Four years ago, Caleb Raff was a busy, stressed-out salesman for a local plumbing supply company, trying to find both the time and the best way to connect with his then 9-year-old son, Daniel.
Stuck in a rut with a mid-life crisis on the horizon, Raff would come home late from work, tired. He'd see his son sitting there, "not doing anything." They had tried all kinds of sports -- Raff used to be an avid soccer player -- but nothing seemed to stick.
Raff then made a decision to simply spend more time with Daniel. What Raff had construed as idleness was actually creativity, he recalled.
"Instead of pressuring him to do stuff, like sports, I asked him, 'What do you want to do?' " Raff said.
His son was really into art, drawing and, not surprisingly, Legos.
"I finally realized that and accepted him and said that's OK. I realized that being creative is OK. . . . We'll be creative together," said Raff.
The 40-year-old Cotati father and his son soon bonded over Legos. Their creative partnership has gone from simply playing with Legos to buying and selling them on a scale most Lego-preoccupied fathers and sons only dream of.
In a short period of time, they've gone from stockpiling Legos in their garage to preparing to open their largest Lego hobby shop yet in downtown Santa Rosa, at 420 Mendocino Ave.
Their current shop, The Brick Hutt, at 1220 Fourth St., lacks the glitz and international crowd of the Lego Store at Rockefeller Center. But in many ways, its cramped innards are far more impressive.
Raff and Daniel have amassed an impressive bounty of hard-to-find Lego sets, countless spare Lego parts and some 4,000 to 5,000 Lego miniature figures that leave most kids hyperventilating as soon as they walk into the shop.
The shop, which deals only in Legos, is the only one of its kind in California, Raff said. People come from all over the Bay Area, North Coast and Central Valley to find exactly what they're looking for. And what they're looking for is what Raff was after in the first place -- a reason to spend time with his son.
Raff's growth has seemingly defied recession-era trends, just as the Lego company itself has in recent years grown to become the most valuable toy company in the world, dethroning toy giant Mattel.
Lego, which produced the first iteration of its modern building brick in 1949, is a family-owned business headquartered in Billund, Denmark. The company rang up
$4.09 billion in sales last year, with profits of nearly $1 billion, according to story last month in Adweek.
Its rise to the No. 1 position is owed largely to its brilliant toy-licensing agreements with entertainment giants such as Lucasfilm, Disney, Marvel and DC Comics.
When Raff and his son first started "seriously" playing with Legos about four years ago, Daniel had already acquired a fairly large collection. The two soon became hooked and the Internet opened up new possibilities for their growing obsession.
"That's when we started realizing there's a huge following, a worldwide Lego community out there, and we started getting involved in it," Raff said.
They started making online purchases of small collections, bulk lots and mini-figures, lots of mini-figures. They spent several hundred dollars here and there, visiting garage sales on weekends.