San Francisco report–Star Wars: The collection

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Like most of America, I think of San Francisco as a civic Valhalla. So imagine our shock when we encountered a fracas on an overcrowded trackless trolley–with people screaming at each other and the driver refusing to move until they piped down. There were racial overtones–judgmental Asian man, non-stop mouthy African-American woman. Oy! Finally, some African-American men restored the peace, but all in all, SEPTA was looking good!!!

Ben and Princess Laia, Japanese manga version? This is in Steve Sansweet's office, chock-a-block with Star Wars books and dvds.
Ben and Princess Laia, Japanese manga version? This is in Steve Sansweet’s office, chock-a-block with Star Wars books and dvds. All photos in this post by permission of Steve Sansweet. Not for reproduction.

Of course as far as visiting Minna and Ben goes, the city surely is Valhalla, with dinners, clubs, major latke fry party, and lots of hugs and kisses.

But what stood out in material culture was the merch we saw, most of it in an inter-gallactic collection of Star Wars memoribilia nestled in the well-heeled San Francisco suburbs. I don’t say inter-gallactic lightly. It’s the largest in the world, and by that token, the largest on Tatooine and Dagobah combined.

Steve, Murray and Ben with the Star Wars Cantina Band, part of the collection
Steve, Murray and Ben with the Star Wars Cantina Band, part of the collection

The only way in is by invitation, through a secured driveway fence decorated with a portrait of Obi Wan Kenobi incised in a metal disk, keeping guard.

Our invitation came when Murray, at a Temple Journalism School reunion, bumped into his old editor at the Temple News. Steve Sansweet, on hearing that Murray and gang would be in San Francisco, invited all of us to see his world-famous collection–so-known not just to Star War aficionados but to all humankind (well, all who know what’s to know).

Minna tests a light saber. The collection goes from floor to ceiling.
Minna tests a light saber. The collection goes from floor to ceiling.

Sansweet,  a Star Wars fan, wrote his first Star Wars book and collected his first action figures while he was still a reporter for the Wall Street Journal. Since then, his private obsession has merged with his career. He now works for Lucas Films, running the Star Wars fan club and writing Star Wars books, so far 12 or 13 of them. But really, he’s the mogul of merchandising, fanning the legend’s flame and growing income with intellectual property rights.

Killing two birds with one stone, Sansweet also donates private tours to area charity fundraising events. It makes him feel good, plus it has marketing potential for more Star Wars merchandise.

A Lego Darth Vader and boxes and boxes of stuff loom over Steve.
A Lego Darth Vader and boxes and boxes of stuff loom over Steve.

The collection exceeds half a million items and is growing exponentially, day by day, housed in a warehouse bursting at the seams, where stacks of board games, lunch boxes, and action figures mix with original costumes, posters and props. The collection also includes recastings and reconstructions.

Minna and an unlicensed version of Salacious B. Crumb made by a fan out of packing tape. He sits on a fan-made Star Wars-inpired chair.
Minna and an unlicensed version of Salacious B. Crumb made by a fan out of packing tape. He sits on a fan-made Star Wars-inpired chair.

Plumb out of real estate in the warehouse, Sansweet has a building additiion on his mind. For keeping up with the catalog he has help. Want more facts? Here’s an article about the collection that ran in Forbes in April. I did some math and figured out that if Sansweet had started collecting on the day he was born, he would have had to collect about 25 items each day of his life to amass what he has amassed! So I’m guessing the stuff is pouring in, some days 100 pieces or more!

Steve accompanied by two low-tech hand-carvings of C3PO and an AT AT Imperial Walker. C3PO looks positively hieratic, and the Imperial Walker looks like a puppy dog pull toy.
Steve accompanied by two low-tech hand-carvings of C3PO and an AT AT Imperial Walker. C3PO looks positively hieratic, and the Imperial Walker looks like a puppy dog pull toy.

The highlight for me, not being a Star Wars fanatic, were the unlicensed items, many of them made by fans out of pure love–like a packing tape Salacious B. Crumb, or a hand carved wooden ultra-low-tech AT-AT Imperial Walker. When something new comes on the market, Sansweet’s network of fellow collectors and buddies drop a tip. The man can’t get enough.

Even standing amid the life-size Lego Darth Vaders and black velvet character portraits, I found myself blown away by the level and quality of creative production. The skill level and imagination behind all of this popular culture are as good as it gets. There’s a nation–no, a world, or maybe even a universe–madly producing, trading and acquiring!

You can call it merchandising, but some of it is art.

Tags

san francisco, star wars collection, steve sansweet

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