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The Real Things : Hard-Core Collectors of Soft-Drink Nostalgia Bring Their Objets D’Coca-Cola to Anaheim

Patrick Mott is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

If you showed up thirsty, it was overwhelming.

Coca-Cola bottles everywhere, and Coca-Cola signs, and trays with pictures of fresh-faced girls delicately holding up a cold Coke, and Coke coolers and Coke posters and Coke playing cards and Coke calendars and Coke clocks and thermometers and music boxes and radios and records and pins.

“The Coca-Cola people wanted their name visible, " said Mark Lawrence, a collector from Riverside. “They wanted you to see Coca-Cola everywhere you looked, and they did a good job of it.”

So did the members of Coca-Cola Collectors Club International. In spades. At the Anaheim Marriott hotel this week for their 15th annual national convention, they turned two small banquet rooms into a virtual riot of Coke memorabilia. (The convention ends today with a free swap meet featuring 185 tables of collectibles. It is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.)

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Collectors came to Anaheim from throughout the United States and the world, an estimated 1,300 of them, wearing Coke shirts and Coke caps and Coke pants and Coke buttons and pins by the dozen, congregating to sell or trade or bid for Coke items, or just to gawk at a big room full of their favorite advertising gimmicks.

Lawrence was there as the representative of District 5 of the club, which encompasses the western states and includes the Orange County chapter, the largest in the district with 110 members. The Orange County chapter acted as the host for the convention, and many of the items on display belong to the members.

“Some of the members collect only recent stuff,” Lawrence said. “Others go for the things made before 1940, or they concentrate on specific items, like trays or calendars or thermometers.”

Then there were members like Mark Skelton, 33, a plumber from Garden Grove who likes almost anything with a Coca-Cola logo on it. He got his start collecting in 1973, when his grandmother gave him an old aluminum six-pack carrier, he said. Shortly afterward, a girlfriend’s parents brought a Coke bottle with Hebrew lettering home from a trip to Israel. Skelton began to think that the items could be the start of a collection.

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Until he discovered the Coca-Cola Collectors Club (which has about 6,000 members worldwide), “I thought I was the only one collecting” Coke memorabilia, Skelton said. “It opened up a whole new world.”

Today, he said, he has about 350 pieces worth more than $150,000. Two of the rarer items were on display at the show: a 1901 tray and a 1906 Coca-Cola syrup jug that Skelton said he found in an antique shop.

“And it’s still got the syrup in it,” he said.

Phil Mooney, the archivist for the Coca-Cola Co., was delighted by it all.

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“What you see in this room is incredible,” he said, waving an arm around at the hundreds of items and the fascinated gawkers.

“These are all just pristine examples. It’s collector’s heaven.”

Not only the display room. Around a corner in a larger banquet hall were rows of tables bearing dozens more items from club members that were intended to be sold at a members-only auction on Thursday. They ranged from an aging pair of coveralls worn by a bottling plant employee to a 1924 advertising poster (a high-ticket item that could bring $1,500 at auction, Mooney said) to a Coke-logo golf bag and a set of left-handed irons engraved with the Coca-Cola script, a promotional item manufactured for the company’s centennial celebration in 1986.

The appeal of it all, Lawrence said, lies in the assertion that Coca-Cola is “the most recognized trademark in the world. It’s part of Americana, and it’s been around for more than 100 years.”

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Also, Mooney said, “Coke is a universal product. It’s everywhere, and everyone knows it. Everybody’s had a Coke at one time or another in their lives. These things capture personal memories for people, no matter when they lived.”

Don Hale’s Coke memories include 30 years working in sales and cooler and vending machine delivery for the Coca-Cola Co. Now retired, the Cypress resident has amassed a collection of about 1,000 pieces--"a little of everything.” He and his wife attended the convention dressed in bright orange-and-white pinstripe shirts and orange pants and caps--one of the uniforms of the company.

“I have a real old one that I’m going to wear on Saturday,” Hale said. “A green-and-white striped one.”

Hale confessed that he became a convert to Coke after a childhood as a Pepsi drinker. It was his uncle, for whom Hale fetched a six-pack of Coke each day when they lived in a small town in Utah, who influenced his decision to switch.

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Hale was perhaps the most visible of the convention-goers on Wednesday, and not just because of his uniform. He and his wife had taken an upper-floor room at the hotel overlooking the street, and Hale hung a large red Coca-Cola banner from the balcony rail.

But, he said, as much as he loved his job, and Coca-Cola, and collecting, he has one deep and--for a Coca-Cola fan--dark secret.

“I failed the Pepsi challenge three times,” he said. “Each time I tasted both Coke and Pepsi (in a blind test) it turned out that the one I liked was Pepsi. To this day I think they must have switched ‘em.”


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