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King of the Lunch Box Collectors. ENTREPRENEUR RAIDING THE ATTIC

By Laurel ShaperStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 6, 1989


THINK hard. Where are the lunch boxes of your family's past? If you've happened to keep them stashed in the attic or buried in the basement, you owe Scott Bruce a big thank you. In the past three years Mr. Bruce has helped to turn these mundane items into one of the hottest, fastest-growing collectibles around. Lunch boxes from the 1950s and '60s, which were selling for no more than $10 to $15 three years ago, now fetch an average of $60 apiece.

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Bruce, an eccentric, 33-year-old visual artist, says his interest in collectibles began in a roundabout way: He wanted to become a fiction writer, but thought that the transition from art to fiction would be too big a leap - so he decided to start with nonfiction. His subject: collectibles from the baby-boom generation.

Thus began his search for an obscure object to collect and turn into a commodity.

``I set up a checklist of five things I was looking for,'' says Bruce, ``and I started to go to antique fairs, collectibles shows, second-hand stores, and so forth, looking for something that was as yet undiscovered that I could capitalize on.''

The requirements: something mass-produced during the baby boom, popular in its day, still very cheap, still available, and reflective of the ``electronic landscape'' of the period.

Bruce found and discarded a number of other possibilities, but he found his answer in a Salvation Army Store in Cambridge, Mass., where he snatched up a pair of lunch boxes - ``The Jetsons'' and ``Looney Tunes'' - for about a dollar apiece.

``Eureka! It was electrifying,'' says Bruce. ``When I hit lunch boxes I knew I had something with considerable potential.''

At the time, about 40 others were actively collecting lunch boxes, he says. But Bruce stepped in and organized a network among the existing collectors.

``Scott saw a market and he conquered it,'' explains Gary Sohmer, owner of Wex Rex Records, a collectibles shop in Hudson, Mass.

Lunch boxes are far from rare. Between 1950 and 1970, 120 million were sold. It was big business. ``Lunch boxes made a few people very wealthy'' says Bruce, an unabashed capitalist. ``That's a tradition I want to perpetuate.

``I saw it, in a sense, as a means to an end. I could create this whole market and a lot of popular interest, supply that demand with commodities - the books, calendars, and the boxes themselves - and profit from them.''

He decided to find out everything he could about the folklore and history of lunch boxes. This meant contacting the leading manufacturers and asking for their cooperation. Initially, he was rebuffed; they assumed he must be an industrial spy. Who would be interested in lunch boxes? But Bruce persisted, and from this research came his first book, ``Lunch Box: The '50s and '60s,'' published by Chronicle Books in San Francisco.

Today, Bruce has earned the title ``King of Lunch Boxes.'' His ``Official Price Guide to Lunch Box Collectibles'' will be published in February. A year and a half ago he started a quarterly newsletter for collectors. He produces it himself on a home computer and calls it ``Hot Boxing.'' Its 300 subscribers include actor-director Rob Reiner and a squadron of Air Force F-16 pilots in Nevada, who take their boxes up with them on flights.

The popularity of lunch boxes draws on such well-established constituencies as Beatlemaniacs, Disneyana lovers, Elvis fans, and (Star) ``Trekkies.'' A vinyl Beatles lunch kit brought $700 at auction last year.