Jim Farley started his license plate collection in 1976. That year, the states were creating special plates in recognition of the nation’s Bicentennial. Farley, who grew up in Peru, Ill., had a particular one in mind for himself.
“I wrote a letter to the Illinois secretary of state, requesting a plate printed with ‘USA 200,’ ” says Farley. It wasn’t available. “They gave that to the girl who designed the Bicentennial plate.”
Farley did not yet have a car to put the plate on or even a driver’s license, for that matter. He was only 14. But because he had shown such earnest patriotic leanings, he did get a special plate after all. His was imprinted with “US 200,” and they gave it to him in person.
“I was wearing my Boy Scout uniform,” says Farley. “They picked me and my parents up in a limo and drove us to an Elks event the secretary of state was attending.” His father tacked the plate to his Mercedes Benz and used it on his cars through various renewals until his death in 2012.
Farley only recently hung the plate alongside others from his collection in the bathroom at Far Land Provisions, the Bradford Street coffee shop and corner store he has owned with his partner, Tom Boland, for nearly 20 years.
Farley had been a nurse practitioner and Boland a historic preservationist before the two put their names and sandwich-making skills together to create their emporium. In the same way that the Far Land moniker combines the couple’s last names, this is a place where histories collide. The building has long been home to neighborhood markets. Boland worked here as a stock boy in 1993, back when the place was called McNulty’s.
The décor is long on found items and gifts from friends. Tucked in the back corner, at the end of two parallel walls of refrigerators, is the wood-paneled retreat where, across from vintage signs advertising “Cinema” and “Fleming’s Donut Shack” and a collection of star-stamped competition ribbons, hang a dozen or so of Farley’s license plates.
The one Farley first put on the wall in the Far Land bathroom is the 1980s renewal of his US 200 plate. For years he kept the 1976 original — embossed in red, white, and blue — at home in Provincetown, safe from itchy fingers.
“People try to steal the license plates,” says Boland.
Two other plates on display in the bathroom were found by Dean Marriott, a Far Land employee who also works as a trash collector. One is from Massachusetts; the other does not name any particular state. It simply proclaims, “Last Flight Out: A State of Mind.”
“Shortman,” as Marriott is affectionately nicknamed, says he will also bring a license plate back from his upcoming visit to Jamaica. It will join two other foreign plates, which Farley and Boland picked up in Queensland and New South Wales during their travels in Australia.
Above these smaller motorcycle plates is a royal blue vintage plate from Connecticut, which Boland says he discovered when he cleaned out his father’s garage.
The Massachusetts plate “PTOWN 1” is from Mike Ware, the designer of Far Land’s rooster logo and signage. Ware’s father painted the colorful oil of a rooster on the Conwell Street side of the store. The familiar symbol has also inspired other aspects of Far Land’s interior décor.
“We haven’t bought a single rooster,” says Farley, nodding at the rooster figurines nesting atop the refrigerators. “People give them to us.”
The license plate collection has also grown thanks to gifts from friends. “GRRRRRR,” reads a Virginia plate that once emblazoned the car of Steve Katsurinis and Brandon Quesnell, the couple who own Yolqueria, Mezzeterranean, and the 8 Dyer Hotel in Provincetown. A Minnesota plate belonged to Jef Hall-Flavin, the former director of the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival, who now splits his time between Provincetown and London with his husband, Dan Hall-Flavin. Heith Martinez, a former Far Land general manager, added the plate from Maine.
These plates tell short, sweet stories of local friendships and the journeys undertaken by people before calling Provincetown home. The meaning of the collection has had a way of gaining momentum, seemingly reinforcing a simple statement: “I was here.”
Boland says a woman recently left him a napkin scrawled with her number, offering a license plate stamped with “WM Corps” — for woman Marine Corps — to add to the collection.
Below one plate is a typed and laminated story that lingers on a visitor’s mind. “My father was a proud Democrat, a union man,” it begins. “He was born in Italy, grew up in Woburn, Mass. He fought in WWII as an Army sergeant.”
Farley and Boland say the plate and its story were given to them by the daughter of a former Florida resident and Purple Heart recipient. That designation is stamped into the license plate. “He was shot one December morning in the hip and leg,” his daughter wrote. “He played dead all day in the snow as German snipers walked around him. The next morning, he dragged himself to camp.”
The connection between the plate and this place comes at the end: “He loved Cape Cod, has three gay kids, and drove a Grand Marquis.”