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How Five St. Louis Collectors Accumulated Troves of Treasure (Riverfront Times)

Super Mario and other Pez dispensers on the cover of the Riverfront Times

Cover story, Riverfront Times, May 11, 2016

Photos by Allison Babka

In 2016, I was laid off for the first time in my life. It was just as confusing, demoralizing and frightening as I'd heard it would be from others.

I'd been an editor at Gateway Media, assigning and writing stories for BrainJet (a general knowledge site) and YesPets (adorable animals) that went viral every day because of our data techniques, SEO research and social media gamesmanship. Alas, the company put all of its eggs into chasing certain Facebook algorithms, the bottom fell out, and a quarter of Gateway's staff was chopped.

It... wasn't fun.

But because I'd been a full-time freelance writer for media and agencies in the years before, I knew that I could do it again while I got my bearings. One of the stories I'd been working on for BrainJet was about people with collections of vintage New Kids on the Block memorabilia, so I expanded that idea to local folks with other massive quirky collections and pitched a longform feature to the Riverfront Times. Blessedly, the editor accepted. It spawned one of my favorite cover stories ever and gave me a few more friends who appreciate hoarding unusual items like I do. I found my tribe.


How Five St. Louis Collectors Accumulated Troves of Treasure — One Piece at a Time

By Allison Babka

"Between the two of us, we really could find almost anything you'd need in your life."

Audra Frick isn't wrong — if what you need is a lot of wonderfully random stuff. She and her husband Brad are hanging out in the basement of their south county home, completely surrounded by interesting things. An ancient Ms. Pac-Man arcade game. A "She-Ra" Crystal Castle playset. Racks and racks of clothing for their LuLaRoe boutique. A life-sized Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. Just about every twee decor item Target has sold in the past decade. The couple's lower level would be a carnival for the over-stimulated and a nightmare for OCD sufferers.

And all of that is just an appetizer for the main course: an impressive feast of nostalgia safely tucked away from the grimy hands of children and the evil threat of sunlight.

"Well, I'm not going to put it in my living room. That would just be weird," Audra says of her extensive collection of New Kids on the Block memorabilia.

Both Audra and Brad are collectors. In and of itself, this is nothing special; author and professional organizer Regina Lark claims that the average U.S. household owns 300,000 things, from office supplies to bracelets to laptop cords. In that sense, the entire population is collecting the stuff of life, almost every day.

But the deliberate, joyful nature of their acquisition is what sets Audra and Brad apart. People like them fixate on specific clusters of things for various reasons: nostalgia, investment, loyalty, preservation. There's a certain glee that comes with unearthing the pop-culture tentpoles of your childhood or finding that special something that's been eluding you for years — a never-ending hunt that sometimes results in a big score. Just one more of these, you think, andI'll die happy.

Of course, that kind of procurement has a way of becoming tinged with darkness. We've all seen Hoarders. When does a person have too many of anything? What is the line between collecting and obsession?

Luckily, the Fricks and the other St. Louis collectors we spoke to avoid the darkness, making sure that their acquisitions don't take over their lives or overwhelm their finances. For them, their collections are conversation starters — and real points of pride. We all accumulate stuff. Why buy mindlessly when there's such fun to be had in doing it with purpose?

A woman wears a New Kids on the Block hat and towel while reading a NKOTB comic and looking at memorabilia

The New Kids on the Old Valentino Block

At 36, Audra Frick is an impeccably dressed writing consultant with a hankering for grown-up brands like Kate Spade. But in her basement, as she pulls out her array of New Kids on the Block paraphernalia, she might still be a giddy teenager.

Yes, the same New Kids on the Block that made every sixth-grade girl swoon in 1989, thanks to pop hits like "I'll Be Loving You Forever" and "Hangin' Tough." Audra became smitten with Joey, Jordan, Donnie, Danny and Jon after a neighbor gave her a NKOTB cassette for her birthday, and since her tween years, she's amassed a sizeable collection of band pins, magazine centerfolds, dolls, clothing and letters. She's pared down her stash over the decades as she's changed towns and houses, but she's carefully preserved the best of it within a large, tough suitcase.

"The last time I got it all out was around 2002, but I'm so glad I have this stuff from such an important time in my life," Audra says. "I was so bananas over New Kids. I used to cry watching the previews on their concert VHS tape."

Showing off a cross-stitch wall-hanging inscribed with "Love is... New Kids on the Block," Audra reveals that she eagerly forked over $20 to join the band's fan club back in the '80s. That small fortune netted her special patches and pins, exclusive photos, access to a 1-900 hotline that cost $2 per minute (it's now disconnected — we tried), and an official computer-signed letter from the band welcoming her to the club and sharing that Danny's favorite hobby is exercising.

"I don't even think I got a t-shirt with it," she remembers, a bit forlorn. "I was also in the Debbie Gibson fan club, and I got a sweatshirt for that."

Audra perks up as she rifles through her stash, giggling while pulling out band-approved items that seem quaint by today's standards. Mini NKOTB "cassettes" with bubble gum and trading cards? Check. A heart-shaped puzzle with Jordan's face on it? Check. Comic books about tour adventures? Check!

She puts on a black painter's cap covered in neon band member "signatures" and then smiles as she drapes an ancient New Kids beach towel over her shoulders.

"We still use this at the pool at my mom's house. She said I could have it over here tonight, but I have to bring it back," she says.

Audra isn't the only Frick with a special collection; her husband Brad has his own treasure trove, though it's of a decidedly different nature. Let's just say that a historian probably would be more interested in seeing the makeup compact used by silent film star Rudolph Valentino than a Joey McIntyre poster ripped from "Tiger Beat."

The Italian-born Valentino became one of Hollywood's first sex symbols in the '20s, thanks largely to his role in The Sheik. Connoisseurs the world over seek out the actor's personal belongings and film memorabilia. But who knew that one of the foremost collectors lives in St. Louis?

Brad was only five when he saw Valentino's face on one of his mom's movie magazines. The image must have stayed with him, Brad says, because when he came across The Sheik on TV at 2 a.m. during his high school years, he felt compelled to watch and record it.

"I was totally hooked, started finding Valentino things to collect and found a newsletter," says Brad, now in his early 40s. "At that time in 1995, it would have been Valentino's 100th birthday, so I went to Hollywood to meet other fans from all over the country, many of whom I'm still friends with today."

Brad, who also collects autographs and Elvis Presley albums, became even more serious about finding authentic Valentino items. He started a blog as a reference guide to collectibles, drawing in hundreds of followers and giving people a place to discuss rare, expensive finds. Over the years, he's been able to amass some of Valentino fans' most sought-after items.

"It's getting tougher and tougher to find, because they made this stuff back in the '20s," Brad says. "Original Valentino movie theater posters from Italy in the '20s go for tens of thousands of dollars now, and there aren't many of them."

He doesn't have any of those, but he does have plenty of rare, highly coveted lobby cards, sheet music from the actor's films, a shield that was used during a scene and Valentino's own books with doodles written in them. One of Brad's most unique treasures is a set of goblets that Valentino and a lady friend won during a costume contest. A tight-knit collector community and online communication — eBay, specifically — makes finding pieces a little easier than it used to be, though the passage of time makes it harder and harder to locate the really old stuff in pristine condition.

But even though Brad has become a recognized expert in this field, he won't show just anyone his secret cave of treasures. A senior allocator for a toy company by day, he's justifiably vigilant about staving off potential harm to his amazing artifacts.

"I don't show it off a lot and don't like sunlight near it — it'll fade these very old things," Brad says. "I might display a few at home, but they're mostly hidden."

With this much real estate devoted to cherished memories and expensive artifacts, as well as to the retro toys and decor mentioned before, an observer might wonder if it's ever all too much for the Fricks. And, honestly, sometimes they wonder the same thing.

"If I were to buy someone's entire Valentino collection, then it might be a challenge," Brad concedes.

"I can be obsessive," says Audra. "When I really like something, I want to have all of those things." Over the years she's also collected pencils, scarves, purses and stationery, some of which she's since sold or donated when the numbers became overwhelming.

"I wonder if it's bad for the kids to see. How will they pull back if we're not modeling that behavior?" she says. "But if it makes you happy and doesn't infringe on other areas of your life, like the kids tripping over it or having trouble from a financial standpoint, then who cares?"

The Frick children, ages six and four, are still too young to truly appreciate the collections that make their parents grin, but Audra says the little ones are on the path.

"They know who New Kids are and know the song 'Step by Step' from my listening to it in the car. They even request it," Audra marvels. "I'm pretty proud of that. I can be done with parenting now."

A Grape Appeal

If a creepy old man promised to give you your heart's desire and "all it'll cost you is a smile," would you do it?

Sean McElroy didn't pay the price when this scene played out at a comic book show some years back, but it nevertheless set him on the path to be the most ardent collector of grape soda in St. Louis — and possibly the entire country.

"At the show, this older guy said to a child, 'Hey buddy, you're looking mighty thirsty. I've got a cooler full of grape sodas in my van. All it'll cost you is a smile,'" McElroy remembers. "It was the worst thing ever, but it's stuck with me."

As the bassist for pop-Americana band Pretty Little Empire, McElroy, 41, remembered the odd scene later while touring the nation. Wanting souvenirs from the areas he was visiting, he decided that picking up grape soda was the easy, inexpensive way to go.

"Grape was already on my mind, and I wanted something that wouldn't take up much room in the house," McElroy explains, gesturing at his south-city row house. "At every soda company, root beer's the first one they do; every city in America has at least fifteen small-batch root beers. That would be too much of a project and take too much room. But for a company to get to grape after root beer, cola, cherry and orange says so much about the kind of company they are."

He adds, "It's a regional product that only a very small percentage of the market would be interested in." Consider McElroy as leading the one percent on this one.

McElroy began grabbing grape sodas as cheap singles at gas stations or $3 six-packs in dollar stores and convenience shops around the country. After five years of touring and personal travel, he's amassed nearly 70 different brands from Seattle, New York, Florida and of course Missouri and Illinois, and he has a few hundred cans and bottles if he counts the doubles.

Grape soda cans, he's found, tend to have a pattern.

"One thing I find endlessly fascinating is that more than any other soda, grape sticks to a color scheme and a formula for the labeling," McElroy says. "I'd believe it if there was one person in charge of designing every grape soda label because it's so uniform: an upward slant of the logo and very little variety in shades of purple. Every once in a while, you'll find one that does not fit the profile at all, and it's jarring."

McElroy says that his girlfriend finds his collection charming. Perhaps that's because he confines the best-looking cans and bottles to the tops of his kitchen cabinets and keeps doubles at bay with group soda tastings.

Ironically, he isn't even much of a soda drinker. "It would be my last choice," McElroy laughs. "When we went into the studio to record, I'd bring my backlog of grape soda, and that's all we'd drink. They all got a taste for it."

And as far as he knows, he's the only person with a hankering for the purple stuff.

"Maybe I'll meet someone else who's a grape soda collector and we can start trading," McElroy says wistfully. "I look stuff up on the soft drink boards online, and people seem to collect just weird sodas and not specifically grape. Very few people specialize."

But McElroy, who also collects comic books and owns thousands of videocassettes, probably won't stop hunting for new soda can variants anytime soon.

"It's part of my personality," he says. "If I find one of something I like, the only thing better is ten of them. And the only thing better than ten is twenty. It just snowballs from there."

A man stands in front of hundreds of Pez dispensers and pretends to flip a candy into his mouth

Rainbows of Pez and Equality

It always comes back to Santa Claus.

Travis Sheridan didn't intend to own more than 2,500 Pez dispensers. It just sort of happened. The executive director of the tech networking organization Venture Cafe, Sheridan, 42, grew up in California. One year, he found a Santa dispenser in his stocking and hung onto it, displaying it on a bookshelf in his U.S. Air Force dorm room years later. A friend saw Santa and offered up his own unwanted Kermit the Frog Pez, and others naturally followed suit.

"I don't really think I collected Pez then; I had a Pez and people gifted me Pez," Sheridan says. "But once it got to ten or so, I thought, 'Well, maybe I do actually collect Pez.'"

Sheridan fueled his newfound Pez collection by buying up favorites, attending Pez conventions and visiting the Pez museum in Burlingame, California. "It just became really cool."

Eventually, Sheridan's collection reached a point where he needed an entire room to display them, he says. He frequently rearranged his collection, spotlighting a certain group of characters or extra-valuable, rare dispensers. On his first-ever IKEA run back in California, he picked up a display case and storage accessories.

Now, though, Sheridan gravitates toward displaying the candy dispensers as an art installation instead of as a showcase. Only about 500 live on his floating shelves, with the rest packed away in plastic tubs.

"They're displayed in the rainbow spectrum and follow ROY G BIV order, and that brings me a lot of joy. I have a lot of rainbows in my life," Sheridan says. "I look at the Pez and think to myself, 'This fits.' My collections haven't always fit my life, my stage of life or the size of my house. But now I've found a way that in perpetuity, this collection fits." He gestures around his north city home, referring not only to the house's size, but also to other items that reflect his current life stage and passions, such as the old library card catalog that now holds bottles of wine and the refurbished retro TV that serves up vintage glasses and beverages instead of The Ed Sullivan Show.

Sheridan, who collected baseball cards and bugs as a child, isn't worried about going overboard these days. He doesn't actively acquire dispensers unless he's traveling abroad. And he's learned to think of his collecting as a hobby, not an investment.

"I have Star Wars Pez that I thought were really old, and I had paid a lot of money for them at an antique store," he explains. "Then I went to the grocery store and saw them and was like, 'Oh my gosh, those are actually current!' I still make really stupid decisions. But now my collections aren't investments at all. They're happiness."

Today, Sheridan's Pez share a light-filled space with vintage toys, books and knick-knacks. During neighborhood gatherings or his famous "boozestorming" meetings, guests freely wander throughout the house, gasping when they stumble across Spider-Man, Daffy Duck and the Little Mermaid.

"People say 'I had a couple from my childhood, but I didn't realize there were that many!'" Sheridan laughs. "When I tell them they're seeing only fifteen to twenty percent of my whole collection, they say 'Are you serious?'"

And that's his biggest joy — sharing his collection with other people.

"When kids come over, they want them," Sheridan says, a smile coming across his face. "So I tell them, 'You can look at the Pez and pick one. Unless it's something special to me, you can have any one you want.' Then I'll replace it in the collection with another of same color. Kids just say, 'Oh my gosh!'"

Sheridan still has a bit of a collection bug. He's now aiming to acquire all 50 colors of sneakers in Pharrell Williams' "Supercolor Superstar" line for Adidas — yet another type of rainbow. That started when he found an orange pair during a visit to Australia and then noticed that the shoes had "Equality" stamped on the sides. Now he's well on his way to collecting the full rainbow and wears a different color each day to strike up conversations.

"People always say, 'I like your shoes,' and I show them the 'Equality' on the side and say 'Let's talk about equality,'" Sheridan says. "It's the most awkward segue into a conversation ever, but it works. Collections can become conversation starters to engage people and foster deeper thinking."

Santa Claus would be proud.

Freak-ing Out

Most people buy cereal for the sugar boost or for the prizes inside. Not Gregg Koenig. He just wants the box — no cereal required.

"I just like the artwork and whole design of it," he says.

A graphic designer by trade, Koenig, 40, is fascinated by the look of cereal boxes from the '70s. He concentrates on one brand name, though: Freakies. The Ralston-Purina cereal had its heyday during that decade and Koenig didn't even discover it until a short-lived re-release in the '80s. Then he fell head over heels for the strange mascots and bold colors.

It wasn't because of the taste.

"They pushed the vitamins in the cereal, but most kids didn't like it, from what I've heard," he says. "The cereal looked like Cheerios but glossed with sugar coating."

Koenig has around 35 original boxes of Freakies. He only needs four or five more to own the entire run — a rarity in the cereal collection world. It won't be easy, though, as most consumers in the '70s just threw the boxes away once the cereal ran out. But Koenig likes the project's high degree of difficulty.

"It's not like baseball cards or comics," he says. "Those are so easy; if you have the money, you just go buy it. But for cereal boxes, you have to put in a ton of homework."

Koenig is on a quest to acquire one of the remaining few intact boxes with the actual cereal inside, calling a sealed Freakies box "beyond rare." His obsession doesn't stop with the boxes, though. He also collects Freakies memorabilia: prizes, commercials and test market materials.

"I just had to have that first Freakies box, and then it snowballed," Koenig admits. "Freakies had some of the coolest premiums: posters, figures, patches and magnets. I think the people who made the premiums were in the Westport Plaza area, and you could send away for posters, t-shirts and sweatshirts. It was a huge draw!"

Some of the smaller prizes even ended up in gumball machines after the Freakies run ended, Koenig says. And he's just as proud to own those as he is to have ultra-rare concept art.

In addition to the cereal boxes, Koenig also accumulates vintage food packaging of all types, t-shirts from other eras, KISS memorabilia, board games and in-store product displays. Most of the food packaging is displayed neatly above the kitchen cabinets on the main floor, but the basement where the other items live is an adventure (and an occasional place of fascination for his one-year-old daughter).

"I'm a neat freak naturally, but I have way more stuff than what it seems like. I live in the wrong house for the collection I have," says Koenig, who shares a vintage south city row house with his wife and daughter.

And yes, his collection has been a topic of discussion in relationships over the years. "It's not anywhere near what you see on TV, but I'm sure I've crossed a line," he says.

But Koenig does have a reason for keeping so many interesting things at home — he sells almost as much as he buys. As a frequent exhibitor at toy shows, Koenig says that much of his basement stash is actually inventory.

Being a collector as well as a seller can be difficult sometimes.

"There's always the urge to hunt when I'm at a show. It's addictive to run around looking for things," he says, smiling. "It's wild, an extremely big high."

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