By JOHN FLOWERS
SHOREHAM — Awe-stricken friends and family who have had the good fortune of viewing Judy Blake’s robust bell collection have invariably told her she should share it with the world.
Hmmm, a “bell museum.”
Blake thought the idea had a nice ring to it — she just didn’t have the right venue in which to showcase the more than 5,500 bells that she has accumulated over better than a half-century.
Last week, Blake formally inaugurated the Shoreham Bell Museum off Smith Street — the only such museum of its kind on the East Coast.
“I had really been living in a museum since 1993,” Blake said with a smile, referring to the large home in Shoreham village she once occupied with her late husband, Charles, and their booming collection.
“But I wanted to have a home to call my own.”
Her search began in earnest in late 2006, when her husband died following a quick illness.
“I decided I couldn’t live in an 11-room house anymore,” she said.
That sent Blake on a search, with three basic criteria: She wanted to remain in Shoreham, in a building with one floor, and on property that could host her bell collection.
Fortunately, she didn’t spend long looking for the place she wanted. A server at the Shoreham Inn listened to her wish-list one evening and simply told her, “You want my house.”
The Stewart Street property included a one-story ranch, a sweeping view and an out-building perfectly suited to hosting her bell collection. The building had previously been home to an auto repair show and a photographer’s studio.
Blake didn’t even let the property hit the market; she bought it, and began moving in herself and her prized ringers during the summer of 2007.
Almost two years later, she is still moving in.
“I’m still unpacking,” Blake said sheepishly, noting there are still around a dozen boxes of bells she has yet to shelve. She just doesn’t know where to put them. Her museum is already festooned with glorious hutches containing bells of all sizes, ages, colors, fabrications and purposes. They’re all meticulously grouped. There’s a cabinet featuring bells from Asian countries like Japan, China and the Philippines. In another cabinet are nestled bells that once adorned the necks of various animals. Still another grouping near the front counter features Indian bells once used to scrape the sand off of elephants.
Her collection also includes bells once used by town criers, and still others that toned every hour, on the hour. She’s got ‘em all — porcelain, copper, tin, crystal, porcelain, china and even paper bells.
“We used to live by bells,” Blake said, alluding to their utilitarian nature in years gone by.
“But we don’t (live by them) anymore.”
Some might argue that Blake does live by her bells — or at least they make her own life more pleasurable. Now she wants to share that pleasure with other people at her museum.
It’s a very casual environment. The museum is open on a drop-in basis (look for the “open” flag) or by appointment. She’s got a web site with the details and directions – www.shorehambellmuseum.com.
Blake will welcome her first tour group next month, from Elderly Services Inc.’s Project Independence.
“The bells set off memories (for the seniors),” Blake said with a smile. “It is something they enjoy.”
Blake playfully said she is trying to muster up enough courage to invite student groups to tour the museum’s fragile landscape.
Her collection was scheduled to be viewed this past Saturday, April 25, by some bona fide bell connoisseurs. Blake was scheduled to host a gathering of the New England Chapter of the American Bell Association.
“I’m quite excited and a little nervous,” she said on Thursday.
Admission to the museum is free, though she does accept donations. Blake also will have a few bells for sale, and probably will end up buying a few more here or there.
“I can’t resist,” she said.