"There's still something so amazing about these," Corbin says, standing in the study of his South Hill home and gesturing at the richly colored illustrations inside an 85-year-old copy of Ozma of Oz.
Now 28 and working as a marketing director, Corbin is just days away from the opening of his show "Oz and Beyond" at the Foley Library at Gonzaga University. The best pieces in his personal collection of L. Frank Baum's Oz books and related memorabilia are already at Gonzaga but he has a pretty sizeable inventory of Oz ephemera still at home. He riffles through a stack of postcards and photographs, each encased in an archival-quality plastic sleeve and points out an Oz-related advertising campaign painted on the side of the building in one photo before moving on to a small postcard with a friendly, pumpkin-headed figure - "Jack Pumpkin Head of Oz" -- on it.
"This is one of probably 10 in the United States," says Corbin.
The delight Corbin takes in his collection is not only obvious, but infectious. His love for the Oz books started with, not surprisingly, the 1939 MGM movie starring Judy Garland but quickly exploded into an encyclopedic obsession with not only everything connected to the 40 "official" Oz titles spawned by L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (first published in 1900) but also rare copies of books Baum wrote for adults, and under various pseudonyms for children.
"We were coming home from a family trip to L.A. by plane and I was looking at the airline's magazine and there was this article on collecting the Wizard of Oz books," he recalls. "I didn't know that there was this whole other side to books that went beyond the story inside to the history, beauty, value and importance of the book itself."
Corbin and his parents started hunting for Oz titles in the antique stores and used book shops of his native eastern Montana. It wasn't long, however, before he was competing in auctions at Sotheby's and Swann's.
"This was, of course, pre-eBay. At first it was very intimidating. I'd make my mom get on the phone. No one figured that a kid could be a serious collector," he says, adding that his parents would let him stay home from school two or three times a year to participate in important auctions over the phone. "Eventually I really started to like it. It was kind of a rush outbidding the grownups and walking away with a really rare or valuable title."
His collection includes sheet music and photographs from an early musical production, and Corbin notes that Baum was something of an entrepreneur. "He saw the popularity of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and was quick to see other ways in which to branch out." Ironically, Corbin's passion for collecting helped develop in him a similar entrepreneurial streak.
"My collection became pretty pricey," he says. "I was spending between $40 and $2,000 on each title, and eventually my parents kind of insinuated that I'd have to find a way to help subsidize my collecting. I was living in Miles City and decided to start painting Santas on beaver-chewed logs, taking the part of the log that was pointy and making that the hat. They were selling in some of the local stores, and then the Billings Gazette did a story, and suddenly Yellowstone National Park was contacting me and wanting me to make some to sell in their gift shops."
Although Corbin enjoyed developing his early business acumen, he says the thing that he enjoyed most about amassing his Oz inventory was simply "the fun of research and studying my collection."
In fact, Corbin credits his collection with making him into the person he is today. "I was thinking about it the other day and I realized a lot of my relationships now are based on connections I made through these books. I even met my wife because I went to Cornell, and I applied to Cornell because I was already sort of familiar with the school because I knew their library had a copy of Baum's first book," he says, smiling half-incredulously. "It's completely shaped my life. I think everyone needs that kind of passion in their lives."
"Oz and Beyond: Highlights from the L. Frank Baum Collection of Currie Corbin" opens on April 10 and runs through June 30 at the Rare Book Reading Room of the Foley Center Library at Gonzaga University, 502 E. Boone Ave. Lecture: Thursday, April 27, at 7 pm. Call 323-3847.