Fans of fans embrace the quirky Healdsburg Museum

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These days, most people know Healdsburg as the home of SingleThread, one of the most acclaimed restaurants in the world.

But the city has another claim to fame: it is the site of the only hand fan museum in North America.

Yes, you read that right – a museum dedicated exclusively to fans. Aptly named The Hand Fan Museum, the small space overlooking Healdsburg Avenue on the ground floor of the Healdsburg Hotel has hundreds of fans in its collection.

Paper fans. Wooden fans. Silk fans. Fans from decades and centuries ago. Heck, there are even a few bone fans. Some are lavishly decorated with fantastic works of art; others are simple and carry nothing more than a message. All are small enough to wave back and forth for a cool breeze. Some are even for sale.

The museum is the brainchild of Pam Sher, the fans’ ultimate fan.

Sher, now 83, has been collecting fans for more than 50 years – a hobby that has become an obsession and has matured into a museum.

The way Sher sees it, fans represent beauty, femininity, and practical genius.

“I think the fan value to the general public is that there’s real beauty in a lot of the images. There’s excitement associated with the craftsmanship that human beings could make these beautiful things and, in many cases, without machines,” she said.

“For me, it’s really an uplifting and optimistic condition to see this stuff and marvel at it.”

Evolution of a Fanatic

Sher’s “fanaticism” began in his thirties.

The first fan she bought was made by a Viennese glovemaker and depicted a pug emerging from a glove. Sher had four pugs at the time, so she had to have him. After that, she leaned into her new hobby, hard.

The more fans she bought, the more intriguing she found them. She liked that they told seductive stories, that they could make statements. Perhaps the best: they are easy to store and transport.

When she traveled – which was often the case – she brought back fans. She was looking for fans when she was shopping for antiques. She started going to auctions, estate sales, even garage sales to track down items.

Today, the Ross resident estimates that she has over 2,500 fans in the museum’s collection and around 1,000 fans in her personal collection. Sher bought them all herself.

Sher’s most expensive fan is shaped like a bat. The silk weave on the sticks represents the body of the animal. The piece is at least 100 years old, if not more. She keeps him locked up at home.

At parties, she likes to challenge people to what she calls the Fan Game: give Sher a topic, and she can link it to one of the many fans she’s collected over the years. Not only will she describe the fan, but she’ll regale players with a story of how and where she got it.

“Everything for me comes down to the fans,” she joked.

Museum life

Sher opened the Hand Fan Museum in 2011; her late husband Merritt was the promoter of the Healdsburg Hotel and he promised his wife that he would give her space there for her fans.

The original location was in the alley north of where it stands today, across from the old Bear Republic brewery. In this hard-to-find location, foot traffic was light and the museum remained largely secret. Pam Sher wanted more.

She got her wish in 2017, when a slightly larger retail space became available on Healdsburg Avenue across from the Plaza.

Today, the museum is certainly unique.

The small venue usually has no more than 50 or 60 fans on display at a time; a small fraction of the total collection. Some specimens are highlights of Sher’s collection while others – cat-shaped fans, patriotic fans – have a more massive appeal.

There are notable curiosities, including some thirty of the oldest fans which are framed. On the wall near the front door, visitors will find a wooden sign for a fan store from the early 1800s. A more modern piece – a cocktail dress made from paper fans – is on display in the window . The dress, created by local artist Stasea Dohoney, is a real hit.

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