Pink baby grand

Some people collect stuff obsessively. And some of those people collect so much stuff, they need to sell some of it. So it goes with Dennis Hall, proprietor of Atomic Pop.

Atomic Pop proprietor Dennis Hall proudly shows off a model of the Zeti Reticulan system, with tennis balls denoting planetary relationships.

Atomic Pop proprietor Dennis Hall proudly shows off a model of the Zeti Reticulan system, with tennis balls denoting planetary relationships.

Photo by Larry Dalton

the bursting of the dot-com bubble and the stock market hitting record lows, investors are scrambling to find something to put their money into. A recent article from Reuters News Service reported that an attractive commodity to put money into is old comic books. If you had dropped $80,000 in 1992 for a copy of Detective Comics No. 27, the issue in which Batman made his first appearance, your investment would be worth $300,000 as of the beginning of this year—a 14-percent annual rate of return. It could also get you a black eye and a bloody lip from comic-book aficionados who don’t look kindly on people who buy comics just as an investment.

Then there are people like Dennis Hall, who has invested his life and money into collecting so many different things that he had to open a store.

“It’s a sickness,” said Hall. “I used to drink, and I spent all my time drinking. And when I gave it up, this became my drug of choice. This is a lot more profitable, as there was no profit in me drinking. I spend all my waking hours pretty much involved chasing down the next deal.”

To Hall, the next deal could mean knocking $500 off a car in exchange for a mock 12-foot metal rocket or driving a rented truck filled with vintage surgical equipment to a buyer in Las Vegas.

Hall is the proprietor of Atomic Pop, located at 217 North 16th Street, an old-fashioned junk store of the sort that disappeared from the American retail scene 15 years ago. Most vintage and antique dealers specialize in a couple of categories, which makes it feasible to rent a booth in an antique mall. Hall’s interests, on the other hand, range from vintage furniture to old soda-pop machines. From lamps of every description to an electronic gymnasium scoreboard from Folsom High, Hall has it all. Need a pink baby-grand piano? How about a stuffed ostrich? Hall has them.

“A lot of people that come in would never set foot in a thrift store,” said Hall. “But, then again, a lot of people come in here and think it is a thrift shop.”

The Sacramento-born Hall comes from a family of collectors. His mother collects Coca-Cola and Snow White stuff, his sister collects Disney items, and his brother collects Star Trek memorabilia. Hall inadvertently adds to their collections on a weekly basis.

“I’m the one who took it to the next level—overboard,” said Hall. “It’s something that I like doing, and, as long as I can survive and do this, I can’t see working at anything else.”

He always collected, but it was his 12 years in the U.S. Navy and all the ports of call that got him going. He collected beer memorabilia until the collection reached more than 500 pieces. After his stint in the Navy, Hall spent the next dozen years working for Lockheed and Raytheon as an itinerant mechanic. He spent all of his downtime haunting farm auctions and going to yard sales in the Midwest, before coming back to Sacramento with an old school bus filled with vintage gear.

With his home and rented storage spaces filled, Hall finally faced the facts and went into the retail business with a partner. He has had other locations, partners and business names throughout the years, but Atomic Pop is entirely his.

“If the business isn’t working,” Hall said, “I’m not working, or I have to go back to work for someone else. And I’ve just gotten to like this too much, as far as being able to call my own shots and all. When the bottom line comes down, if this place fails or succeeds, it’s because of the decisions I made and not somebody else.”

Hall has seen many trends come and go. Flamingos used to be big, and Hall had two or three hundred ceramic flamingos, Turner flamingo prints and art-deco furniture pieces, until they became too hard to find. He had a Black Panther phase, a few items of which still can be found at the store, and he’s currently into 1950s, 1960s and 1970s furniture. He is also slowly selling off his Hawaiian collection, which consists of more than 200 vintage shirts and surfboards.

“Overall in the business, I see it gradually going from early-period stuff to, right now, it’s the ’70s classics—weird stuff like radios and the ball chairs,” said Hall. “I think a lot of this business’s trends are set on TV shows like Friends and Dharma and Greg, shows that kids clue in to and see the funky stuff. That does more to set trends in this business than anything else.”

So, how can anyone predict what of yesterday’s junk is going to be tomorrow’s vintage treasure? “I don’t think that there is any way to predict that,” said Hall. “My whole philosophy in this business is [to] buy what I like because if I can’t sell it, I’ve got to live with it myself.”

Hall has seen firsthand the rapid fall of certain collectible items. Bottles are a great example. Hall’s grandfather was a merchant marine and collected decanter whiskey bottles. By the time he passed away, he had more than 7,000 decanter bottles lining his walls, windows and closet shelves. Now, his family is faced with trying to find a buyer or storing them at great cost.

“People that collected bottles years ago were young at that time,” said Hall, “and now they are a bunch of old fogies, and there’s nobody who’s really into bottle collecting anymore. What’s the cost of storing them for 10 years? I hate seeing a collection that a man has worked all of his life to amass just split up and sold off in pieces.”

What might be popular and expensive in one part of the country might go for next to nothing here. The business is regional. In the Sacramento area, old camping and fishing equipment sells for a quarter of what it sells for in the Great Lakes region. “Out here, with our lifestyles, that’s the way it goes,” said Hall. “The bizarre and odd stuff is what made California what it is. I don’t consider anything whacked out in this business.”

Atomic Pop is not a museum, though. Everything is priced to sell, as Hall has his eye firmly on the bottom line and tomorrow’s next big phase. It is a risk that a professional poker player would pass on.

“I come in and do inventory, and I come in the next day, and the whole section is sold, and there is something else there,” said Saundra Kemp.

Kemp, a retired school counselor, jazz singer and fashion designer, has worked on and off for Hall for years. What makes an almost impossible job worthwhile for her? “I get first dibs on everything that comes in here,” she said with a smile.

So, where does Hall find most of his stuff? “Yard sales have always been the best source,” said Hall. “People that have yard sales want to get rid of their stuff. I find stuff at yard sales sometimes for 50 cents or a dollar, and I turn around and sell it for $30 or $40. You just have to be out there looking all the time to come across something like that. That’s the excitement of the business is finding the treasure out there.”

Hall, who also owns 30 automobiles in various states of disrepair, including a 1951 Hudson Commodore and a 1950 Nash Ambassador, will part with anything he owns except for a mounted fish that, for some reason, his great-grandfather brought over to America with him from Germany in 1857. “I don’t even know what kind of fish it is,” said Hall.

As for regrets, Hall has had a few. At times, he has been too early or late in cashing in on a trend. And then there are some items for which he could have gotten more money. But, in the long run, he’s had a pretty good eye for vintage things. “I’ve had some weird stuff that I regret selling,” said Hall. “But, again, in this business, I’ve learned that I can’t get attached to anything. Otherwise, I’m not going to make any money. I buy this stuff, turn around and sell and buy more stuff. That’s what it’s all about: recycling it and buying more. This stuff is getting so hard to find, and it seems like whatever I find will sell eventually.”

In a way, Hall has been a patron of the arts; he often lends out merchandise to local artists for installations and film work. He’ll soon take it a step further by opening up a gallery and performance space in his newly acquired back room.

That seems to make Hall happy. Although his collecting might border on the obsessive, the pursuit of the next holy grail of pop-culture kitsch is never boring. And, these days, it’s a lot more of a sure thing than investing in the next dot-com startup.