Get Your Cliques

Gotta Have It!

By Laura Tiffany

Hold back the crowd. We have the complete series of 1968 Psychedelic Flower Pez for $500 each! If you think that's too steep a price to pay, we have a footless, dark green Mr. Ugly for only $45!

Huh?

Oh, never mind. Only a true Pezhead understands the joy of displaying a prized $300 vintage dispenser. But it's OK. Said Pezhead can just hop online and share the glorious news with a member of the Pezhead e-mail group.

If you're feeling a bit left out, don't. Look around. You probably collect something, and unless it's bellybutton lint, there's a chance someone else out there in the world collects it, too. With fan pages, e-mail groups and newsgroups, obsessed fans are no longer alone, and even the nichiest of niche passions are making it out into the real world, where fans-turned-entrepreneurs are starting businesses to feed collectors' frenzies.

Joseph Somers started SomersZoo (http://www.somerszoo.com) in 1996 to sell toy, character and ad collectibles (with an emphasis on Pez dispensers) online. Last year, he made the leap to a Chicago storefront. "The opportunity to collect is way bigger than people know," says Somers, 28, of the Pez scene. "The Internet has created a forum for that information to be distributed. Now anybody can [pursue] a global hobby instead of being confined to where they live."

Michael Bochiccio found a niche of his own online--selling Lucha Libre, or Mexican wrestling, masks--while catering to the huge community of wrestling fans with American and Japanese merchandise. "I don't think there's a lot for males ages 15 to 30 on television," says Bochicchio, 26, who started his company, Highspots Inc. (http://www.highspots.com), last year after he took a trip to Mexico. "Wrestling is a man's soap opera." Fans collect toys and T-shirts of their favorite stars, then go online to discuss their exploits on and off the mat.

Some obsessions have equal presence both offline and on. Fans of Anime and Manga (Japanese animation and comics) form clubs to view films and will travel to find merchandise with their favorite characters. Andy Joo's goal is to make products more accessible to old fans--and new--by making his five-store Southern California chain, Manga House, newcomer-friendly. "I focus on what's popular," says Joo, 34. With more than 3,000 Anime TV series and movies in Japan, and only a handful familiar to U.S. viewers, Joo believes Anime will only get bigger.

As for wrestling and Pez? Well, if Hulk Hogan runs for president, there's no telling where this sweaty sport will end. And as long as Pez keeps churning out dispensers featuring popular characters like Snoopy and Donald Duck, these low-tech candy machines will have a crossover audience.

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This article was originally published in the August 1999 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Get Your Cliques.

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