A conversation with Nick Gjoka
BY NED RUSSIN
After years of being recognized for his out-of-this-world assemblage of E.T. memorabilia, Nick Gjoka—father of two, professional mountain biker, vegan, devout fan of Morrissey, and world’s largest E.T. collector—has decided to start selling off his collection. Gjoka, who is originally from Northeastern Pennsylvania and now resides in Atlanta, GA with his family, has been collecting E.T. memorabilia for as long as he can remember, amassing thousands of items. Ned Russin, GS ‘19, spoke with Gjoka over the phone on an unusually warm day in February.
The Blue and White: Just to start off, do you remember the first time that you saw E.T.?
Nick Gjoka: I don’t remember the first time I saw the movie, but I remember opening a specific E.T. [toy] from my grandfather, which kind of set off the whole thing.
B&W: So that was the first piece of memorabilia that you got?
NG: I don’t know if it was actually even the first piece that I actually got but that specific E.T. talking toy I just remember for some reason. I remember opening it in my grandfather’s den on Christmas and I always had a connection with my grandfather because of that. I mean, he passed away so I always felt a connection I should say because of that memory and that toy. Now I’ve given my son that toy. Actually both my kids now.
B&W: Was it that toy that really set you off on buying E.T. stuff?
NG: I think so. That and the fact that my parents are also collectors of antiques. I was always going to flea markets and yard sales. And on top of all that, it was easy presents to get me when I was four, five, six years old because it was out everywhere, you know? It was like, “Oh I’m just going to get him E.T. toys.”
B&W: So then did you get into the movie through collecting then?
NG: I guess so. Here’s the thing: I’m straight edge so I’m not burnt on drugs, but I’m burnt out of my mind. [He laughs] I don’t remember everything, but my mom said she took me to see the movie when it came out. I was four years old when it first came out and it came out again—well in some theaters it actually stayed the whole year—but it came out again in 1985. So I don’t know if she took me during the ‘85 showing, which I would have been seven which would have made more sense, but I don’t remember. She must have taken me when I was four years old, I don’t know.
Here’s the thing: I’m straight edge so I’m not burnt on drugs, but I’m burnt out of my mind.
There’s always been a connection, it could be because I did see and don’t remember seeing it, I just felt a connection. I don’t know, but the collection started to build because I had a little collection because people would buy me stuff and then when I actually started collecting on my own that was late teens. I would be at flea markets with my parents and I would see an E.T. or something and I would pick that up. I’d be like, “Can I have $2 to buy this?” and I’d buy it. In my late teens I started to look for it a little bit.
B&W: What made it switch from it being a hobby to being something that you actually wanted to pursue?
NG: The hunt for it. The hunt for them. Like trying to find E.T. items. It’s exciting. Like looking for anything. I think that’s one of the main reasons why people collect. They want to have everything that’s known. They want to be a completist. They want to complete the collection. And then the hunt for it. Digging around in an old antique store, or at a big box at a flea market, and just covered with a bunch of other junk, you see, at the bottom, this… 1982 E.T. kickball or something, you know?
B&W: Yeah. And also, was there a switch when you decided to go from collecting to having the biggest collection ever? Or was that something that just came naturally?
NG: I think it came naturally because I didn’t even know that my collection was that big and people would be like, “Yo, you’ve got a lot of E.T. stuff. Like, you’ve got a really big collection.” And I didn’t even think it was because I was still hunting for everything. I didn’t know that many other E.T. collectors so I didn’t realize I had one of the biggest ones at the time. I don’t think the switch turned off until I had to pack it all up and move and I was like, “Man, this sucks.”
I didn’t even know that my collection was that big and people would be like, “Yo, you’ve got a lot of E.T. stuff. Like, you’ve got a really big collection
B&W: For a while now, there have been interviews with you on places like on Vice and VH1 document- ing your love for E.T. and your collection and stuff. Did you get any good finds from that exposure?
NG: Not really collectible-wise. I don’t really know which VH1 episode you’re referencing because I was on it twice.
B&W: You were?
NG: Yeah, the first show was called Totally Obsessed.
B&W: That’s the one that I’ve seen.
NG: That one’s like super old. That one’s from the 2002 release.
B&W: Yeah, I remember watching that one at my parents’ house with my brother, Alex, because he obviously knew you and so we watched that together.
NG: One of the first times I went to Universal Studios was after that came out and I got to ride the ride, and it was probably the third or fourth time I was riding the ride and some girl was like, “Wait a minute, wait a minute. Are you the guy from MTV?” and she started bugging out. She was telling everyone. The ride actually got held up because she was freaking out. Then I was at the ride and…actually you know what I did get something from it. One of the employees emailed me maybe a week later and said, “Hey, I heard you were at Universal. I wanted to meet you. I’m sorry we won’t be able to meet in person, but do you want anything from the ride? I’ll give it to you.” And I was like, “Wait, what?” I didn’t want to ruin anyone’s ride experience, but he said, “No I’ll just give you something small, like a flashlight or something,” and then he ended up giving me.. Have you ever been on the ride before?
B&W: Yeah, yeah, I have.
NG: So the cards that you get with your name on it, you know they program your name on it? He gave me a stack of cards. Like there had to be a thousand of them. Brand new, they were never used. They were never in circulation. They were old ones from before the 20th anniversary, so they were just sitting around. So he gave me those, and then there was another Universal employee that I met through eBay, that I bought a sign from… and then we started chatting outside of eBay. You know the sign that says how long the queue is? How long the wait is? I have that sign. I have some other signs and posters from that ride and anytime I would want to go to Universal he would get me in for free. He actually gave me an employee badge with my name on it and the E.T. 20th anniversary edition of it. So I guess I did get stuff from that, and then there was another time.
So the last time I was on TV for the 30th anniversary, Universal Studios contacted me and flew my wife and I up to New York. They ew us up, put us in a $500-a-night hotel, I met Henry Thomas—the guy that plays Elliott in the movie—and I did a bunch of interviews.
They gave me a bunch of signs from the office and a bunch of Blu-ray DVDs and a sweatshirt and some other stuff like that, which is rare stuff. The posters were just made for the Universal office so I’m the only person who has them. They sent them to me instead of throwing them away. And like the sweatshirts were only given to people who worked on the remake of it, or to some of the Universal employees. And I got own out and put up in a hotel and stuff. I did get some stuff, yeah. That was a long answer.
B&W: I was interested to see if anyone from the movie was aware of your collection and it’s cool to know that you met the guy who played Elliott through your collection.
NG: Yeah. I met Henry Thomas. And the guy who plays the older brother, him and I talk on Facebook.
B&W: Do you still talk to him?
NG: Yeah I actually just sent him a picture this morning. When I go up to New York I’m probably going to meet him and his wife. And then Henry Thomas, who played Elliott, he has a band that’s kind of Radiohead-ish, I don’t know what you consider it, but he is also a Morrissey fan, so him and I bro’d down over Morrissey. I don’t know if I should be telling people this, but he kind of had this little stalking moment with Morrissey in a store once and he told me the story and we were laughing and bugging out. It was awesome. And I’ve met the mom from E.T. as well, Dee Wallace, but that was at a horror convention.
B&W: Where do you keep your collection now? And do you have any proper storage or cleaning precautions that you take, or do you just let it live?
NG: I was just letting it live until just the other day. I moved the last piece of the collection to my shed in the back yard, because I’m starting to…I mean I’ve actually started to sell it already, but I brought it all home so I can sell it.
B&W: How does it feel to start letting go of that kind of stuff? What is it that makes it OK to go from having the world’s largest E.T. collection to starting to let go of things?
NG: It’s sometimes emotional. Because some of the stuff I remember getting. Actually, I remember getting all of it… well most of it. And some of them I even have the receipts from. I’d look back and it’d just remind me of those times. So it does get emotional, and many of the pieces actually have sentimental value to me, I am actually holding onto for a while. The rest are just cool collectibles. I’m finding stuff that I didn’t even know I had. I just got an offer the other day from some guy who wants to buy this piece. They’re almost like headshots of E.T. They’re cool, but no one has ever seen them before until I posted them the other day on this E.T. forum. People were bugging out. He hit me up outside the group and was like, “Hey I want to buy that stuff from you.” I have some production stuff that I might be the only one to have. There’s a lot of posters I didn’t even know I had. I forgot that I started to collect E.T. posters from all the around the world. I was like, “Damn!” It’s fun to open the boxes up and check what I have, remember what I have, remember where I was when I got it, you know, whatever, but for the most part in the end it’s just collectibles that I’m selling to make money to put aside for the kids, for more bikes, and to go see Morrissey. [Laughter] Stuff like that.
B&W: Since you’ve had so many pieces and you still have so many, what, to you, makes something memorable? What makes it interesting and sets it apart from all the other things that you have?
NG: I want to say there’s like different levels. Some of them are because of sentimental, like [my first talking E.T.]. That one I’ll never get rid of. My kids can do whatever they want with it, but I’ll never get rid of it. And then there’s other pieces that are rare, like production photos. I kind of want to keep [them] because I’m the only one who has them. But I think I could get a lot of money for them. There’s those two reasons, and then the other is just the coolness. Just the artwork. There’s this one artist that did art for a lot different movies, but he did stuff for E.T. I love his stuff. Some of his stuff I like more than the others because of it, you know? And just the rarity. I have an E.T. toothbrush. It’s so weird. You’re actually holding E.T. and there’s a toothbrush coming out of his head.
B&W: You talked about meeting people through your collection, I wanted to know what the E.T. community is like. Are most of the collectibles coming from other collectors or people who had memorabilia at the time, or is it more a mix?
NG: It’s definitely a mix. Mostly it’s just people who find E.T. stuff in their basement or a flea market and try to sell. E.T. is known around the world, so people always assume that it’s worth something. There’s a whole new group of people that are starting to collect it based on this one E.T. forum that I’m on, and it’s like younger kids. Kids that are in high school. It kind of surprises me.
B&W: Are you well known in that community?
NG: Yeah [he laughs].
B&W: Are you an authority on the matter? Do you have the information on the rarity of items or their authenticity?
NG: Yeah, yeah. People still hit me up. I still have iloveet.com, for some reason the site’s not working right now.. Now I get private messages on Facebook or even through Instagram, people find me on there and hit me up with a question. A lot of time, people find E.T. stuff in their attics or in their garage or at a flea market. It’s mostly younger people hitting me up asking about values. I am kind of still an authority on it.
B&W: So how long have you been selling your collection for now?
NG: Maybe ve years.
B&W: Oh really, that long?
NG: I mean it’s been for sale for at least six years, like the whole collection, but I haven’t really been pushing. Once in awhile, I’ll grab something out of the E.T. room and list it. The past year, I’ve been really selling it more. I’ve been actually selling it at this thing called a “Hipster Yard Sale” down here and it’s basically just hipsters that buy vintage junk. I make more money selling at those things than on eBay. There’s no fees and all that kind of stuff. But now I’m really going to push now that I have it all here. My wife, while the kids are napping or at school, is going to list maybe 10 things a week. I’m just going to put it up as a Buy It Now for a set price and when it sells, it sells.
B&W: Where was the collection before? Was it up north?
NG: No, no. It was down here. I had this space that I rented from this guy, he has a Hot Rod warehouse, and upstairs there’s three bigger office rooms. One of the office rooms I had and I had it all set up in there. It was just collecting dust. That’s the whole thing. I’d rather collect memories than collect dust, you know? I’d rather collect memories with the money I can make off it than collect the dust. I’m not doing anything with. I don’t see it. It’s not really benefiting me. I got a good ride out of it. It will always excite me seeing the movie and it will always excite me, like, “Wow there’s E.T. again.” I’m done with it.
B&W: What was the moment that you realized that you beat the game and it was time to give it up?
That’s the whole thing. I’d rather collect memories than collect dust, you know? I’d rather collect memories with the money I can make off it than collect the dust. I’m not doing anything with. I don’t see it. It’s not really benefiting me. I got a good ride out of it.
NG: I think probably when I had my first kid. Or when I found out I was going to have a kid. I was like, “I don’t need this stuff anymore, I have one of the coolest things in the world coming now in a few months,” so I kind of started getting rid of the collection. And then I actually started to sell it and then after I decided that, that’s when Universal hit me up about coming up there and doing the press junket and stuff for the 30th anniversary Blu-ray. There was one more interview six months later, but that was the last hurrah. I’ve gotten a couple different offers to go on some TV shows and stuff like that, I guess I will, but to show it off it’s just too much. I don’t have time for it. Having kids is, like, life changing. It’s crazy.
B&W: Do your kids like E.T.?
NG: They like the image of it, they’ve never seen the movie yet.
B&W: Do you have any big plans when you’re going to sit the family down and watch it for the first time?
NG: They haven’t seen it yet and we haven’t really planned what age we’re going to show it to them yet. I think it might be soon then. [My son’s] going to be five.
B&W: And you saw it when you were four so it seems like the right age. Do they like the toys and everything?
NG: Yeah, yeah. They both recognize E.T. and say “E.T.”. Of course my four year old can, but my daughter turns two next month is already like, “E.T.!”
B&W: So you’re definitely raising in an E.T. friendly home.
NG: [He laughs] Not intentionally, but there area couple E.T.s floating around. It’s inevitable.
B&W: I want to talk to you about your Halloween Ride in New York. When and why did that stop happening?
NG: It came about, I guess it was 2001, my buddy and I were like, “Oh I’m going to ride around with a BMX and a E.T. in the front.” We both came to each other and said the same thing and were like, “Wait, what?” Him, myself, and I think there was one other dude the first time, just rode around Brooklyn. It was real simple, just a neighborhood thing. Just ride around on Halloween. So the next year is when we did the Halloween parade, the actual Halloween parade in the city. Just friends that know that we did it were like, “Ah, I want to join.” The loose requirements were: you had to have a BMX, had to have a red hoodie, and I could hook you up with the crate and the E.T.
B&W: You supplied your own E.T.s?
NG: Oh yeah. For myself I had the most legit one. I had this latex, rubber mask. Well it depends on what year. One year, I had a latex, rubber mask. It was very legit, I think it was from the same mold as the E.T. puppet from the movie. So I used that, and one year I used this E.T. life-sized clothes hamper. So I was using the most expensive ones, and the other ones would either be just cheap halloween plastic masks or my girlfriend at the time sewed up these printed E.T. faces and we would iron them onto this kind of E.T. head she sewed together that we attached, somehow to these crates. We told people to just bring a white sheet or a blanket and if they could find a crate that would be great, too. Most of the time I had all that stuff.
B&W: Finally, I just wanted to ask what do you still find worthwhile from E.T. that still keeps you interested and still keeps it in your life how ever many decades later at this point.
NG: I would say it’s just a good, classic family-friendly movie. Especially for the people that consider themselves outsiders, and I guess divorce is so common these days it’s not a big deal, but back in the day it was a big deal. And I think a lot of kids probably could really feel what Elliott was feeling. They had someone to connect with. I feel like you can use that same idea in life today. A lot of people don’t feel that they belong to something or they feel left out from their family, and they can find some kind of good feeling from watching that movie.