Brick by brick
Local hobbyists connect, express themselves through a shared love of Lego
One Saturday in late April, the East Avenue Church’s basketball gym was filled with the stuff of childhood dreams and nostalgic fits, with table after table laden with pop culture trinkets, toys and treasures during the Chico Collectors Show. There were comic books, Hot Wheels, signed sports memorabilia, and dolls and action figures depicting characters ranging from The Simpsons to wrestling superstars. But in a room filled with curiosities, one display gathered by far the most attention.
Filling an entire corner of the gym was a sprawling Lego exhibit spread across several tables, a miniature world unto itself built from tens of thousands of the multicolored bricks and pieces filling an estimated 65 feet of table space. Trains, a sky tram and other vehicles whirred and whistled around magnificent city centers filled with towering, multistoried buildings, amusement parks with working rides, waterways dotted with boats of varying sizes, a construction site and much more.
Closer inspection revealed a population of hundreds of 1 1/2-inch-tall figurines (known as minifigs in Lego lingo; devotees also avoid pluralizing the brand name Lego, referring to individual blocks as “bricks” or “pieces”) engaged in all manner of mundane and mischievous activities: Lonely Star Wars bounty hunter Boba Fett rode a swan boat solo through the Tunnel of Love; a storm-trooper dropped a coin into a parking meter to avoid a ticket on his speeder bike; and a battalion of bumbling firemen battled a trash can blaze.
Anyone who has fumbled through building the simplest of Lego sets, even with directions, might have a hint at the time and patience it takes to assemble—let alone design, engineer and transport—such an exhibit. The display represented the collective labor, imagination, amassed collections and intensive planning of the Chico Lego Users Group (ChicoLUG), a local group of adult Lego fanatics.
ChicoLUG comprises a membership of about a dozen unique individuals who come together over a shared, admittedly offbeat, passion. The group includes parents and working professionals, and was brought together partly by an epiphany experienced by one Lego-loving lawman.
Like many kids growing up in the 1970s and after, Bryan Marshall played with Lego bricks as a child. And, like most of us, he eventually put his toys away.
Then he had kids of his own. Watching Natalie and Cody play with their collections renewed Marshall’s interest in the Danish-made building blocks, and he found himself feeling confused and conflicted when they set their bricks aside to pursue more mature interests. His childhood bricks, combined with those of his children, formed quite a collection, and he couldn’t bring himself to let go of it.
“I was feeling kind of weird about it,” Marshall recently said of his peculiar predilection. “I didn’t really tell a lot of people that I had a whole bedroom just for my Lego collection.”
Marshall was especially reluctant to discuss his hobby with his co-workers, as he was—and still is—a sergeant and civil division supervisor at the Butte County Sheriff’s Office. Then, one fateful day in 2010, a report on a Sunday morning news magazine show brought him to terms with his offbeat hobby.
“They did a profile on AFOLs—Adult Fans of Lego,” Marshall said. “I realized this wasn’t just something I should just be doing privately and inwardly; that there are other adults who play with these toys. I recognized that I was an AFOL, and that I wanted to be a part of this culture.”
Marshall immediately began amassing a collection that today numbers an estimated half-million pieces. Along the way he also began selling Lego sets and pieces on Craigslist, eBay, and at conventions where AFOLs gathered, such as the Bricks by the Bay and Bricks Cascade (sponsored by the Bay Area Lego Users Group, or BayLUG, and the Portland Lego Users Group, or PortLUG, respectively).
Two years ago, Marshall started a proper online Lego store called Bryan’s Bricks, and last November opened a storefront with the same name at Redwood Towers on West Eighth Avenue. The physical store is open only on weekends or by appointment until Marshall retires from the BCSO in December.
“My goal has always been to make enough money to open a brick-and-mortar store … pun intended,” Marshall said. “The mail-order business reached the point that there was Lego product in the living room, the bedroom, the kitchen, everywhere. My wife, Rana, has always been supportive, but she got tired of having them all over the house and underfoot, and said it was time for me to rent a space.”
Marshall said Bryan’s Bricks is doing brisk business, split roughly even between online and in-store sales. The space also serves as the de facto headquarters of ChicoLUG, which meets there monthly. He’s also had some unexpected customers, like several mechanical engineering students from Chico State.
“They were given a small Lego motor and assigned to build a working model of a mineshaft recovery vehicle that would travel down a shaft, deliver a payload and then return to the surface, and it had to be built entirely out of Lego pieces,” he said. The students came in with prototypes made on a 3-D printer and asked him to help match Lego pieces to their design, and invited him to sit in on class when they debuted their vehicles.
“It was fun to watch,” he said. “I saw everything from a speedy, successful recovery to one that fell straight down the shaft and shattered to pieces.
As Marshall embraced his AFOL status, grew his collection and started slinging bricks to other fanatics, he also began meeting like-minded locals who would form ChicoLUG. In 2011, he went to a yard sale to buy five storage bins filled with Lego pieces, and there he met Jayson Denman, a science teacher at Sycamore Middle School in Gridley who not only collects Lego pieces, but also incorporates them into his curriculum. The pair ended up splitting the bins and became fast friends.
Soon after, at a Lego convention in San Jose, the pair met James Smith. Together, the three would found ChicoLUG. Smith is the most veteran AFOL in the group, having emerged from his “Dark Ages” (a term used to describe the period of time when a person packs away his or her Lego pieces in favor of other pursuits) in 2001, when he bought the Hogwarts Express train, from the Harry Potter series, to run around the family Christmas tree.
Smith is a computer programmer whose Lego specialty is using the company’s Mindstorm system of motors and microcomputers to make his creations move. A former member of BayLUG, Smith has won several awards at Lego conventions for his “Goofy Trains”—locomotives that don’t just move around a track but also have moving pistons, propellers, whirligigs and other machinery built into each car.
Marshall also discovered a fellow Lego lover closer than he expected. Sgt. Greg Reeves has been with the BCSO for 21 years and not only works in the civil division alongside Marshall, but also will fill Marshall’s shoes as supervisor when he retires. Reeves said he started collecting Lego about eight years ago to build cities to fly his radio-controlled helicopter through: “The helicopter crashed and broke into a million pieces, but I kept up with the Lego.”
Marshall explained that, for the time being, ChicoLUG is not recognized by The Lego Group, as “official” LUGs must have at least 20 members and host at least three public events a year. Recognized LUGs receive support from the company in the form of promotions and free products.
The Chico Lego scene also got a boost with the 2014 opening of Bricks 4 Kidz, a Lego-centric daycare, kids’ camp and play space that recently moved to Forest Avenue from Walnut Street. Bricks 4 Kidz owners Dave and Linda Phelps invited the growing ChicoLUG group to meet at their original storefront, and remain involved. Bricks 4 Kidz sponsored a Brick Builderz Festival at the Boys and Girls Club in Chico in May 2015, which gave kids a chance to show off their creations and also served as ChicoLUG’s coming-out party, as the group assembled a 30-foot display for the occasion. Smith noted the event helped attract several new members.
Both new and old members were eager to participate in another public display, which led club member Nick Rosemann—a self-proclaimed lover of “all things nerdy” and a Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. delivery driver—to arrange the Chico Collectors Show in April. With a $1 admission fee, the event raised about $800 for Chico youth rugby.
‘'I’ve been playing with Legos my whole life,” mechanic and ChicoLUG member Scott Wenberg declared recently at Bryan’s Bricks, where several members of the group met to discuss their love of Lego. “I have a very large collection and a very understanding wife.”
The other members present, including Marshall, Reeves, Rosemann and Smith, laughed and began razzing Wenberg about putting an “S” at the end of Lego. Some AFOL’s also avoid the word “play” when describing what they do with the bricks, favoring more mature-sounding verbiage like “build” or “engineer.” But the ChicoLUG group is not as dogmatic and more focused on fun, the members said.
“I’m going to be 36 next month, and I still play with my Legos,” Wenberg said. “I have no shame in getting down on the floor, pushing cars around and making motor sounds with my mouth.”
Wenberg was introduced to the group through Rosemann, whom he bought 80 pounds of bricks from off Craigslist. Also present at Bryan’s Bricks was George Rosell, who explained he and Marshall were acquaintances—their wives were good friends—before they discovered their shared interest in Lego.
“One day I asked [Marshall’s] daughter what her dad was up to, and she said, ‘I don’t know, probably home playing with his Legos.’” Rosell was ecstatic; he said he’d recently asked his son, “You done with your Legos? OK, they’re mine now,” and was looking for someone to play with.
The assembled members offered insight into what ChicoLUG does. Of course, there’s club business to attend to, and members sometimes bring in builds-in-progress to show off and/or get tips. They also play Lego-centric games, like “Lego No Lego,” in which one member reveals a building block and the members have to guess if it is a true Lego piece or a knockoff, like those made by Mega Bloks. The ChicoLUG members do not like Lego knockoffs and went on a tangent about how they should be disposed of—filling potholes with them was one suggestion.
“Sometimes the 12-year-old parts of our brains will come up with an idea, like, ‘Hey guys, how about train jousting?’” Smith said. “Then we’ll do it … build trains ridden by minifigs with weapons and then crash them into each other until they break into pieces.” Another time, the group raced motorized AT-AT Star Wars vehicles across the room.
As charming as a bunch of adults, and particularly middle-aged men, getting on the ground to play with toys together is, ChicoLUG really shines at public showings, which offer a rare opportunity to showcase their collections and creativity.
Putting together massive Lego dioramas like the one at the Chico Collectors Show is far from child’s play, the members explained.
“I don’t even know how to estimate the amount of time that went into the whole thing,” Wenberg said of the display. “My part was roughly 8-by-12 feet, and a lot of the elements have been sitting on display in my Lego room for years … it takes a lot to take multiple sets that look cool sitting on a shelf, like a car and a building, then tie them together somehow. Then you’re also taking things Lego designed and putting it together with things you design yourself.”
Wenberg noted some individual creations evolve and develop over time. Smith, for example, has been perfecting and updating his Goofy Trains for 15 years. Big layouts are generally built at home over the course of weeks or months, and then there’s the problem of transporting the fragile creations (hardcore Lego fans never use glue to hold pieces together). To accomplish this, the builders take photos of their creations from different angles and create a “plate map” (plates are the large flat pieces that serve as foundations for Lego creations) before breaking them into smaller components. Once transported to the site, it’s time for reassembly.
“At the April show, we had six hours to set up and most of us were still adding final touches when the doors opened,” Wenberg said. “I was still building really late, so I just threw a tub of minifigs at George and Greg and said, ‘Go to town.’”
The placement of minifigs is very important. Many adult Lego users are fond of hiding “Easter eggs” throughout their dioramas—funny little scenarios, some of which are specifically directed at adults. Reeves, as a sheriff, is fond of putting firemen in foolish situations. A campground area of the April display featured a Bigfoot minifig hiding behind a tree and taking a picture of a hiker. The list goes on and on.
The group is currently getting ready for its next show, to be held in December. The whole display is based on a Winter Wonderland theme, which has members scrambling online and in Marshall’s store to find the proper pieces.
“I’m kind of like the mercantile owner during the Gold Rush, because I’m the only one who makes any money from all these guys’ Lego obsessions,” Marshall quipped.
Several of the ChicoLUG members half-jokingly said that being part of a club helps legitimize their obsession to loved ones (called NLSOs, or non Lego significant others, by some AFOLs). They also said the revelation that they collect and build with Lego bricks is generally well-received.
“When I say I play with Lego, most people just kind of say, ‘That’s awesome,’” Rosell said. “I think a whole lot of adults want to play with them. Some people use their kids as an excuse.”
All of the members spoke of Lego as a shared childhood and cultural experience that most Americans today can relate to. The bricks are nothing short of iconic, perhaps now more than ever with the popularity of The Lego Movie and several new Lego-brand video games (there have actually been 64 released since 1997). Each of the ChicoLUG members also noted the therapeutic value of the toys, with many saying they turn to the bricks to destress. Rosell said he finds the act of sorting bricks while watching TV meditative, while others build when they need a pick-me-up. Marshall said Lego has helped him through his long career at the sheriff’s office, which has included stints on the SWAT Team and as a sexual assault/child abuse detective.
“In a job where you rarely see the outcome, it is nice to have a hobby that allows me to be constructive and see the end product and the joy it brings to a wide spectrum of people,” he said.
Most of the ChicoLUG members agreed that joy is the greatest payoff, and that there’s nothing like watching the faces of children and adults as they take in the displays. Wenberg was the only one to disagree on that point.
“Doing the show was a lot of fun, and it was really surprising and satisfying to watch the kids’ reactions,” he said, “but I really do it for me.
“I have this strong personal connection, like Legos have always been a part of my life,” he said, stumbling over his words before finding the best way to explain himself. He stopped speaking, stuck his arm into a 6-inch-deep mass of bricks piled on his sorting table and moved his arm through it, creating a whooshing sound most people would find instantly recognizable, even if they haven’t touched a Lego in 20 years.
“That sound, man … there’s just nothing like it.”