“You can't do business if you can't measure things.” — Les Schneiderman
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• Photo slideshow: Scales, Coffee Grinders, Boot Jacks and More.
• Video: Les Schneiderman's scale collection.
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Walk into Les Schneiderman's warehouse in the middle of Omaha and you won't believe what his weighty hobby entails.
Scales. And more scales.
Scads and scads of scales. An unbelievable number of scales, yet not one scale for sale.
Yes, this is a tale of scales — balance scales, spring scales, pendulum scales. Old scales. Not digital scales.
Scales specifically to weigh candy and fruit. Scales for vegetables, eggs and grain. Scales to weigh pigs, foals and jockeys. Scales for mail.
From Australia, Hong Kong, South America, the Netherlands, Israel, Italy, Denmark, Sweden and lots of other places, Les has collected antique scales of all shapes and sizes, either singly or in groups. And the collection is growing, partly because three people from around the U.S. now keep a lookout for him.
When it comes to his consuming hobby, you might say that Les wants more.
He's not clear how his magnificent obsession began, saying, “I just started with something interesting, and it took me all over the world.”
The question isn't so much where in the world as why in the world?
His collection of scales, he said, is a tribute to creativity and human ingenuity, to the many cultures in varied locales that invented devices that weighed and measured, enabling commerce to thrive.
“You can't do business,” the retired businessman said, “if you can't measure things.”
He would know. Until selling his company 12 years ago, Schneiderman owned K-B Foods Inc., which distributed to restaurants, hotels, hospitals, schools and nursing homes.
He worked long and hard, made his company a success and at times, he said, employed more than 100.
Scales were important to his business, as they have been to millions of other businesses. Scale-collecting has not been a lifelong hobby for him, just for the past 22 years.
Jan, his wife of 54 years, smiles wryly and rolls her eyes in talking about his collection. Wherever they vacationed, she said, he kept an eye out.
“I think he's nuts going all over the world to collect all this stuff,” she said. “I don't like junk. I like things neat and tidy.”
Les calmly protested: “This is neat and tidy.”
Indeed, everything is lined up on sturdy shelves or fastened to boards in a high-ceilinged room 60 feet by 30 feet, not counting the long entry hallway. And not counting the shop.
Les has spent thousands of hours alone in the shop repairing, cleaning and oiling scales and other objects. The room has no radio, no TV and no windows.
“I had to concentrate on what I was doing, and I didn't like things that disturbed me,” he said. “It was fun to make some piece of junk look nice.”
How many scales? “I don't know. A thousand, maybe.”
More than that, says Jan.
Though scales dominate, Les collects other antiques, too. Coffee grinders, apple peelers, tobacco cutters, pencil sharpeners, typewriters, toy firetrucks, hotel front-desk bells. Even vinyl records and music boxes.
Public television's “Antiques Roadshow” could come in off the road and set up shop at Les Schneiderman's warehouse. Producers could tape weeks of shows.
Of course, they would have to find the place. Les, who first gave me an off-the-record tour three or four years ago, finally relented recently and allowed me to write about his collection — if I would not reveal the location.
He and Jan met me there last week, entering through an exterior door and then turning right to a metal interior door. It has triple locks, which he opened with three keys.
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Though he takes security seriously, he is good-humored about his outsized man cave. The entry hallway is lined with circus posters and advertising signs, including those for “whiter, richer bread” and 5-cent cigars.
A scale manufactured for a novelty company invited people to have their fortune predicted by dropping in a penny: “Weigh Your Future.”
In the main room that opens up at the end of the hallway sits the old rolltop desk that Les used in his business. On the wall framed photos hang of his grandparents and his uncles, the Kesselman Brothers, who long ago originated the K-B business, selling ice cream.
Les graduated in 1946 from Omaha Central High School and in 1950 from Creighton University. He served two years in the Army, including time as a cross-country skiing instructor in Japan.
He then went to work for his uncles, scooping ice cream at their shop near 30th and Cuming Streets. (Yes, he displays a collection of metal scoops.) Over the years, he helped grow the company into food distribution.
He belongs to the International Society of Antique Scale Collectors, and four years ago a busload of them traveled from the group's conference in Kansas City, Mo., just to see his collection in Omaha.
“Les has a lot of scales from all over the world and a fantastic collection of American scales and weights,” said Bob Jibben of Minneapolis, the association's president. “I don't know if anyone has a (private) collection as large.”
The association's museum in Pittsburgh is larger, he said, “but Les has a really wonderful collection. And he is a great guy.”
Jibben chuckled in calling scale-collecting “a disease,” but said it has a serious side in preserving history dating to the ancient Egyptians. “Scales are what made trade go.”
Few people in Omaha, Les said, have seen the inside of his warehouse. He had a group of about 20 over once, he said, but never has felt a desire to show off.
Les and Jan raised a son and two daughters, and they have been active in nonbusiness affairs locally and nationally. Jan, who worked 25 years in marketing for K-B Foods, also served as president of the National Council of Jewish Women.
Les, 84, doesn't travel as much as he once did and says he tires easier. But he is feeling much better after back surgery.
He said he can't even estimate the dollar value of his museum-quality accumulation. Few have seen a scales collection on this, well, scale.
Though room remains on a couple of shelves and his scouts are still looking, Les talks in the past tense about much he loved collecting. So what happens to it in the future?
“I have no idea,” he said. “It took a lot of effort to find all this.”
If it falls to his wife to decide, she already knows. She will invite the children and grandchildren to select an item or two by which to lovingly remember their dad and grandpa.
“Then I'll find the best appraiser and auctioneer I can find and get rid of it all,” Jan said with a chuckle. “And live off the proceeds.”
For Les, a large part of what has made his collection worthwhile is the thrill of the search.
“I just did it because I loved doing it,” he said. “It was exciting to find stuff I had never found before.”