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Pop culture archivist David Bieber opens the book on his vast collection of vintage T-shirts

A T-shirt from WBCN's 1985 Rock 'n' Roll Rumble, as shown in "Off Our Backs: 150 T-Shirts from the David Bieber Archives."
A T-shirt from WBCN's 1985 Rock 'n' Roll Rumble, as shown in "Off Our Backs: 150 T-Shirts from the David Bieber Archives."David Bieber Archives

David Bieber would give you the shirt off his back.

Well, maybe not the one off his back. But if, say, you worked at Newbury Comics back in the day, he might be able to rustle up an old logo T-shirt for you.

Bieber has worked for some of Boston’s most important counterculture institutions, including WBCN, WFNX, and the Boston Phoenix. Through the decades, he’s made it his business to collect every bit of pop culture ephemera that came across his field of vision, beginning with photos, posters, periodicals, and recordings in every format.

He also collected T-shirts. Thousands upon thousands of T-shirts. Band T-shirts, movie T-shirts, T-shirts featuring cartoon characters and local businesses and long-forgotten street fairs.

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A few years ago, Bieber and a small crew of assistants began curating his massive collection into the David Bieber Archives, a trash-culture nirvana now housed in a former paper mill, the mixed-use Norwood Space Center. Just released, “Off Our Backs: 150 T-Shirts from the David Bieber Archives” is the first book produced from the Archives.

A 1983 Ozzy Osbourne tour T-shirt featured in the book "Off Our Backs: 150 T-Shirts from the David Bieber Archives."
A 1983 Ozzy Osbourne tour T-shirt featured in the book "Off Our Backs: 150 T-Shirts from the David Bieber Archives."David Bieber Archives

The book combines Boston-based nostalgia — T-shirts that reference the Combat Zone, the New England Mobile Book Fair, and the Rat’s late, lamented doorman, Mitch Cerullo, to name a few — with marketing campaigns for Planters Peanuts, the record-store chain Strawberries, and an asbestos removal service.

“Europe has memories,” reads the book’s epigraph, attributed to Jean-Luc Godard. “America has T-shirts.”

Bieber has created gallery exhibits for the Verb Hotel, the Boch Center’s Wang Theatre, and the Cabot in Beverly, and he assembles temporary installations for event planners. He wants you to see the stuff he’s saved.

A Live Aid shirt featured in the book "Off Our Backs: 150 T-Shirts from the David Bieber Archives."
A Live Aid shirt featured in the book "Off Our Backs: 150 T-Shirts from the David Bieber Archives."David Bieber Archives

“I have nothing that’s sacred I wouldn’t want to put out and share with the public,” he says. “I’m not clutching all this content, giggling insanely in the corner. I never want to be that guy. I want these things to be shared in the sunlight.”

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That sunlight, in fact, has faded many of the T-shirts in his collection. Others are stained or frayed. This is just as it should be, he says.

He recalls a certain punk rock retrospective mounted by a major New York City art museum. The media coverage focused on the white-glove treatment, the acid-free paper used to wrap the artifacts, and so on.

“These things had cigarette burns and safety pins and sweat stains,” Bieber says. “To think they were elevated to an artifact in a museum is kind of counterintuitive. They’re saving things that were meant to be disposable.”

A 1971 J. Geils Band T-shirt designed by Providence artist the Mad Peck (a.k.a. John Peck).
A 1971 J. Geils Band T-shirt designed by Providence artist the Mad Peck (a.k.a. John Peck).David Bieber Archives

Of course, that’s what he’s doing, too. In the process of unboxing the T-shirts, washing them, and laying them out to be photographed, “some of them actually did fall apart,” says Lance VanDyke Salemo, who coauthored the book with Bieber and Brian Coleman. “It just adds to the authenticity.”

Though there’s no real measure available, it’s quite possible that Bieber’s enormous collection of pop culture relics — he estimates there are 2 million items — rivals that of any other collector in the world. The key is the small-c catholic nature of his interests, he says. Most collectors specialize in certain areas. (Salemo, for instance, has a notable collection of James Bond memorabilia.)

“My stuff is much more random,” Bieber says. “There’s nothing I would turn down.”

He’s not interested in selling any of it.

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The cover of "Off Our Backs: 150 T-Shirts from the David Bieber Archives."
The cover of "Off Our Backs: 150 T-Shirts from the David Bieber Archives."Handout

“The marketplace has grown up around me,” he says. “I’m not a buyer or seller, a wheeler and dealer.” Instead, he thinks of himself as a custodian. After the WCVB show “Chronicle” visited the Archives a while back, he was inundated with requests from people who wanted to donate their own keepsakes. One woman gave Bieber her Victrola, her wedding dress, and a $200 check.

“They don’t want their artifacts to end up in a landfill,” he says.

“I’m not one of these ‘cosmic karma’ people,” he says of the community service he’s devoted to making space for those artifacts. “But it’ll come back to me.”

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.

“Off Our Backs: 150 T-Shirts from the David Bieber Archives,” $24.98. Order at offourbacksbook.com.