Nancy 3. Hoffman (not a middle initial typo) is an author, accordionist and the director, curator and founder of the Umbrella Cover Museum.
She is also running out of space.
There are more than 1,300 umbrella covers in the little one-room Peaks Island museum that holds the Guinness Book World Record for the world’s largest umbrella cover collection.
Which is exactly as it sounds: limp little sleeves, some sleek, some soft, some hand-knit, some commercially stitched.
They first plastered the walls. And now the ceiling.
A collection of “sexy” umbrella covers hangs in the annex, Hoffman said. Which is the bathroom.
People send her covers from around the world, and then, come from around the world to visit. Guinness officially counted 730 back in 2012. She’s added more umbrella covers since, plus, Guinness doesn’t count the way Hoffman does.
“They do not include any duplicates, and no handmade covers,” she said. “Every umbrella cover I have has a unique story and I need to catalog it separately, it’s special to me. It’s like if you have twins, you don’t throw out one of the twins. I just keep ’em.”
The collection started innocuously enough in the 1990s. Hoffman, who legally changed her middle name from Arlene to 3 in 1992, discovered she had a handful of umbrella covers from her past umbrellas. She began asking around, what did other people do with them?
That’s when they started turning up.
“People just gave them to me,” she said. “So as soon as I got them I would put them on my kitchen wall with a note saying who gave them to me and what they told me about what happened to the umbrella. When I had 30 or 40 on my kitchen wall, I started showing people on purpose.”
The Umbrella Cover Museum, right there in her Peaks Island kitchen, was born. The she’s-doing-what? immediately followed.
“That first year, National Public Radio and BBC Radio both interviewed me, so I got the idea it was a thing I should keep doing and pursue, so I have,” Hoffman said.
She moved into her current space, near a few other galleries in the island’s tiny “downtown,” in 2000. Nearly 4,000 people visited last year.
Some 161 covers were donated in 2014. She asks that each one come with an official form about the donor and the story behind the cover, which becomes part of her catalog.
They’ve come in from 60 different countries. One was found on castle grounds in Romania, another near the remains of the Berlin Wall.
“A lot of covers are picked up,” Hoffman said. “I call them orphan covers because people lose them all the time, or drop them on purpose, I hate to say.”
And the sexy ones?
“There are a lot of fishnet stocking-style umbrella covers. There are a lot of shiny and, you could say, alluring fabrics,” she said. “There are some silk ones, some that have high-heeled shoes on them. There are really a surprising number of covers that could be considered sexy.”
The museum has a gift shop that sells umbrella earrings. And it has a theme song, “Let a Smile Be Your Umbrella,” that Hoffman plays on her accordion while visitors join in with shaker eggs and rattles. (She plays with the klezmer band The Casco Bay Tummlers and with the Maine Squeeze Accordion Ensemble.)
The Ohio native, a former historic architect, wrote a book on the museum called “Uncovered and Exposed: A Guide to the World’s Only Umbrella Cover Museum.” She’s pictured on its cover with her accordion, wearing an umbrella sun hat.
“Celebrate the mundane” is the musuem’s motto.
“It will help keep your life from becoming boring and humdrum, if you can instill enthusiasm into everyday tasks or everyday items or situations,” Hoffman said. “I just think that’s a great way to live.”
Weird, Wicked Weird is a monthly feature on the strange, intriguing and unexplained in Maine. Send photos, ideas and chocolate-covered umbrella covers to [email protected]