The undisputed heavyweight champ of #Brickswap TikTok (four and a half pounds at a time) is TapeDeckVintage.
That’s a lot to unpack, but let’s try. Yes, there are indeed people who collect bricks as a hobby, and a brick swap is exactly what it sounds like: a meet-up where they can trade and chat. Videos of brick swaps have found a cultish audience on video-sharing apps like TikTok, and the most successful brick-swap-content-maker so far is John Boles, a gentleman from Ohio who goes by the username TapeDeckVintage. (His own collection comprises about 500 bricks.) Behold:
You may think, all right, odd niche content, sure, whatever—until you notice that the video of Boles and company went viral, accumulating 344,000 likes and well over 4,000 comments. (The top one: “I finally made it to brik tok.”) When the holidays came, Boles participated in a Secret Santa organized by the International Brick Collectors Association, for which he shipped three bricks off to an unknown recipient and received three in return. (I like to imagine that Brick Secret Santa slides down the chimney, then immediately dismantles and leaves it piecemeal, gift-wrapped, under the tree.) Boles’s brick-selection video received 50,000 views of its own:
Boles, who is both polite and friendly, seemed surprised that his hobby had drawn attention. When I messaged him, his response was: “Who on earth would give you an assignment like that?” (Fair question.) Nevertheless, he was happy to explain a little more about how the swaps work.
“The ICBA does official swaps, where members will sign up and it’ll be publicized by the association—they’ll mail out a letter about it, and hold an auction to fund the group. They usually do three or four, but none this year,” owing to COVID. But, he adds, lots of smaller local groups organize their own swaps, including brick groups from Facebook. And there are rules, “like, you should bring bricks if you want to take some. There’s never a charge or anything to go to a brick swap.” The community of brick people, he adds, tends to overlap with those of train enthusiasts and manhole-cover collectors. “Infrastructure,” he says, summing up their broad interests. Sometimes, there are snacks.
What makes a good brick? Despite what Pink Floyd would have you think, they’re not all anonymous and identical. Two centuries ago, brick-making was regional—brickyards and kilns were built wherever there was clay in the ground and new construction on the rise. Antique bricks bear names, logos, and sometimes other designs stamped into their sides. Generally, he explained, what makes a brick desirable is a lively design or interesting text impressed into the clay. In his part of the country, “there are bricks from Ohio that are sought after—like one with OHIO STATE REFORMATORY, which made it,” he explains. “Animals—there’s one with a tiger that’s really sought after. And there are crossovers with other collections: There’s a brick that says VULCAN on it. Star Trek people want that one.”
It’s not a hobby that requires a lot of funds. The IBCA, he explained, takes a stance against brick-selling, hoping to avoid price escalation, although certain desirable ones invariably do escalate; a couple have reached the $200 range. Most people find their collectibles at building demolitions, on riverbanks, in vacant lots.
How does one display a brick collection? Are there custom display cases? Brick trophy rooms? “People build shelves, or an entire outdoor area, like a barn or a pavilion. And then another big thing that gets people started collecting is that they’re trying to pave a patio in the yard, and you can display bricks that way.” That’s what Boles did.
Still, it’s a hobby with a built-in storage problem. “I actually sold my house right when the pandemic began,” Boles told me, “and I moved all my bricks out to another collector’s house. And I’d put an offer in on another house, but it had a lien on it.” That took months to resolve. “So I’m actually moving tomorrow.” Which means … you have to move all the bricks again? “Yeah, I had a moment of What am I doing here?”
Yes, there are many, many teenagers in the BrikTok comments dunking on a hobby that is, admittedly, a little dorky. But there are also far more comments by people who are clearly soothed and bewitched by the idea of such a homespun activity, and—particularly after this past year of unremittingly digital, noncorporeal human interaction—I am in their camp. Bricks are heavy; bricks are stable; bricks can last for millennia. They are not going to be obsolete in five years, unlike your iPhone once it’s, uh, bricked. When our momentary agitations and online embarrassments are all swept away into electrons—and when we ourselves are all dust—the bricks will still be here, and they’ll still do what they’re supposed to do: hold up the roof.