Dov Kelemer has done it. He is the picture of the toy collectorâ€™s dreams and a slap in the face to those people who scoffed at the idea of a grown man making money off an extremely expansive knowledge of toys. Kelemer is heart and soul andâ€¦tired. The man behind DKE toys, a vinyl and specialty toy distribution company growing by leaps and bounds, Kelemer is an artist despite his best attempts to claim otherwise. He was that kid in your sixth grade class who always had the incredibly rare issue of your most beloved comic book or that limited edition baseball card of your favorite player, and he would sell them both to you in an instant (for the right price).
“There are lots of toys where critics say â€œwho would ever buy that piece of shit?â€. They may not popular with the masses but someone somewhere will fucking love it.”
Format: You said you were getting ready for Comic-Con, which for some means merely assembling their Wookie costume. I know it’s a bit more complicated for you; what are you doing to prepare?
Dov Kelemer: I’m a distributor, so basically Comic-Con is our once a year trade show. It’s a preview of our new toys that will come out this year. The designer toy section of the show gets bigger every year; so its a lot of work and a lot of stress.
When I was younger it was much more of a collector-oriented show. The dealers would clean out their garages and bring in all the stuff they wanted to get rid of. I’d drive down there in my little car and leave with stuff up to my neck. There were so many treasures to be found. It was a fantastic time before it all became part of the popular culture. Now it’s where all the Hollywood money is, a chance to premiere the newest comic book gone Hollywood film. Its more of a spectacle and a trade show and less about collectibles. It’s so expensive to do the show that the retailers are more likely to have a $10,000 copy of Spiderman #1, but not the $5 item you have been looking for!
Format: What’s an ordinary day in the life like of a toy distributor, underground art curator, and avid personal collector?
Dov Kelemer: Well, I have a warehouse in North Hollywood and my normal day is going into the office to work. I definitely don’t hate getting up and going in the morning, but it’s still a job for me. I could be wearing a suit and a tie and showing up at the shower ring convention, and would probably be making more money; but I would not be dealing with anything I care about. My mom once asked me, â€œYou turn all your hobbies into businesses, so what do you do for fun?.â€
Format: What do you do for fun?
Dov Kelemer: (After a tired sigh) Nothing…..Well, sleep. Sleep is still really fun.
Format: â€œDistributorâ€ can mean a lot of things. Where exactly do you enter the creative picture and where do you leave?
Dov Kelemer: Most of the time I’m not involved â€œcreativelyâ€ at all. I’ll always give my two cents, and sometimes I’m wrong and sometimes I’m right. Last year I told a manufacturer who ended up making my bestselling toy they were nuts for making so many. I just do my best to stay neutral, treat everyone equitably, and pay my bills.
There are lots of toys where critics say â€œwho would ever buy that piece of shit?â€. They may not popular with the masses but someone somewhere will fucking love it. As a distributor I work with a lot of different vendors; mom and pop toy stores, museum shops, galleries, record stores, bookstores, apparel and lifestyle stores, tattoo parlors, and even a tea house; so tastes vary greatly.
“Some say rock and roll will never die. I think it’s the same for designer toys.”
Format: How did you decide to do what you’re doing? Did you just wake up one day and think, â€œI want to be a toy distributor?â€
Dov Kelemer: When I was a kid I sold baseball cards and comic books. Around age eighteen I started with Star Wars toys, and I still sell them to this day. I put a down payment on a house by selling my vintage Star Wars toy collection.
Format: Side note thenâ€“what is your favorite Star Wars movie?
Dov Kelemer: I haven’t seen any of the Star Wars since they were digitally remastered in 1997. I have a love/hate relationship with Star Wars…. that’s a whole other interview though.
Format: If someone had asked you when you were ten years old what you wanted to be when you grew up, what would you have told them?
Dov Kelemer: Oh, I knew I wanted to be a special effects artist. But then I found out most of that job consisted of digging ditches so I changed my mind really quickly. I did go to film school though, but continued to make a living selling toys.
Format: If your house was burning down and you could only save what you could carry, what would we find in your arms?
Dov Kelemer: I don’t think I would save any of the toys. I don’t have that many at home anymore, but I do like collecting original art. I’d take some of my Frank Kozik stuff though, which I continue to collect but still always say is a mistake. They are ever-present, life consuming, and continue to pour out.
Frank Kozik revived the rock poster in the early 90’s. He was so prolific. He had his own silkscreen press and would make deals with bands to do their posters. I was a huge fan so when he started making toys I got the bug immediately. The interesting thing though is that he completely abandoned his fine art career and is only designing toys that have no crossover with his rock-n-roll past. Normally toys are just a 3D representation of a 2D artwork, but not in his case.
Format: The Vader Project is a personal obsession of mine. It is a representation of where pop culture and underground art intersect. Do you have any future curatorial plans, or secret projects in the works to tug on people’s heart strings along with their aesthetic appreciation?
Dov Kelemer: My wife Sarah Jo Marks and I will continue to create art shows, but will probably never achieve anything close to the Vader Project ever again I don’t think. As a platform or blank canvas to work on, the Vader helmet is so archetypal, everyone recognizes the Vader helmet. Whatever the artists did to them made a statement. There were lots of anti-war inspired themes. Star Wars has always been really good for that kind of thing. I just bought a shirt off E-bay in fact, that has images of Han, Luke, and Leia on it, and underneath them it says, â€œTerrorists.â€
Format: You deal with people in about every art and entertainment circle; do you see yourself ever branching off in another direction?
Dov Kelemer: The distribution business is a handful, and eventually we will have a proper infrastructure in place to really take on more items like apparel, art prints, and books but that is the same direction really. Designer toys have a soul, unlike many other mainstream toys where you have a licensed property that a company exploits to make as much money as possible, so it gets boiled down to a mere commodity.
I work with artists who make toys because they love it. Hopefully the make money or at least break even, but the coolest thing for an artist is going into a store and actually seeing their own stuff for sale.
Format: Since Comic-Con has grown away from the smaller scale meeting of legitimate collectible fanatics to a massive money-making premiere for the newest comic book film, are there any other trade shows you really enjoy?
Dov Kelemer: The VTN show (Vinyl Toy Network), in Pasadena twice a year. It’s like all of the people who hang out in our little section at Comic-Con but minus the 100,000 others. Comic-Con is a zoo, and I don’t like it hanging over my head. When it’s over, I sleep much better at night.
I don’t go to gift shows or toy fairs. I’ve stopped trying to push product on people who don’t want it or understand it. If there are people who really want the product, they’ll find us. There are boutiques and galleries popping up all over, and really teaching people about designer toys. It is the coolest thing I have ever seen, but you can’t put a $50 specialty vinyl toy next to a $5 Mickey Mouse. People are not going to appreciate the designer toy unless they’re educated about it, or it’s not going to sell.
The public is starting to appreciate the person behind the creation of an object. Even if you’re buying a chair, you’re still buying someone’s design. Look at Target and DWR (Design within Reach), they are featuring pictures of the designer on the tag and in the catalog, selling it as something created by a person, establishing that relationship between the consumer and the artist.
“Around age eighteen I started with Star Wars toys, and I still sell them to this day. I put a down payment on a house by selling my vintage Star Wars toy collection.”
Format: Technology has made it possible for everyone to be a writer, everyone to be a producer, a filmmaker, an artist. Do you think this will effect the toy market at all?
Dov Kelemer: Artists used to have to study and know their craft; but now you buy a script writing program and all of a sudden you are a screenwriter and you get Photoshop and you are a graphic designer. Artists used to have to know which mountain to climb to find that special flower to make a certain pigment. Now you can just go down to the art supply store and buy a whole spectrum of colored paint. I guess what has changed is that you have to be really good to stand out. Due to politics of China, good or bad, people can now produce their own toys for ten thousand dollars instead of hundreds of thousands. So this is a great time for people to go out and do it themselves but in the end like anything else many artists will be weeded out.
Business will probably never go bad, as there will always be a need for toys. Specific designs might fall out of style, but others will continue to be successful.
Some say rock and roll will never die. I think it’s the same for designer toys.