Sunday, 13 March 2011

Where the Force is Still Strong

I have a recurring dream. It's not very exciting dream but its frequency continues to surprise me. The locations and the players of this dream are rarely repeated but the result is always the same: somehow, somewhere at some point I gleefully uncover a stash of rare, old Star Wars toys.

Lucasfilm wasn’t up and running when Freud was about, but I suspect even the most casual student of cod-psychology could deduce that this goes back to my childhood and a period from 1979 to 1985 when I lived, walked and breathed all things Star Wars. Buying Christmas and birthday presents for me was a doddle. As long as there was a Kenner label on it you were on safe ground and I was in seventh heaven. I guess my recurring dream shows that those beloved toys [still safely stowed in my parents’ loft] have morphed into some kind of embodiment of youthful happiness.

With this in mind, you can perhaps imagine the hyperventilating that took place when I stumbled upon Lobos Collectables. Packed to the rafters with almost everything that ever tumbled out of Lucas’ mind, and a whole lot more besides, this small corner of Northcote is a shrine to science fiction, fantasy and overactive imaginations.

It resembles what you’d imagine the inside of Kevin Smith’s head looks like. Walls and walls of figurines, statues, aliens, robots, superheroes and super villains provide a backdrop to lovingly recreated dioramas, play sets and display cabinets. Spaceships hang suspended from the ceiling, a Star Wars trilogy pinball table pings in the corner whilst a life size Simpsons family watch old sci-fi movies from their sofa. This is no ordinary shop.

At the centre of the Lobos universe is Dennis Kafkis, a thirty something Melbournian who has managed to turn his own childhood escapism into a place where anyone can seek sanctuary from the rigours of what some like to call the real world.

I asked Dennis how Lobos Collectables came into being. Fittingly his story is full of adventure, romance, honour, tragedy, determination and a little bit of magic…

How did you get started in the world of science fiction? You always start with one item. In my case it was a bucket of green army men. I spent many hours in the back yard planning missions. My parents divorced when I was 8 or 9 and I was an only child. I went into a fantasy world of characters from sci-fi films. I could do it well because my parents spoiled me with toys and comic books - most likely their guilt about dissolving their marriage! So toys came into my life at a very important juncture for me.

What was it about Star Wars in particular that appealed to you? I don’t remember much of my childhood but I remember asking my mother for the same outfits Luke and Han wore at the end of Star Wars when they received their medals. She said no and thought I was crazy to want knee high boots and all the gear! I’m sure I had a big cry about it... I remember wondering why Chewie never got a medal as well. He risked his furry ass too! If you ask me he got ripped off.

I found my first Star Wars figure in the street in 1979 – the original Han Solo. Do you remember yours? My first was Luke from Return of the Jedi in his black suit. I still have it. I remember being in grade 2 and was playing with it outside during the lunch break. When we went inside I realized I’d lost his green light sabre. I was distraught and asked the teacher to let me go and look for it during class time. I took a friend with me and we looked for what seemed to be an eternity but with no luck. That sabre is out there somewhere!

When did the toys become a hobby? Well there was myself, Peter Mackay and our close friend Peter ‘Lobos’ Mastroanis. All of us came from the same high school and we kept up our interest in pop culture and sci-fi as we grew up. We loved movies, comics and toys including many things that are now collectable. We got into McFarlane figures, NECA , Bowen statues, Sideshow collectables. We got some of the holy grails that never got released in Australia - limited edition SDCC [San Diego Comic Convention] items. You name it, we bought it. I love the craftsmanship and the technology in making a fantastic looking figure or toy collectable… the imagination of different looks of aliens and the like. It can transport people’s imagination to another place.

How did you go from collector to owning your own store? Lobos and I were always going to open a comic store together. It was our dream so we thought ‘why not try to do it...?’ Then tragically he passed away. He was 31. He had a genetic malfunction in his heart and suffered a sudden heart attack. You hear stories where someone is fine one minute and not with us the next; this is one of them. I talked to him just a few hours earlier and everything was fine. It still haunts me to this day. When his younger brother Luis called me to tell me the news I was trembling like I was holding a jack hammer. Tragic night.

What did Peter mean to you?
We were best friends from the age of 12. He was one of the best and kindest of people. He was very creative and taught me more than I ever taught him, that's for sure. We were going to open the shop five years ago, so it’s taken me a few years to get over his death. But I put my mind to it and opened the store and named it after him. Peter loved dogs – that’s how he got the nickname Lobos. It means ‘the Wolf’ in Spanish. His illustrated design is on our business cards – a picture of a wolf. There is a framed photo of myself and Peter in the store with Wolverine in the middle. It’s a great photo, you must see it.

What kind of reactions do you hear from people when they first come in the shop?Oh my God ... I want to live here ... I will save all my dole money and spend it here every fortnight ... Can I work here please...? ... Where do you guys get all this stuff? ... Oh My God’ again... There’s a lot of drooling but mostly it is ‘cool shop, love the shop’ etc

Do you see Lobos as a shop or a museum? I understand what you mean with all the glass cabinets but no, not really a museum. They always have a ring of unapproachable about them and our store is not like that. Lobos is a place for escapism. You can touch, feel, talk to staff, even watch a movie on the TV. We do dioramas and displays of movie scenes. We open most items and take them out of their packaging. If you have time come spend an hour in the store and have a good look at everything. If you’re having a bad day or week you will soon forget about it!

I once found some Star Wars wallpaper for 50 cents at a church fete. What is the luckiest find you've ever made for merchandise? It’s my mother that finds the best stuff – I’ve trained her up! She’s like one of those St Bernard snow dogs. She found some 30” Batman and Superman figures which sell for $100 each. She also found a Star Wars Lego Imperial Shuttle in its box, 100% complete, just on the street. Don’t ask how! The guys in the shop always laugh about her.

My best find was at a garage sale 5 years ago. There was a box full of 1980s toys – Transformers, Star Wars, He Man and others, all in really good condition with all the weapons. The son had left home and his parents were selling all his left overs at a fraction of what they were worth. I gave them what they wanted for it and didn’t haggle!

Back in the 1990s a friend bought me an R5-D4 he found in an op shop because he knew it was the only original figure I didn’t have. Now you can find hundreds of them online and on e-Bay. Does the internet spoil the magic of shops like Lobos? This is my favourite question! Yes the internet mostly destroys the magic. It’s so easy to find things [online] these days, you’re 100% correct. Finding a special gem in a market or op shop has almost become a thing of the past.

We don’t have an internet site and we do not sell on e-Bay. We know you can sell all your really good items quickly and actually get a better price for them than our ticket price because you’re selling to the world and a larger market. But if we did that then the friends of Lobos would never see all the good items we have or have the chance to buy them!

One thing I like to do is place rare figures worth over $20- $30 each on our bargain wall from time to time so that someone finds it for a third of the price and can say they have found their own gems. I do this on purpose. I can sell it for more but let’s have a bit of magic... I had one guy saying ‘you know this figure is worth over $50 dollars but you have it in the $12.95 section?’ I said ‘well, we can’t change the price can we? It’s yours.’ He comes in all the time…

Is it fair to say Lobos is a labour of love? I work full time in a totally unrelated business that allows me to fund Lobos until it can stand on its own two feet (or in the world of Lobos, 12 feet and a tentacle. It is a sci-fi store!) For me this is a hobby and a passion. I do most of the work for Lobos at night. I stay up late and sneak in an hour or two here and there every day.

Most places like ours have closed down or are on the decline. It’s not easy - most weeks we don't even cover the costs of running the store but the feedback we get from our friends of the store is amazing so hopefully it will pick up in time and we can grow and become friends to many more people.

Dennis Kafkis and a few friends

Going back to your first love, what's your favourite Star Wars movie moment? Empire Strikes Back is my favourite movie. I love the Battle of Hoth. Snow and sci-fi: a perfect mix. The Cantina scenes [from Star Wars] with all the aliens are great too. I get the freeze frame out and do the slow mo action on them all. I also enjoy the Bespin City scenes as well. Anytime the heroes get screwed it’s interesting viewing…

Despite what adults think, kids love The Phantom Menace don't they? Yes they do. Trust me we sell lots of Jar Jar Binks figures and dolls. Give the alien a break, he’s okay!

What do you think Lobos would think of the store you made in his name? I am sure he would love it. We were very much about honour and this is a good start. It’s against my will but as time goes by your memories become blurred and not as sharp as they once were. I want to hold all the memories I have of Peter very close to me I hope the store remains open for 50 years so his memory is always there.

Lobos Collectables is at 503 High Street, Northcote. It's open 11-6 on Wednesdays and Fridays, 10-6 on weekends. I recommend you go in.

(with thanks to TK 421 for the photography)


Jamie Ferguson said...

the force can be reckoned with.........

daniel mcinnes said...

i just spent $100 at lobos (on wed 24th oct 2012), and the experience ticked all the boxes. it was an amazing store to just be in. unboxed star wars lego in cabinets, space ships hanging from the ceiling like you would fantasise looking up at in your childhood fantasy bedroom. found sio bible amongst all the carded episode 1, like an unexpected archaelogical find. bought him, an original dewback 1979. 2x ep 1 battle bags. loose r2-n3 (green r2), loose WA-7 waitress droid. negotiating the price of each like an episode of pickers, and still cant believe aron said yes to every deal...making me feel like an expert picker too! he even remembered me from when i bought 1983 max rebo band from his camberwell store. this visit was the highlight of my melbourne trip ....fantastic
miniature museum of star wars natural history curator and xenobiologist