An Interview With Star Wars Collector Gus Lopez
We’re happy to have with us Gus Lopez, one of the original Star Wars “super collectors”. Gus maintains one of the largest and most diverse collections of Star Wars memorabilia in the world and is a true authority on the hobby. Gus runs The Star Wars Collectors Archive, which was the first Star Wars collectibles website on the internet and remains one of the most comprehensive online databases of Star Wars collectibles anywhere. Gus also writes feature articles on collecting for several magazines and websites including The Star Wars Insider magazine and StarWars.com.
GB: Thanks for being with us, Gus. Let’s dive right in. You hold degrees in Computer Science and Engineering from some of the most outstanding universities in this country, including M.I.T. and Brown. Does work in that area remain your day job, or are you now working in the Star Wars universe full time?
GL: No, Star Wars is just my hobby. I work fulltime for an Internet ecommerce company leading a product development team, which builds on my degrees in Computer Science. With that said, I still do a ton of work for my Star Wars passion, including writing for Insider and other publications, organizing collecting events, working on my website, and writing our book.
GB: From doing some reading about you, we know that you began collecting Star Wars memorabilia back in the seventies when Star Wars: A New Hope hit theaters. But when did your collecting really shift to that next gear and what brought that about? Was it a conscious decision or did it just kind of happen?
GL: Around the time I started grad school in 1989, I used to walk past two collectibles shops every day on my way to the office, both of which had vintage Star Wars toys in the window. I vowed then I would complete the Star Wars toys I missed as a kid. In order to do this, I first needed to retrieve my original collection so I could figure out the gaps, so on trips to my parents’ house in New Jersey I searched all over the house for the items but couldn’t find them. This pattern repeated over a couple of years of searching! Even after repeat trips, I was unable to locate them. Then, one time I decided to search in a part of the house where I was told they couldn’t possibly be, and low and behold all the toys were there. Once I got back to Seattle I promptly finished off the rest of the action figures in a couple of months and moved on to new areas of Star Wars collecting.
GB: Okay, be honest now… how sick are you of people asking the question, “What’s your favorite item in your collection?” How many times have you had to answer that question?
GL: I have lost track of how many times I’ve asked that. If I had a piece that always remained my favorite, I think it would get boring. Each year that I’ve been collecting I’ve come across new and interesting collectibles that I thought I’d never own, so it’s impossible to stick with a single all-time favorite.
GB: While we know you don’t collect everything, you collect just about everything! One of your long time passions is collecting Star Wars cereal boxes from all over the world. Tell us why you chose that focus and just give us an idea of the scope of that part of your collection. Are there boxes you’re still missing?
GL: I chose cereal boxes because they were extremely difficult to find. There is no production category of Star Wars collectibles more challenging than food items, particularly the packaging, which gets issued in dozens of styles by hundreds of licensees throughout the world. Even in the age of global companies with generic branding, food items remain as diverse as the countries where they originate. Star Wars cereal boxes have been sold in places like Malaysia, South Africa, Turkey, Ecuador, Latvia, Haiti, Iceland, New Zealand, and Korea. It is virtually impossible to find all of the boxes, including all sizes and variations, in all of these countries from the past 31 years, yet I’ve been fortunate enough to find almost 1300 different ones. I’m missing about a dozen that I know were made, and half of those are vintage ones from Canada which may not have survived as I have never come across another collector who has them.
GB: You also have a well documented collection of original props, including the original Death Star model. In fact, the first time we saw you was when you gave a tour of your home on television, which included a segment about the Death Star model. Does it hold a special place in your heart? Give us some background as to how you landed that piece in your collection.
GL: The Death Star model is certainly a key piece in my collection as its one of the most significant props from the Star Wars films. I bought it almost ten years ago from three Star War collectors who live in Missouri who were huge fans and reluctant to let it go, but I promised that if I bought it, it would go to a good home and they would have lifetime visitation rights. So we made arrangements by email and I flew out there to have the piece transported. You can read a lot of the details on the blog by one of the previous owners, Todd Franklin, at neatocoolville.blogspot.com.
GB: You’ve travelled the world looking for Star Wars items. Your trips to Tunisia for original Star Wars props are legendary. We know you go back to Cincinnati (the former home of Kenner) every year to dig for Kenner gold and to meet with former Kenner employees. At Celebration IV you talked about trips through places like Mexico and Asia. What trips do you have planned for the future and can you relate to us a couple funny or zany stories or moments from your Star Wars travels that people might not have heard?
GL: I’ve traveled to all but one of the Star Wars filming locations including the Redwoods of northern California (Endor), Tunisia (Tatooine) [where I’ve gone 4 times now!], Lake Como (Naboo), Death Valley (Tatooine), Yuma Arizona (Tatooine), Sevilla (Naboo), forest outside of London (Naboo), and Finse Norway (Hoth). In the heydey while Kenner was still in Cincinnati, I was going there 3-4 times a year. And I hit several Star Wars themed conventions every year. Just this past year, I went to JediCon in Germany, Celebration Japan in Tokyo, ComicCon in San Diego, Fan Days II in Dallas. My plans for the future are to continue attending Star Wars conventions when they happen. There are talks of a fan-run convention in Mexico in 2009, and if that gets off the ground, I will likely go. And of course, I will continue attending and participating in Star Wars Celebration events when they happen.
There are many zany stories from these travels. For instance, the second time I went to Tunisia, I was rummaging through junk piles with Star Wars set pieces in a remote desert town in the Sahara near the Algerian border. A guy in a 4WD pulls up, gets out, and asks me “Are you Gus Lopez?”. You put yourself in the context of being in the middle of nowhere where no one speaks English and to have someone recognize you and call you by name comes as quite a shock. Turns out this was Philip Vanni, a Star Wars fan from France, who I had heard of, but had never met. We got to be good friends after that and have sinced traveled through Tunisia together twice.
I’ve been to the filming locations in northern California several times, where the filmed the Endor forest scenes for Return of the Jedi. When I take people there I stop by this small convenience store where the owner was around at the time of the filming and knew the crew. At the end of the filming, they gave him a prop Ewok rock which he proudly displays in the convenient store in the middle of an aisle on top of cans of corn and peas. It’s one of the most unlikely places on earth you’d expect to see an original Star Wars prop on display.
GB: The SWCA is one of our favorite sites over here at GB. Being directory guys, we love anything that organizes the Star Wars universe. As vast as the archive is, is there an area or two where you feel it’s lacking or needs a significant upgrade? What can fans do to help?
GL: There’s always a ton of stuff to do to make the Archive better. One of the projects Duncan and I are undertaking is updating it with all the info we compiled for our upcoming book. We used the Archive as the basis for the book, but then focused directly on the book contents and now have a ton of info to add back to the Archive. We’re also in the process of adding higher quality photos to the Archive as some of the older images from the early days of digital cameras need to be brought up to date.
GB: We had the opportunity to finally meet you in person at Star Wars Celebration IV in Los Angeles (along with a few thousand of your closest friends.) You did a fantastic job organizing the collecting programming for the event, and you never looked happier than when you were handing out exclusive Star Wars medallions to eager fans! Can you encapsulate your feelings about how fun and rewarding putting together the programming for that event was? And will you be back in that role again for Celebration V when the details are formally announced?
GL: Thanks. I was way pleased with how the collecting tracks have gone at the recent Celebrations. I had the honor and privilege to run the collecting programs for Celebration IV, Celebration Europe, and Celebration Japan over the past year and a half. We gave unique medallion sets at each event and tailored the programs for each of the venues. For instance, the collecting track at Celebration Japan had half the speakers from Japan covering some really interesting topics and collectibles few of us had ever seen. In Tokyo, we even had people looking into the collecting room the steps and balconies because we had filled the room but they still wanted to listen from outside the room.
Last I heard, Lucasfilm announced Celebration V is in the planning stages, so as long as the opportunity is there for me to help with future collecting programs, I’m happy to do it! I’d also love to continue doing give aways as exclusives for the collecting track.
GB: Friendship, sharing knowledge, giving back to the collecting community and keeping it fun seems to be what drives your passion for Star Wars. Do you feel these sentiments are all too often lost on collectors who might be overly focused on the material side of it all?
GL: I think that sharing knowledge, making friends and contacts, and giving back to the community don’t have to be driven just by altruism—it’s just a smart way to build your collecting knowledge and opportunities. There are many collectors who falsely believe the secrecy or an over concern for burying information will serve them but I don’t believe that to be the case. Collectors who reach out to interact with other collectors and read resources to learn from others are generally better equipped and informed of opportunies than collectors who keep to themselves.
GB: You’ve had long friendships with fellow Star Wars “super collectors” Duncan Jenkins and Steve Sansweet. Considering just how consuming and unique your collecting experiences are, do you sometimes feel they’re the only other two people on the planet that can fully understand your collecting point of view?
GL: Duncan, Steve, and I help each other find things all the time. For instance, I have a large network of friends who find me cereals in countries all over the world, and I pick up duplicate boxes for Steve and Duncan. Similarly, they find things for me whenever they can. Their styles are a bit different from mine. I have half a dozen areas of interest that I dive deep on and pursue a level of completeness that is uncommon. Many of the items I collect are one-of-a-kind and/or pre-production. Steve and Duncan prioritize finding one of every item produced, so their collections are much more extensive than mine.
GB: You’ve written a lot of great articles on collecting for magazines and websites. You’re currently doing two outstanding series for StarWars.com – “Holy Grails” and “Protos and Premiums”. How difficult is it picking something out of those two vast playgrounds to focus on for each piece? Seems to us there are almost too many great topics from which to choose! Any hints on what you have in store for us for your upcoming pieces or are you obligated to keep us in suspense?
GL: I love writing about unusual, rare, and esoteric collectibles because there is limitless potential for those articles and it’s so much more interesting to read than the same rehashed topics. My recent articles in Insider have focused on collectibles from different countries to give a glimpse of the diversity in Star Wars memorabilia released in different corners of the world. My recent run of articles has been on soon-to-be-released products and I’ll continue to do that for a few issues. We’ll probably pick some new topic ideas at some point soon. I also do specific articles from time to time that the editors of Insider are interested in covering.
GB: Speaking of writing, your new book, Gus and Duncan’s Comprehensive Guide to Star Wars Collectibles from Paizo Publishing looks terrific. We encourage everyone out there to grab a copy. Tell us about the genesis of the book and just how comprehensive it really is!
GL: The book is 984 pages long and features over 75,000 collectibles (with 36,000+ pictures) from over one hundred countries from the past 32 years of Star Wars collectibles. It’s twice as big as the next biggest Star Wars price guide, and I am confident that people will be pleased with the amount of information. Duncan and I had been working on this for the past 5 years and made it our mission to build a collecting guide the way we would want it. It’s informative, but we also have fun with some of the weirder collectibles. We even formed a company, Completist Publications, that will release this and future books, and the folks and Paizo were gracious to help by distributing our book. The book will not be available in bookstores, but can be ordered exclusively from Paizo.
GB: Finally, here's a question we're asking to everyone we interview at GalacticBinder: If you were transported into the Star Wars universe... what era, location and/or setting/situation would you want to end up in, and what's the first thing you'd do and with whom? (Keep it somewhat clean, Gus!)
GL: I would go to the arena on Geonosis shortly after the battle and pick up all the leftover lightsabers, blasters and battle droids to put on display for my collection!
Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us, Gus. We look forward to seeing you at Star Wars Celebration V!
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