"Book collectors are a strange breed, and I suppose I'm more of a nut than most," Herbert Hosmer confesses with a gleeful chuckle. For nearly 70 years Hosmer's passion has been collecting children's books, primarily 19th-century works, though he is not fussy about their age or pedigree. His obsession--and it is an obsession with him, as it is for any true collector--is not all that unusual. The number of fine collections of children's books in New England alone will testify to the fact that the archivists of the nursery have been active indeed. Yet Hosmer's extensive collection, which occupies nearly all of the three 18th- and 19th-century buildings on his property in the center of South Lancaster, Massachusetts, is eccentric, out of the ordinary, even by collector's standards of acceptable idiosyncracy.

The tens of thousands of items that Hosmer has gathered together over the years focus on works that, until fairly recently, have been overlooked by museum curators and bibliophiles--or, at least, have been only begrudgingly admitted to their shelves. Since the 1930s Hosmer's concern has been with those fanciful, highly imaginative works that have been produced in paper for children over the last century and a half: pop-up and moveable books, toy theaters, peep shows, panoramas, paper dolls, and other paper toys. One reviewer of contemporary pop-up books has called this genre the "confection" of children's literature, but this condescending dismissal missed the point of these works.

Hosmer believes that the toy book "added another dimension to what children could read and imagine. They were bewitching because many of them used action and even sound. And I'm sure adults were just as intrigued by their magic. I think they were a universal delight next to all those stuffy books they had to read in the 19th century."

One modern creator of children's books, Maurice Sendak, expresses the same sense of wonder over these books, recalling the effects they had on him as a child, effects that continue to influence his work today: "The picture moved. It was a magic book, a toy book; in short, a dream come true."

The kinds of paper playthings that Hosmer has collected remain among the most interesting and esoteric of all the publications for children, and they are also among the most ephemeral and today the most valuable. Because they are so inviting and so fragile, Hosmer explains, "Children were so in love with them that they played them to death."

Under Hosmer's care, though, these works have been kept alive, making his collection, according to Sendak, his long-time friend and fellow collector, the most significant gathering of material of its kind in America today. Sendak credits Hosmer with having made him aware of and equally excited about these valuable and elusive artifacts of children's culture. Remembering his first visit to Hosmer's collection some 20 years ago, Sendak told me recently that "everything I saw at Herb's was important because I'd never seen it before. There was no collection previous to that experience that showed me anything of this particularity. What's unique in Herb's collection is that, aside from Meggendorfer (a German artist who designed perhaps the most extraordinary pop-up books of all), it's so American--it's our stuff. No one, so far as I knew, collected the American toy book. We'd always been so enamored of the European product--including the children's book--we didn't bother with our own. But Herb's collection is unique because it incorporates the extraordinary and the unpopular--it's not a clich,e collection. He knows immediately what is first rate for the collection, and everything in his collection is first rate and unique and nowhere else."

Hosmer began collecting in childhood, though he would not have called himself a real collector then. "I was more like a magpie," he quips in his rich, central Massachusetts accent. "I simply never threw anything out, much to my parents' consternation."

Luckily for him, neither did his ancestors whose attics have yielded up their treasures. For instance, Hosmer's great-great uncle, John Greene Chandler (1815-1879), an engraver, lithographer and publisher of children's books and cut-outs, engraved and printed in 1840 the first known American edition of The Remarkable Story of Chicken Little, that folk classic about the folly of following blind rumor.

Chandler also gave the children of America their first deluxe, boxed sets of paper dolls in Fanny Gray (1854) and The American National Circus (1858). When Chandler's daughter Alice died in 1935, Hosmer inherited her father's publication records, proof sheets and original art work, and many first editions of his publications. After coming into this wealth of material, Hosmer remembers becoming suddenly aware that "I was now a collector. From that point on, there was no turning back for me."

During the late 1930s (and throughout his life, in fact), Hosmer has supported himself and his growing "hobby" on an elementary school teacher's salary, as he began to build his definitive collection of the many sets of paper dolls that Chandler had produced. Hosmer reflects that, at that time, "you couldn't even get the dealers to save them for you. They threw them out, didn't want to be bothered with them, and they thought you were crazy when you asked for them." Hosmer was among the handful of serious collectors of paper dolls, and this put him in the proverbial right place at the right time. "You could buy batches of paper dolls for a few dollars, and often you would find other paper toys and an occasional moveable book thrown in with the lot."

Serendipitously, this is how Hosmer found his first two books by the most celebrated maker of moveable books, the German artist Lothar Meggendorfer (1847- 1925). One of the books, The Automatic Theater (ca. 1890), with its grotesquely comic dancing master who comes suddenly and gracefully alive with the pull of a tab, is still Hosmer's favorite today, though he has acquired many other Meggendorfers since then. He purchased the two books and the box of dolls for $10. Meggendorfer was prolific and popular in his own time and an estimated two million of his books were in print before 1900. However, a Meggendorfer in good, workable condition today will often go for well over $1,000 --when one can be found. (Viking Junior Books has just published a Meggendorfer reproduction, called Surprise! Surprise!, $9.95.)

The Meggendorfers captivated Hosmer, as they would later entrance Sendak, and Hosmer was soon collecting examples of English and American toy books--especially American works. Sendak and other collectors cheerfully blame Hosmer for driving up the prices on these books because of his zealous insistence that the dealers find them for him.

Hosmer's comprehensive collection of moveables published in this country and abroad are on public display in The Chandler Toy Museum. Display cases--chocked full of surprises and tracing the history of the American toy book and paper doll--crowd the first floor of the building at the back of his property, a building which once housed the publishing offices of a 19th-century South Lancaster firm, Carter and Andrews, with which Chandler had been briefly associated.

Throughout his collecting career Hosmer has been blessed by circumstances. He recalls once being forced by friends to stop and visit a little country bookshop, on a day when he didn't really want to look at any more books. In the back room the reluctant Hosmer uncovered a mint copy of Chandler's The American National Circus that just happened to include the tiny paper hat for the clown which the Hosmer family copy was missing. "I offered him $10, and he accepted. After I gave him the money, I told him why I was interested in it. He may not have ever gotten over that, because he knew right away that he could a ma have charged me $200 or $300 for the set--that was in the 1940s, mind you!--and I would have gladly paid it."

Luck? Accident? Probably every collector has stories like this which he could spin out like a fisherman's yarn. Yet Hosmer's life and collecting adventures are too full of such moments for it to be a matter of blind luck.

These coincidences occur regularly in Hosmer's world because he has created the opportunity for them to enter his life. He invites them to happen by living his hobby, passionately and totally. When I visited him recently, and we paused for refreshments, he brought out a plate of cookies on a rare, ceramic plate glazed with a picture of one of his favorite 19th-century children's book characters, Slovenly Peter. I was struck by the fact that, like the man, Hosmer's living room in "Racketty- Packetty House" (the main house of the group) is open, friendly, unpretentious--marvelously cluttered with Hosmer's treasures. Books, toys, games, boxes and folders of paper dolls crowd onto nearly every existing sitting and table space. I found my elbow and my coffee sharing a Queen Anne table with the original watercolor art work for Fanny Gray, so delicate and fragile and dangerously water soluble. I asked Hosmer why such a beauty as she was not under glass or locked away, and he replied, "What good would that be? Then no one would be able to see her!" (Still, Hosmer is conscious of the possibility of theft, and he has wired the buildings with burglar alarms.)

Later, after I had carefully finished my coffee, I noticed a well-worn paper toy of a knife-grinder and asked Hosmer if I could look at it. "Well, of course," he exclaimed. "Play with it. That's what it's here for. My father had it when he was a boy, and I played with it for years. A couple more tugs won't hurt it." So I merrily pulled the tab and made the workman's knife come down on the stone while his foot hit the treadle and his eyes rolled. As I did, I thought about Sendak's tribute to Hosmer: "He taught me how to treat a collection, that it's meaningful only if it's useable and shareable. Other than that, it's like a corpse, a funeral product."

In the corner of the living room, near the French doors, a life-sized manikin, dressed in the height of early 19th-century finery, gracefully invites the visitor into the room. A miniature version of the lady appears in the stunning, antique doll's house (Hosmer's latest project, his magnum opus) that occupies a prominent place in the living room. Hosmer is painstakingly recreating a town house in Boston once lived in by members of his extended 19th-century family. The lady, the house, its other inhabitants, architecture and d,ecor belong to history as well as to his own imagination; and Hosmer has so completely internalized and fused the two that they are indistinguishable. History and fantasy are seamlessly bonded as Hosmer talks about his ancestors and the exhaustive research he has done in order to build the house. The morning fades easily into afternoon. With his remarkable gift of recall, he can speak for hours, unraveling the skeins of dates, names, places, and events of publishing or family history associated with his collection or incorporated in the doll's house.

Like Hans Christian Andersen, for whom Hosmer feels a special affinity, he was a solitary child, playing with puppets and toy theaters, spinning out his fantasies, something he has continued to do in the Toy Cupboard Theater (actually the old carriage house in the side garden) for neighborhood and visiting children for the last 40 years. "I may have been an isolated child," Hosmer muses, "but I did have one thing I wish every child could have: great aunts. They took an interest in feeding my imagination: they read to me from the classics; they drew and painted for me, helped me build castles and puppets. They could spoil me because they weren't my parents--and spoil me they did."

Hosmer knew Andersen was his "soul-mate," and identified with the ugly duckling. In spitea of the early, lonely years and all the later obscure burrowings in roadside bookstores and antique shops, Hosmer never doubted that what he was doing wasn't as odd as his parents and others thought it to be. "I always believed what I was involved in was important. It wasn't everybody else's cup of tea, but it was truly necessary for me."

He seems to have been vindicated, and the ugly duckling has gained his swan's wings. Now publishers consult with Hosmer or borrow his copies of books to duplicate for their modern editions of Meggendorfer or Chandler's paper dolls. His centenary edition of Chandler's Chicken Little, published in 1940 with his uncle's hitherto unknown reworkings of the oral text, is now a collector's item in its own right. Scholars and editors working in the field of children's literature have begun to make pilgrimages to "Racketty-Packetty House" to tap Hosmer's knowledge about such subjects as the history of toy book printing in America or to explore with him the connections between William Blake's poetry and art and the Swedenborgian movement (of 19th century Christian mystics). John Greene Chandler also had a hand in engraving the first known versions of Blake's work in American children's literature.

But like Andersen there has been and still is a vulnerability and poignancy to Hosmer's struggle. Hosmer is childless, without immediate heirs, and the years as an elementary school teacher have not left him in a position to provide for his collection. Hosmer has been quite ill in recent years, and the awful question arises about the fate of his collection once he no longer is around to keep it together. "I never was a fund-raiser," Hosmer admits, "and I'm a lot like my great-great Uncle John. He didn't give a hoot about the business end of his publishing firm and he hardly ever signed his name to the art work he produced. He simply did what he enjoyed doing and left the rest to take care of itself. I only wish the government would support me, like Hans Andersen's government supported him."

In proportion to its significance, Hosmer's collection has received relatively little attention in this country. He would like for the collection to remain intact and in place, in the family setting that is its appropriate spiritual and historical home. Sendak and others are also extremely concerned about the need for preserving the integrity of Hosmer's collection. But the current state of the economy and the special nature of Hosmer's collection are hampering such long-term arrangements.

Though one can tell that the future of the collection is a subject that bothers him terribly, Hosmer insists on laughing it off. Like Andersen or his Uncle John, Hosmer has followed his own path and enjoyed the adventure immensely and for its own sake. "Whatever happens," Hosmer chuckles again, "I wouldn't change a bit of it for the world."