The Force of the Collector
The Collection of Gus Lopez
Gus Lopez began collecting Star Wars memorabilia in 1977 with the release of Star Wars: A New Hope. He began Collecting trading cards, records, and stickers, and then graduated to toys in 1978 which he continued for many years thereafter.
Gus created the Star Wars Collector's Archive in 1994, which was the first Star Wars collecting website on the Internet. He says, "It was created with the goal of bridging the geographical gaps between collectors in a way that is fun, educational and easily accessible to show "the best of the best" in Star Wars collecting with contributions from many of the top collections in the hobby". Born in Havana, Cuba and native of Summit, New Jersey, Gus now resides in Seattle, Washington where throughout his massive house displays all his Star Wars memorabilia. Gus also writes for magazines on Star Wars collecting and occasionally appears at conventions and on tv programs on the Star Wars collecting topic. His vast collection of unusual and rare Star Wars items makes Gus one of the biggest collectors in the world today. Gus and his wife, Pam, have traveled to various parts of the world on Star Wars related adventures, including three trips to Tunisia where they located many original Star Wars set pieces and props left behind years after filming. With a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Science and Engineering from M.I.T., a Master of Science degree in Computer Science from Brown University, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree in Computer Science from the University of Washington, it's easy to see that this guy is no dummy when it comes to collecting. Through his connections, information he obtains and vast knowledge of Star Wars memorabilia, it's no wonder why we have named Gus Lopez Heavy Hitter of the month at Eternal Collector.com. For more information on Gus Lopez visit his site at www.toysrgus.com
Eternal Collector: What do you Collect?
Gus Lopez: Star Wars memorabilia cast and crew items, movie props, toys, toy prototypes, cereal items and a few other things.
EC: What do you do for a living?
GL: Software development manager at Amazon.com
EC: How long have you been a collector?
GL: I've kept everything since 1977 since I was a kid but I wasn't active in collecting until the late eighties, the last 12 years or so, about early nineties is really when I started to get very active and strong in collecting.
EC: When did you first encounter Star Wars?
GL: Well it was the summer of 1977 it was hard to miss it just had such a monumental impact at that time so you just kind of ran into it everywhere. On TV I saw ads for it, inside the theatre there were trading cards, just everywhere.
EC: How did you start collecting Star Wars memorabilia?
GL: Originally as a kid I wanted to own everything from the films but when I got into it later on it was mostly a nostalgic thing. I would walk by collectible shops in Seattle where I live that would have each action figure on display and I would frequently just walk by these places and I kept telling myself I should get back into this because I was really actively into the toys when I was a kid so I just decided to start buying from toyshops checking out the magazines and networking with other collectors and then started to build up my collection.
EC: What is the attraction to Star Wars?
GL: Its hard to define it, the films were so revolutionary at the time. I think the reason a lot of collectors who grew up with Star Wars are into collecting now is because it was such an event in their lives. It was revolutionary, the whole special effects, big block buster settings in a whole other world, there are so many aspects to the film that were really novel and the impact was something that I think people still feel nostalgic about.
EC: Why do you think Collectors are so attracted to Star Wars memorabilia?
GL: Well, I think because they love the films, they love the story of Star Wars. Star Wars hits many people in different ways, people also like particular characters. People love Star Wars so much they begin to love the Collecting. Another thing that's interesting is compared to other life, like Aliens or Star Trek Collecting isn't as big. One of the reasons I think is because Star Wars from the very beginning was very tied to the merchandise. One of the things that were ground breaking for Star Wars was that they really tied it to merchandise. George Lucas was really a big proponent of having toys and mugs and all sorts of things made for the films that I think from the very beginning engrained Star Wars merchandise with being into the Star Wars films, they really intertwined and so I think that's why collecting is so big now. The other thing is Star Wars collecting in the 90s had a really active thriving community for a number of reasons. Steve Sansweet's book Star Wars: From Concept to Screen to Collectible that was very influential because it really talked about the memorabilia aspect of Star Wars and for many collectors it was like, Wow! there are other people like me out there that are really into this stuff, and then you have the emergence of the internet where a lot of the kids who grew up with Star Wars were also internet savvy and for that kind of generation of fan they actually had a very easy way to network unlike say other generations of collectors of GI Joes, they might not be at that kind of critical point so I think that was also a pretty major part why the collecting interest was so strong it was a very strong community.
EC: How would you compare Star Wars Collectors to Star Trek Collectors?
GL: Well, there are many Star Trek Collectors but it's not anything like Star Wars. It isn't as active a community, a lot of the fandom of Star Trek is oriented in different ways I would say the Star Trek community is more heavy on the costuming than in Star Wars so you go to a convention doing the costume thing, although that's pretty strong in Star Wars but Collecting is just not a huge part of the Star Trek experience and I think Star Trek also didn't have a lot of product, first of all when the show came out there wasn't any product out there really it wasn't till like Mego started making action figures later on in the 70s that there were some toys for Star Trek, it wasn't really as memorabilia oriented as Star Wars.
EC: How many items do you have in your collection?
GL: It's hard to know, I'm sure over 10,000 items and I know Collectors who have even more. I'm not by any means trying to get everything.
EC: What would you say is your favorite piece?
GL: It always changes there's no set favorite piece, there are a lot of pieces I love that I never get tired of, it depends. Like I recently picked up a British record award for the Star Wars sound track from 1977 so that kind of thing is really cool and something I haven't seen before and its one of my favorite pieces now but I don't think there's a single favorite piece I have.
EC: What is the most unique item you have acquired?
GL: Well I have many unique items, a lot of one-of-a-kind items so by definition they're all unique. I also have unusual stuff that shows how Star Wars is everywhere, weird things like for example when I went to visit the Star Wars set in Tunisia they have a souvenir of one of the places they filmed at, this was an underground hotel, Luke's house. The underground scenes were all shot actually in a real place in Tunisia and they make like a ceramic souvenir of that hotel not associated with Star Wars they just make the souvenir of the hotel, its very cool to have this ceramic play set but its really a Star Wars setting so that kind of thing is very unique, yeah I have lots of things that are one of a kind like art work, prototypes and props.
EC: Do you get invited to these sets?
GL: Well I didn't go during the filming it's all kind of unofficial. I just try to track down where they film and then just try to go find the location, basically they filmed in natural settings, they filmed in real buildings in Tunisia and so you can go there and still see the places and then its almost exactly as it is on screen there's very little they have to do to the set to give it the Star Wars look they just leave it as is.
EC: So what do you do once you arrive at the location?
GL: Travel around, take photographs, talk to people who were there and see if there's anything they left behind.
EC: Did you ever get a chance to talk to George Lucas or any of the actors in the movie?
GL: I've met many of the actors, I've never met Lucas but through various conventions I've met many of the actors.
EC: So you say you search to see if anything from the set has been left behind have you ever found anything interesting?
GL: Oh, absolutely from the original trilogy and the prequel so I've brought back quite a few things and a lot of them are featured on my website www.toysrgus.com
EC: Do you get hassled about the things that you take?
GL: Well the stuff that they leave, they don't leave like a R2 unit a Land Speeder or anything like that or a costume, they leave parts of the set, like things that are just set decorations. There are some things I wouldn't touch like for example they built a set out of the desert of Mos Espa town and I wouldn't take anything from that location, I wouldn't want to damage it, it's all set up there for filming but there's a lot of the stuff that gets sold off as scrap wood to locals. So there are things that were thrown away basically that are not an issue, I would never buy anything that was taken from the set.
EC: You said earlier that you have very unique and one-of-a-kind items, how did you acquire those?
GL: Most of it is through networking, the majority of the stuff I buy today is not through any kind of public market or anything it's usually through word of mouth. At this point I have so many contacts, so many people I'm in communication with that everything is usually through referrals and things like that and people I know and then also tracking down people, working hard to find sources for things.
EC: How do you display your collection? Do you dedicate a room for your memorabilia?
GL: There are many rooms with all my stuff, the foyer, the living room, the dining room. There are four rooms on the second floor exclusively Star Wars. There are three rooms in the basement that are all Star Wars and then there's just random stuff everywhere all over the house.
EC: How do you go about displaying your items all over the house?
GL: There are things framed on walls, so I have a lot of stuff framed I have things in display cases I have custom display cases also so it depends on the items. I put a lot of time into how its displayed, the style of collecting I do is I don't try to get everything I mostly go for quality not quantity I spend a lot of time trying to make sure it really displays well and I have the space for them. It just depends on the type of item but I have a lot of display cases around the house, I have things framed and so on.
EC: Do you have a favorite room?
GL: Not in particular, there all pretty cool...One of my favorite rooms is the cereal room where I have a room with just cereal boxes, Star Wars cereal boxes from 70 countries, hundreds of boxes in that room.
EC: When you decorate your Star Wars rooms do you usually get help from someone?
GL: Well, sometimes I'll ask my wife or a friend to help usually I could pretty much take care of it myself.
EC: So you have been named Star Wars number one fan, how does that feel and how did you earn that title?
GL: Well I don't know about that, I think a lot of people could fit that title, I don't know. But I'm a big fan but there's lots of people that are into it equally or more I don't even know if the titles appropriate.
EC: So how far have you traveled to obtain a new piece? You had mentioned Tunisia.
GL: Well, Tunisia is pretty far out there I mean I've gone on vacation and picked up Star Wars things when I was in Australia and several trips to Europe. Pretty much Tunisia, Europe, Australia that's about as far out as I've gone for Star Wars, most of the stuff I pick up is in the U.S. but I do travel quite a bit in the U.S. to find Star Wars things.
EC: So opportunities have been opened to you because you're such a big Star Wars Collector?
GL: Well it helps a little in that sometimes people contact me if they worked on the films or they worked in Kenner, some people who've worked for Star Wars licensees or one of the movies will find the website and then email me and then ask about some item they have so sometimes I find things that way, so that's kind of a plus and it also helps sometimes when I'm looking for things to just kind of reference work I've done because then people really understand that I'm really a collector and visually trying to research things for my collection and so it gives them contacts to what I'm doing in that sense it helps.
EC: What is the rarest item that you own?
GL: As I said I have a lot of one of a kind items, I have in many cases things that for example for Star Wars they had these series of toys called the micro collection where they made these small play sets and plastic with metal figures and they made a few play sets and they cancelled the line because it wasn't as successful as the small action figures so they made some prototypes for the next wave of those play sets and I have four different ones. But for each one they made one or two examples of so they're pretty rare like the Death Star model from the first film it's the full 3D model so that's one of as kind all the stuff is extremely rare because there's only one example of it.
EC: Is your Collection insured?
GL: Yeah, I get special collectors insurance that you can get policies specifically designed for Collecting but in some sense insurance...when you collect the kind of stuff I try to get, worse case scenario they'll at least compensate for some of it but you'll never get back the kinds of things you got.
EC: What is your Holy Grail? Anything you have yet to acquire that you really want?
GL: Yeah, those few things I'm looking for they're always things I'm still reaching to get, I'm looking to find this R2D2 thermos like lunch box thing that they made prototypes of that I'm interested in finding, some cereal boxes from Australia from Return of the Jedi that I'm trying to get, there's a parka that they made for filming Empire Strikes Back in Norway so when they were doing the filming in the glaciers they had this blue cast and crew jacket that they made so I've been trying to track one of those down. So those are examples of things I know are out there and I'm trying to find them.
EC: As a collector you seem very well informed about the existence of a lot of these items, where do you get your information?
GL: Just through networking, every collector has different strategies for how they find stuff, some will throw money at it some will shop on eBay; different people will have different approaches. Mine from the very beginning has always been like to overwhelm myself with information to find out what's out there, what did they make, who has what, get details, talk to people who worked on the thing. I have found that generally the Collectors who have the most information independent of everything else, the amount of money they have to spend, their luck at finding things, whatever, people with the most information tend to find the best pieces because they know what the prices are, they know what's available, they make very educated decisions they have a lot of options in terms of different opportunities to find things so that's always been my angle, get as much information as you can and then the opportunities come out of that so that's just kind of how I always approached it. Learn as much as you can about it. And I actually found when I started there was very little information like a lot of the things I have are things that 10 years ago no one even knew about it, it's just a matter of doing primary research on it.
EC: With the size of your collection you could probably charge admission, Have you ever had people come over and see your collection for the first time?
GL: Yeah, I do have people come over once in a while; sometimes people I know come over. I actually have a few pieces on display in a museum there's a local museum in Seattle that borrowed a few things. I haven't really thought of doing a museum I'm not sure that a Star Wars museum would actually... even though star wars is popular I'm not sure it would have enough interest to the general public to have a steady stream of people all the time so I haven't been interested in doing that, but I think if they ever did do a Star Wars museum somewhere I wouldn't mind lending them some stuff to show there.
EC: What is the usual reaction of people looking at your collection for the first time?
GL: Well, it depends different people react different ways. People who know I collect they come over and usually have no idea of the scale of my Collection; they come in and go "Oh my God!" It's like 100 times what they thought it would be, the whole house is decorated. Then there's a very common reaction. You'll get couples who come by and one of them collects Star Wars and drags like the wife along to see the house and then you see the husband turn to the wife "See I'm not this bad" because it will be on a level that the spouse would be man I thought it was bad in my house...there's that kind of reaction. The strongest reaction I get is actually from very experienced Collectors, people who are really into Collecting. When they come over they are really hit because a lot of the stuff I've focused on are really esoteric, really trying to find novel things unusual things and so I also have a lot of stuff I've never put on the website that I don't document. The more someone knows about Collecting the more they have an impact when they come over.
EC: Do attend conventions?
GL: Yeah, all the time I speak at conventions and attend them and all that.
EC: Which one is your favorite?
GL: I like going to the ones overseas when they have them. Like in the past year in a half I went to conventions in Germany, The Netherlands, two different ones in Mexico, Spain, so I like the ones in other countries because you can shop for things that are just pretty unusual. I think my favorite conventions are probably the ones in Mexico they have a regular convention there it has the greatest combination of everything like they have really good guests they treat the guests well, the dealer rooms are awesome people are really nice I think I have the most fun at those conventions I usually end up staying a week.
EC: Tell me about the Star Wars collecting club you started.
GL: About 11 years I started a local group in Seattle called SARLACC which is an acronym that stands for Seattle ARea Lucasfilm Artifacts Collecting Club. I kept running into all these local Collectors in Seattle that I would always see at the shows, you get to be friends with them. Then I started thinking, you know we should just get people together every month go to someone's house, have a party every month and so we started doing that and then it got very successful. Star Wars was booming in the 90s so it was not hard to find people that wanted to do this, so it continued every month. It really started like January of 94 so it's been about 11years, in fact the club was so successful that we don't even have to advertise it or anything the club was pretty low key just by word of mouth people would find out about it. Since then a lot of clubs in other parts of the country started like I told some friends of mine in other parts of the country, hey you guys might just want to do this, and then they all just kind of started. People have done this all over the country and each club is a different character and style. Some of them are huge because they do a lot of advertising and outreach to find people and generally SARLACC has been kind of more informal, the idea has mostly been like people who are really into it will eventually connect with us and gravitate towards it, but not a lot of effort on trying to get lots of people or any big structure around it so each club has a different style to it.
EC: Here's a what if question, If there were a fire and you only had time to save one item which one would it be and why?
GL: Oh man, that would be bleak...I don't know that's a good question... I don't know its hard to say I mean the problem is there would be so many things that would be a loss to the world if that happened because there's just only one example, thing s like the original Death Star model would be something that would be impossible to get it out in a hurry cause it's in a case that's bigger than the front door but anyway that kind of thing I think would be just for historical purpose something that would be a huge loss if that would ever happen.
EC: Would you ever sell your collection?
GL: I'm not planning to, I've no intention to but you never know. I do sell things once in a while if its something I'm tired of or I'm trying to save for something else, occasionally I'll let a few things go but generally anything that I really love that's one of a kind or something really unusual I never let go of it.
EC: Is there anything you're looking forward to getting in the New Year?
GL: Since this will be the last Star Wars film and I collect the cereal boxes, this will be the last round of Star Wars, movie related cereal boxes so I'm looking forward to getting my network going again in all the countries to get the cereal from all over the world, when episode II came out I got over 600 boxes from 15 different countries, its kind of a challenge but it's exciting cause I love the cereal boxes so I'm excited for the episode III box to come out.
EC: Since this is the last Star Wars film are there any special events planned?
GL: Yeah, there are going to be quite a few conventions, there's one in Germany, one in France, two in Mexico one in the united states, the big one called Celebration III in Indianapolis in April so there are going to be a lot of conventions in the next year. This will be the last time a Star Wars film comes out so I think it will be a pretty big deal. But in a way I'm kind of looking forward to them being done with the films because it will allow collecting to taper off to being just the community people that are in it for the long haul. In the 90's it got out of control, I mean its great that it's popular but there wasn't enough longevity to much of the collecting and I think that will come back after episode III so I'm kind of looking forward to that.
EC: Are you involved in creating any of these events?
GL: I help speak at them and with Lucas films I'm helping them with the collecting track, with the organizing of it for Celebration III, so I definitely help with all these conventions.
EC: What will happen to your Collection when you are gone?
GL: Ah...I'll take it with me...who knows if there's ever a museum or something that would be great, at this time it's hard to say.
EC: Any tips or advice for new Collectors?
GL: Well, I think the two best tips are and we touched on this which is learn as much as you can about all of the stuff and that I believe is the most important thing in collecting, to learn whatever you can, having information, networking, contact, all that stuff is more important than anything else in collecting. The second thing I would say is to...its cliché to say this but collect what you like. So many collectors follow the crowd and look at what everybody else is collecting and what's cool to collect and certainly its good and a positive influence and I too get influenced by what other people collect and it helps as far as what I want to collect but people really need to pick with what they like collecting even if it's a little out of step with what most other collectors are after because I think that's what makes collecting interesting. When people have their own taste applied to it, it's unique. When I go visit a Collector's Collection if they just buy the same old action figure that everybody else is buying I find it generally boring cause its like great the same kind of thing everybody else is collecting it's great for them they love it but I don't think its that interesting, but when people collect unique things its really interesting. I know a local collector in Seattle who collects everything for his bathroom, he has a Star Wars bathroom so he has the shampoo, the tooth brush holder, the tooth brushes, the toothpaste, the after shave, towels, everything that is just so cool like to just focus on the Star Wars bathroom its just a different angle, some people will collect a particular character, some will collect a particular toy line that they did. Things like that, each unique style brings something to collecting and not a lot of collectors do that and I think that's very important cause people look at my stuff an go, "oh man this is so cool, I wish I could get this kind of stuff" and when I started collecting no one was collecting 10 years ago no one cared I just went after what I wanted it just happened that a lot of it became popular, it became things that everyone else wanted to collect at the time. When I did it I just went for stuff that I was interested in and that's what I continue to do, I collect things today that most star wars collectors could care less about, it's possible in 10 years they all will. For example I collect High School and College year books from the Star Wars actors, try to track down schools they went to and get the year books. Most Star Wars collectors could care less about that right now, I'm just going after it cause I like it no one else really cares about that but it's kind of a fun thing to go for.
EC: Thank you so much Gus for your time and knowledge this has been an eye opening interview.
GL: Sure, no problem