The 3rd largest personal collection in the world (behind Hard Rock Cafe and Paul Allen of Microsoft's tidy little assemblage), worth around seven-million US dollars, made up of rock ‘n roll and motion picture memorabilia, has, in essence, landed on Franklin Avenue.
I didn’t know what to expect when I saw the shop’s name: Rare Performance Memorabilia – is it a running shoe store? A museum of famous people’s running shoes? A museum of rare feet that have run-- no. No, it is not.
Let me be the first to say: there’s more to that book than its cover.
We sat down with John Sawyer, owner and curator of said collection – a collection of some of the greatest names in rock ‘n roll and movies, spread over four decades. We’ll let him do the talking. Perhaps, like me, you’ll end up with the warm fuzzies that a world-traveling businessman decided to land back in Waco, TX (and perhaps, like me, you’ll be left holding the handful of curveballs he throws right when you think you’ve got his story down!).
This guy is an unusually warm and patient straight-shooter. The humility on him causes the head to tilt, eyes to squint, just trying to reconcile his kind and down-to-earth nature with a pretty larger-than-life story.
Here’s what’s behind your local Rare Performance Memorabilia:
“So, the company’s really called RPM 33 like the large LP discs we used to listen to on a record player. We specialize rock ‘n roll and movie memorabilia from the 1950s through about 1990. There are over 4,000 pieces, 2,000 of which are signed and authenticated pieces. And 1,000 more are different types of rock and roll art by numerous artists – pretty much, you name it in the rock ‘n roll art world – that makes for a lot of famous artists for their different family trusts and foundations.
And then we have another approximately 1,000 pieces of authenticated pieces of work that are mainly photographs from some of the most famous photographers of the time. People like James Fortune who traveled with The Beatles and Elvis.
We probably have some of the larger collections of the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Elvis Presley, Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, you name it.”
(In Waco, Texas, you guys! Move over Texas Ranger Museum!)
"In the movie stuff, we have a lot of rare pieces from The Sopranos to The Godfather, Scarface, The Wizard of Oz, Marilyn Monroe. We cover a lot of ground."
How did you procure this collection? When did you start?
"I started about 30 years ago when I was in my early 20s. I'm a rock ‘n roll and old movie buff."
For the rest of the conversation, he casssuuuually goes on in this even-keel tone – the sound of someone who is, at times, in awe but never impressed with what his life has held. He's just a guy with a 30-year-old passion; he's settled into it, but has gladly welcomed everyone else to share in it, too. Not somethin' you see everyday.
“The collection has been acquired through auctions, I bought up a couple of stores that went out of business, purchased from individuals. Typically, I like to buy from entities so I know the authentication history – where the stuff came from – because obviously, that's very important. It’s the DNA of the piece.
And I picked Waco [for the store location] because this is my hometown. The store should probably be in Scottsdale or Los Angeles, or-- you know, a major metropolitan area but we chose to put it in Waco because that's where I was born and raised.”
“The brick and mortar is here but we only have about 150 pieces you really can see at any given time at the brick and mortar. Most of our collection is on our website.”
I was going to ask you about your security systems; that makes me feel a little bit better.
“We have state-of-the-art security in our facility, just like you would in any art gallery. We have high-resolution cameras, security motion sensors, and limited entry just like a museum and the same in our off-premise vaults. We keep everything climate controlled at 72 degrees.”
Did you always live in Waco, John?
"No, I was born here and left after high school and then just moved back to Waco when I was forty-five years old. I've been living on the West Coast. My parents live here, my brother. Just to be closer to my family – and I can operate from anywhere with my current business."
What's your day job?
"I buy and sell commercial aircraft – mainly Boeing aircraft, and I convert them from passenger operations to freight operations."
Tell me more about what it was like when you grew up. What did you love about Waco? Where did you go to school?
"I’m a product of public school. My family has long been farmers and ranchers here in McLennan County. My family's been in Waco since 1865. And my great grandfather used to have a mercantile store here in downtown Waco. So that was a big reason why I wanted to have something here in town. Not as much to keep family tradition but more of, you know, more out of respect. And again, I want to live here and I wanted to raise my children here so, what better place to do it?
I have three children: Tyler is a junior at Trinity University in San Antonio, Dalton is a junior at Vanguard, and then Brooklyn, my daughter, goes to China Spring. She’s in the third grade."
How’d you get into music and movies as a young person?
"Well, I think-- when you grow up in a small town you typically have big dreams, right? It's a lot easier to dream when you can dream through music. Some people find the conduit through music and some people find a conduit through motion pictures – I found a conduit through both. So, I wanted to leave the small town and chase big dreams in the big city and I did that.
I went to the University of Texas in Austin then moved to the west coast and pursue aircraft maintenance and repair and then eventually got into aircraft leasing and trading. I spent a total of about eight years in California and then 13 years in Arizona."
"And then, finally, two years in Cancun and then to Waco."
Wait, what? Why did you go to Cancun? What was that like?
"Now, that was nice. We owned a home there and so in the downturn in 2009 we decided to go down and we opened up a bunch of chain of Subway sandwich stores in the small beach town called Tulum, Puerto Aventura and Playa del Carmen. We opened a Subway in the central part of Tulum and another one in the Mayan ruins, the archeological part of the city. And, that’s where our daughter was born!"
(In Mexico, not in the Subway store. Wink. Here to help, people.)
What do you love about your city?
"Talkin’ about home-- I mean, you know, I'm a guy that lived away for a long time and I've traveled to over 100 countries. Waco just has-- it’s always been home. It has the smell of home, it has the feel of home. It doesn't matter where you go-- if you go to Sydney or you go to Stockholm. When you drive into the Waco city limits you finally feel like you're home again. That's a comforting-- a lot of people that lived here their whole life never get to have that feeling. It's a feeling reserved for people that are gone a lot - didn’t get the ability to come back here, otherwise you take it for granted.
But it's a beautiful place. The people here are very accommodating and friendly; it’s got a good little vibe to it."
What's something that most people wouldn't even know that's special about what you do, how you do it, and this place?
"You know, I've been partnered with a lot of stars. I don't want anyone to quote any of them without talking to them. But, you know, Gene Simmons and guys like that. That's how I got into some of the music business with them, I partner with them, through aviation. But you know, my business is a forensics business, you’ve got stuff you’re constantly buying and selling. It’s almost a little like being on Pawn Stars." (He quietly chuckles.)
"I have more people try to sell me their memorabilia now than-- which we have picked up a few pieces from people and we try to do that if they can be authenticated. But, some people just don't know what they have, so I just direct them to a better source where they can get more money. I don't want people to feel like I’ve taken advantage of them."
"This is my hometown! I don't want to make an extra 500 dollars; it's not worth it to me. I want people to be like – if they buy something from us, they got a good deal. If I buy something from them -- that they didn't get cheated. You think differently at fifty-three than you do at twenty-three. At 23, you’re trying to make a name for yourself; at 53, you're trying to leave a legacy."
Who's your favorite artist?
"It looks very simple for me. My favorite artist is Elvis Presley. I grew up listening to Elvis – my mother is an immigrant from Ireland. In 1960 she came to the U.S. and she saw Elvis Presley, believe it or not. My mother came here as a nanny for the Lynch family of Merrill Lynch and she was a nanny to the heir of Frito-Lay.
And so she met my dad in New York. My dad was in the service and, long story short, I came along. My mother always used to listen to Elvis records from the earliest time I can remember. So, I became an Elvis Presley fan naturally.
"That's a tough one but probably 'Wooden Heart' from the G.I. Blues or... probably another one would be 'Pocketful of Rainbows' is my favorite song. 'Pocket Full of Rainbows.'"
Is there special meaning to that song for you?
His head shifts thoughtfully, "I just remember my mother played that song.
I think it had meaning to her. So – either you hear it so much you hate it or you decide to like it – ha!"
I'm curious what it means to you when someone buys local?
"In my business of buying and selling aircraft, there's no such thing as 'local.' But I'm a big believer in using local – if you can. If your business allows it, use local, use local vendors. In the case of RPM, we don't use anybody outside of Waco. So, we do all of our framing locally. From the window cleaner to the place where we buy our supplies. Everything we do is somebody and we just-- sure, we can buy it a little cheaper from bigger stores and the bigger chains but we choose not to. And I've always been that way. But we live in a global economy and sometimes you know it doesn't make sense. But when you can, you think, 'Sure, sure.'"
"I'll give you my thought on charity. We're big on charity and we've always said 'charity starts at home.' 'Charity starts at home' meaning, it doesn't necessarily have to be in your house or your family but in your local community.
So, you should help people that are around you first before you're out helping people that are 10,000 miles away.
That's the way we've always lived. We try to run our business that way. But not everybody can. And we understand that and so we don't judge anybody but, we try to lead by example and that's what we do."
What they can expect coming to RPM?
"I want to invite everyone to look; come by. We're as much a museum as we are a store, you know? Come by. I'm sure there's something for everybody or something that will jog your memory."
What can Visitors expect Price-wise?
"We start t-shirts for 20 dollars and we go all the way to 100,000 dollars. There's something for everybody."