A Trip to Pezland
(This story and illustration appeared in FFF (Food for Fashion) in 2015.)
To get to the world's largest PEZ collection, I took a bus, a train, and then another train to Burlingame, a distant suburb of San Francisco. The weather forecast had been wrong and it was not 10 degrees cooler there-- quite the opposite. A hot wind blew from the east. I was improperly dressed, immediately sweating in a seersucker oxford. The traffic lights operated in geologic time. The PEZ museum was on a block bookended by used Honda dealerships.
The storefront, when I found it, was not only tiny but almost absurdly close to the train station. I looked around in bewilderment, as if there'd been some sort of mistake. The words "museum" and "tour" usually connote a space to move through and be given a tour of; this place was no bigger than my kitchen and seemed instead to suggest a person stockpiling PEZ for the coming apocalypse. A bell rang when I walked in, but in the time it took for Gary Doss, the owner and curator, to come back to the desk, there was a long, weird moment where I was alone with the PEZ. Simpsons PEZ, soccer PEZ, Monsters Inc. PEZ, Batman PEZ… PEZ posters, a PEZ hammock hanging in the window. It seemed that barely any light made it into this room because of how much PEZ and PEZ-related stuff there was. It was a PEZ crypt.
Maybe because we were in such a small space, when he did appear (all smiles, in a Hawaiian shirt), Gary seemed a giant. "Come on back," he said cheerily, motioning toward a second, darker room with even more PEZ in glass display cases. "We have an example here of every PEZ ever sold." PEZ had originated in Austria. On a poster of one of the first ads for PEZ, he pointed at the P, the E and the Z in "Pfefferminze," German for peppermint.
When I mentioned I'd heard he had the world's largest PEZ dispenser and asked where it was, Gary crossed his arms and took on a look of serious disappointment. Seconds went by. For most of those seconds I thought something had happened to the world's biggest PEZ dispenser and that I had reopened some terrible emotional wound by bringing it up. Then I realized that it must be somewhere obvious and began frantically looking around the small room. In fact, I was standing right next to it. The giant white snowman PEZ that barely fit in the room and which had been staring down at me the entire time had been built by Gary and a friend. They'd gotten it into the Guinness Book of World Records, hence the numerous certificates on the wall and the "DO NOT TOUCH" sign.
In the 90s, the PEZ museum was a computer store. This explained why Gary's email began with "Computer_Spectrum" and why his email reply had shown up in my inbox as being simply from "computer." He gave a friendly pat to huge, unwieldy-looking machine behind him. "This is a 486. This is almost worthy of a museum itself." He'd built it himself back in the day. They'd sold the Commodore Amiga, the Atari ST, and other things that sounded foreign to me because I wasn't old enough to be using computers at the time.
Then one day, "just on a fluke," he said, he decided to bring his PEZ collection down to the store. "I set them up so people could look at them while they were buying their computer and they immediately took over the store," he said. "Within days people were coming in looking for PEZ, wanting to buy PEZ, so over a period of 1 year, more and more PEZ came in and less and less computers came in. I have not sold a computer now in 18 years."
Was he happier now? "Oh sure, sure," he said. Probably a silly question.
His favorite PEZ? A psychedelic hand holding an eyeball from 1968. First PEZ? A 1966 blue helmet astronaut, bought at an antique show at the Cow Palace 20 years ago. Rarest PEZ? A European "Make a Face" PEZ from the 70s that, like Mr. Potato Head, had interchangeable face parts and was taken off the market after 4 months because of the choking hazard.
Most elusive PEZ: "Well, I can show you the PEZ dispenser that took me 14 years to find," he said, beginning to walk over to one of the display cases. "It was a good day when I found this one. It completed the collection." He approached the case, the suspense building. "Of all the PEZ here, the one that took 14 years to find is… that pineapple." Dead center in the first row of the display was a little pineapple with sunglasses. "It's a rare pineapple head that came out in 1974. Maybe once every 3 or 4 years you'll see one show up on eBay."
"Everybody's collection is different," he added. "There are some people who like to collect just the dog PEZ. There's a lady who collects only one character." He pointed to a rabbit-headed PEZ with tiny front teeth and a somewhat crazed expression. "That's the Fat Eared Bunny, an early Easter Bunny that was made up until 1985. She has like 800 of them. She's got a whole wall." I stared at this rabbit, trying to imagine 800 of its little face lined up in rows. The effect was terrifying. "But… why this one?" I asked. "You'd have to ask her," he said. "She just loves that character. You collect what you like. That's what I always say: if you're lucky, you collect what you like."
I settled on a favorite, a delightfully round pig from the 80s. "It's also a whistle," he pointed out.
I asked about the oversize, foot-tall Simpsons PEZ sitting on shelves above the cases. What did they dispense? I was imagining giant PEZ candies, like blocks so big one would have to lick them from the outside. Instead, Gary said they dispense one whole packet of PEZ per click. "So meta," I murmured in awe.
In fact, I'd never tried PEZ. Upon learning of this, Gary immediately disappeared into another back room which appeared to have even more boxes of PEZ. "Do you like cherry?" he called from behind the boxes. He returned with a red PEZ packet. "This is a good example of the best of PEZ. This is European cherry. It was made this year." According to him, European PEZ, which is made in Austria, is for some reason tastier than American PEZ, which is made in Connecticut. I gave it a try. It was about what I expected: sweet, chalky, inoffensive. PEZ has also made menthol eucalyptus, chocolate ("tastes like cocoa puffs"), cinnamon, black licorice, and root beer PEZ. Gary prefers sour PEZ. "If you ever see me eating PEZ, it's sour PEZ," he said.
But PEZ was never about the candy, and no one has ever pretended that it is. Standing in the middle of that tiny room ("possibly the densest museum in the world," I suggested to Gary) I began to see that what sets PEZ apart from the candy fans at Walgreens and the likely-terrible candy inside them is the cultural value that PEZ has amassed simply by having been around for so long. As Gary put it, "you got the Bozo Clown, Casper and Mickey starting it out and now we're up to Angry Birds. The characters do a nice job of representing the times."
Just two years ago a Connecticut resident paid around $13,000 for a Will and Kate PEZ set (the only one ever produced), but this represents the extreme end of something small and inexpensive enough to have made its way into countless lives, rooms, and shelves. The impact is small but widespread and undeniable. Gary noted that the PEZ museum, which receives many families of visitors, represents a rare instance in which three generations may have grown up with, and thus can relate similarly to, the same thing. In fact there is some irony in the fact that a place which sold computers, possibly the most fast-paced and generationally alienating product, gave way to something as unchanging as PEZ.
Further, the act of collecting performs a curious transfiguration on even the smallest, cheapest of plastic tchotchkes. Since, other than rare vintage examples, PEZ remains for the most part an inexpensive thing to collect, it is a useful representation of the ways in which cheap, mass produced objects can be invested with real human desires and meaning. While asking around about PEZ the previous week, I received a response from a friend's aunt saying she'd begun collecting PEZ after her 18 year old son died in a car crash in 1998. "He had started collecting PEZ about a year before," she said. "I had a hard time throwing away the PEZ. I think he had about 25. I would go to the store and see PEZ and it made me feel a bit connected to my son when I would buy one, kind of like I was getting it for him. That probably sounds weird, but to anyone who has lost a child, it makes sense. So one PEZ lead to another…" She now has a collection of 1500 PEZ, housed in a "PEZ room", which her grandchildren love to sleep in.
When we returned to the front of the shop, two girls had come in and were poking around. "Are you two PEZ collectors?" Gary asked from behind the desk. "Oh no," one of them said. "We were just in the area and heard about this place. We had to stop by." "Oh! Well thanks for stopping in," Gary said, probably gearing up for his next PEZ spiel. I thanked him and stuffed the packet of cherry PEZ into my bag, heading back out into the blinding sunlight. Only later did I realize, with some regret, I had nothing to dispense it with.