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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.

One day, they found themselves at a local garage sale and saw two large bins -- about 50 pounds worth -- of mixed Legos. Raff said they paid $30 for the stuff.

"We were excited. We started sorting through it and realized a lot of this stuff we already had," said Raff. "Right then, that was my son's initial idea. A light bulb went on. He said 'Let's put some of this stuff on eBay.' "

They listed about 30 pounds of Legos on eBay and saw the bidding go from $9.99 to nearly $400.

"Right there is what started everything," Raff said.

From then on, he began to view the business of buying and selling Legos as a viable enterprise, one that could not only bring him closer to his son but also offer him a way out of his stress-filled job.

Raff still had his sales job during the week, but devoted Saturdays and Sundays to hunting for Legos and selling them, making about $400 to $500 a weekend, mostly from online sales. Their garage soon became overrun with Legos and it became clear they needed more space for their growing inventory.

Their weekend activities became a business by 2010, when Raff began declaring the extra income on his taxes. By mid-2010, father and son were selling $3,000 a month worth of Legos.

They found a small space in Cotati, close to 500 square feet, which they rented for about $400 a month. Then, Daniel had another idea.

"His idea was to put an open sign out front while we're here. Maybe we could sell stuff, basically like a little store," Raff said.

They made a Lego banner and people started coming in to buy and sell. Retail sales from The Brick Hutt would become a larger share of their sales.

The business outgrew the space in Cotati after only 10 months, and 10 months after that it outgrew the Fourth Street shop in Santa Rosa.

Two months ago, Raff quit his sales job at the plumbing supply company to devote all his time to the family business. A grand opening of the Mendocino Avenue shop is scheduled for June 8 and 9.

One of the featured items on display during the grand opening is a one-of-a-kind Lego piece Raff acquired last October. The piece, called the Platinum Mask of Light, was awarded to a local boy who won the Cartoon Network's Toonami Sweepstakes in 2003.

Made of pure platinum and cast from the same mold as the plastic Mask of Light in Lego's Bionicle line, the piece was valued at $7,000 a decade ago. Raff wouldn't reveal exactly how much he paid for it, saying only that he paid a few hundred dollars more than the raw platinum value.

Raff has since had offers of more than $15,000, surpassing the price of the most expensive Lego piece currently for sale: a 14-karat gold 2x4 Lego brick currently listed for $14,449.99 at Brickenvy.com. Raff's piece weighs 3 troy ounces, or just over 93 grams.

Throughout this rapid growth, Raff said, he has not forgotten why he and his son started buying and selling Legos in the first place.

"We just want to be able to have a family business where we all can work together, get experience from it, have fun," he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com.

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