Picking Up the Pieces

John Bryant was bitten by the collector’s bug as a child, when his mother’s post-World War II-era figurines and the glimmer of precious metal caught his wandering eye. Decades later, his own collection spans upwards of 50,000 items.

by Brian Knapp

Five booths, one right next to the other, at the Antiques & Stuff mall in Covington provide some insight into the organized chaos that has come to define John Bryant as a real-life American picker. Rare coins, baseball cards, advertising signs, pocket knives, fishing rods, classic toys and various tools are all part of a complicated hodgepodge with the simplest of roots. The married 74-year-old father of three estimates he has north of 50,000 items in his personal collection. It can all be traced to his mother, a few of her Occupied Japan figurines and one particular $5 gold piece that caught his eye when he was 4 years old.

“Many of the figures were made to look like a colonial woman or a colonial man,” Bryant said. “Sometimes, it was two figures on one base or even three or four, but usually, it was a single figure, and it would be a man or a woman or a child or a dog, a bench with a dog beside it, just anything you can imagine that was like a mini sculpture. It was all porcelain or ceramic. After World War II, Japan, like Germany and Italy, was closely scrutinized as to everything they did. 

“Part of that was to have everything that was made in Japan had to be stamped or designated ‘Occupied Japan’ because Japan was, in fact, occupied by the United States and Allied Forces as kind of overseers,” he added. “During that period, six or seven years there up through 1952, everything coming out of Japan for resale had to be labeled ‘Occupied’ to designate the fact that they were still occupied.”

A Lawrenceville native, Bryant grew up in Cave Spring, a small town of roughly 1,000 people situated 17 miles southwest of Rome. The only son—he had four sisters—of Frank and Lucy Bryant, he took notice of the lengths his mother took to preserve the items she collected. It made an impression on him at a young age. 

“I can spin a yarn about as good as anybody.”

John Bryant

“My mom didn’t have a big collection,” Bryant said. “She might have had a couple dozen pieces, but it stuck with me because of the respect she showed it—respect being that she didn’t just leave it sitting out for the kids to play with. She kept it in cabinets or whatever. I guess that’s how I got my first appreciation of something collectible.”

Today, the Occupied Japan figures and the $5 gold piece remain at the center of Bryant’s own collection. His mother, a schoolteacher, had him earn the valuable coin by learning to spell “encyclopedia” at the age of 4, then left it to him upon her death. “She had saved it all those years. I was 48 when I got it,” Bryant said. “It looked like new the day I looked at it and wanted it, and it looks like new today.” Such memories carry no price tag. They are nods to a bygone era and a much simpler time.

While he buys, sells and collects a little bit of everything, Corvettes hold a special place in his heart. He recalls a high school friend who had a black 1967 Fastback Corvette with a 427-cubic-inch engine. “It was a big deal to see who was going to be his riding partner on Saturday night, cruising all the drive-ins and the burger joints,” Bryant said. “It was a beautiful car and it ran like a rocket, and he took care of it.” He was hooked for life. “It went from there to loving anything to do with Corvettes,” Bryant said. “I couldn’t tell you how many T-shirts I have. I don’t know. I don’t even know where they all are now. I’ve given a lot of them away to my kids.” Bryant’s love affair with one of the Chevrolet fleet’s crown jewels now takes the form of an extensive collection of model Corvettes. 

“I have the plastic models that you build yourself and also have die-cast,” he said. “I have anything from the small ones the size of Hot Wheels up to some that are 1:6 scale. Like somebody who loves to play golf, they buy all the latest golf equipment, or somebody who loves the Georgia Bulldogs, they get season tickets and they wear sweatshirts and all that. It was the same thing with me, except it happened to be Corvette.”

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Work and the desire to be closer to his ailing father brought Bryant to Newton County in 2001. A steady job kept him in the area, even in the wake of his father’s death three days after the 9/11 attacks. Bryant retired from Sonoco in Conyers after having spent nearly half a century in the packaging and manufacturing industries. When not assisting his wife with the care of his in-laws in Alabama, he can be found at auctions, yard sales or meandering through the aisles at Antiques & Stuff, maintaining old friendships or creating new ones.

“I can spin a yarn about as good as anybody,” he said. “I love talking to people that like to not just listen but interact and talk back. I love talking to people here in the store, especially about the older things. I usually come down at two or three o’clock in the afternoon and stay either until closing or close to it. I try to help out as much as I can. Even though I’m older, I’m still a pretty good-sized guy, so if the ladies can’t handle the heavy pieces of furniture… that kind of thing. That’s one reason I hang out. The other reason is I just like hanging out down here.”  

Click here to read more stories by Brian Knapp.

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