Online sites like eBay are not an option.
“I don’t have the time to get on there and sell things one at a time,” he said. “I’m trying to sell a lot of it. It’s a very slow process. If it goes, it goes. If it doesn’t, well, it doesn’t cost a whole lot to keep it here.”