To have and to hoard

The wild and unwieldy collections of local garage sale legend Joel Haertling get the gallery treatment at Boulder Public Library


Last week’s snow is stubbornly hanging around in patches along the gravel road leading to Joel Haertling’s five storage units off a major thoroughfare in East Boulder. Clustered among dozens of identical semi-trailers, each of his massive containers is packed to the brim with a maniacal menagerie of objects collected over his many decades as a fixture in the city’s garage sale scene. 

“I believe there’s something you’ll want to see right when I open this one,” Haertling says as he begins to push on the vertical sliding door of a trailer near the far end of the property. The opening crack at the bottom reveals what looks to be the feet of an outward-facing person in blue jeans and cowboy boots, before spreading wider to reveal its full shape as a fake-out denim footstool. Dangling just behind this makeshift security system, among the seemingly endless mass of miscellaneous items and boxes, is the suspended rear-end of a headless department store mannequin. 

“You see that?” he asks in the polished wind-up of a joke he can’t wait to deliver. “It’s a flying buttress.”

The uniqueness of Haertling’s collection, spread out across nearly a dozen storage spaces throughout the city, reflects the eccentricities of the singular collector himself. On this cold, early-December morning, the 64-year-old Boulder native is sporting oversized tortoise-shell sunglasses with a matching moss green vest-and-fedora combo as he moves with ease through the organized chaos of his beloved objects. He’s joined by a younger camera-wielding collaborator named Andrew Novick, who’s in the process of making a documentary about Haertling’s untamed pursuit of all this stuff.

Objects from the collections of Joel Haertling, on display at the Canyon Gallery inside the downtown Boulder Public Library through Feb. 5. Credit: Jezy J. Gray

“When we come out here, we forge a path [through the stored items],” Novick says as Haertling continues to pore over the disparate objects filling one of his onsite trailers. “We’ll make some progress where we can get all the way to the back as we pull stuff out. But by the next time we come, he has put more stuff in.”

The pair has been scouring Haertling’s ever-growing collection for months in the lead-up to what is a first for the self-described hoarder: a gallery exhibition of his local garage sale finds throughout the decades — from bizarre tchotchkes to collections of calculators, cassette tapes, family portraits and points in between. Running through Feb. 5 at the Canyon Gallery inside the downtown Boulder Public Library, where Haertling worked as the gallery manager and cinema programer for more than 30 years, To Have and to Hoard: The Collections of Joel Haertling offers a glimpse into the wild and unwieldy gathering of objects that have become the life-guiding passion of this former public employee. 

“I guess I wasn’t nurtured right when I was little,” Haertling says with a shrug when asked about his relentless drive for acquisition, closing the trailer door by yanking down on a makeshift rope. “What I’m trying to do is crawl back into the womb or something. … When I get into my apartment full of stuff, I feel good.”

It’s not always easy to tell when Haertling is joking, and that same sly impishness bleeds into the collections themselves. Precious music memorabilia from his high school days as bandmate to punk icon and former Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra sits next to piles of cheesy vintage porno mags, rows of thrifted briefcases and islands of funky mid-century furniture in various states of disrepair. But whatever the item — silly or serious, priceless or paltry — each once gave Haertling a singular jolt upon picking it up and taking it home. 

“A garage sale-aholic like me gets a rush buying something, and you get a rush again when you take it out of the car,” Hartling says. “Then I take pictures to document all the stuff, which I put in these huge binders I’ve been making since 2008, and then I put the stuff away. And that’s kind of a rush, too.”

Joel Haertling shows off a map from one of his many binders of garage sale visits in Boulder. Credit: Jezy J. Gray

‘An obsessive archive’

Many of Haertling’s meticulously cataloged binders currently line a shelf along the north wall of the Canyon Gallery at the Boulder Public Library downtown. But these massive tomes tell more than the stories of the objects within. They serve as diaristic glimpses into his collecting process and the people he meets along the way, complete with detailed hand-drawn maps, photos and memories.   

“There’s a human element, but you don’t really see it in the stuff — it’s in the acquisition of the stuff,” says Novick, a co-curator of the exhibition and an avid collector in his own right. “He knows these people. He makes notes of all the interactions he’s had at the sales, and what he got and how much he paid. He’s archiving it in real time as he’s acquiring it. It’s an obsessive archive of his acquisition.”

This obsessive, human quality is part of what caught the attention of Jaime Kopke, senior manager of programs and events for Boulder Public Library. Since first meeting Haertling during his days as a colleague, before pandemic-related budget cuts led to the termination of his position, she says she’s wanted to find a way to channel his creative energy into a public exhibition for the community that made him.

“When you first see Joel, you know he’s a creative soul,” Kopke says. “It was really wonderful working with him while I did, because he has these amazing ideas for programs and events and he knows so much about Boulder. He knows so many people here, and I feel like he’s really part of the fabric of the community.”

To that end, visitors to the ongoing exhibition of Haertling’s collections will get a clear sense of the eccentric Boulder resident’s status as a gatherer of ephemera in this place we call home. From the curated objects to the exhaustive catalogs telling their stories, To Have and to Hoard gives locals the opportunity to see themselves too. But for Kopke, the real power of the exhibition comes down to a couple very simple but powerful elements. 

“I feel like the most successful exhibitions we’ve shown are ones where it’s really apparent that somebody’s passion is involved in the work — the deeply personal shows,” she says. “When you walk in [to the Haertling exhibition], two things happen with visitors, and I saw that even as we were setting up: People smile — it brings them joy — and people are curious. Those two things are kind of the magic ingredients of the show.” 

Bringing joy to others is clearly hardwired into Haertling’s compulsive collecting. He’s an enthusiastic gifter, known for surprising friends, colleagues and acquaintances with an out-of-the-blue item tailored to their specific interests. But back at his storage site in East Boulder, Haertling says when he’s scouring local sales for the next thing to bring home, he’s searching for something deeper than a goofy object that might put a smile on someone’s face.

“I’m looking for what I forgot I wanted so much,” he says, remembering a French horn he bought years ago at the Super Duper Garage Sale at the Boulder County Fairgrounds in Longmont. The unexpected instrument, which he haggled down to $50 from $75, woke dormant memories of his childhood days as a budding musician. “A whole lot of people have dreams and then lose their dreams — they even forget what their dreams are. But you see an object like that and you’re back in the dream flow. It’s that reminder of a different world.”

ON VIEW: To Have and to Hoard: The Collections of Joel Haertling. 9 a.m.-7 p.m. (weekdays), 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (Friday-Saturday), noon-5 p.m. (Sunday) through Feb. 5, Canyon Gallery, Boulder Main Public Library, 1001 Arapahoe Ave. Free.