Why this Iowa man gave up a 'six-figure income' to pursue his 'Star Wars' dream
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When Andrew Thimmesch had a bad day as a boy, he would crawl under his bed and pick up magical talismans that transported him away from his troubles to a galaxy far, far away.
The talismans were "Star Wars" action figures. The evil Darth Vader crossed plastic lightsabers with the heroic Luke Skywalker.
Young Thimmesch invented his own stories for the adventures of the moment and his problems faded away quicker than the Millennium Falcon could jump to hyperspace.
Thimmesch was not a troubled child. He was just a kid.
Sometimes school wasn't fun. Sometimes he got crossways with his parents. It was normal kid stuff.
He was born in Aurora. His father worked for Union Pacific Railroad Co. and often moved for work.
Thimmesch attended 13 different schools growing up, including three high schools. He played sports and made the most of his constantly changing scenery.
But always there were his "Star Wars" and "G.I. Joe" toys to help him through trouble spots.
Thimmesch grew up and eventually settled in the Des Moines area. For a time, he lived in Pleasant Hill.
There, he met Bo Mendenhall at a gas station near the onramp to Iowa Highways 65 and 5.
Bo and Thimmesch liked the same kinds of movies and shared the same passion for action figures.
Bo introduced Thimmesch to comic books. They became fast friends.
"Some nights, after work, I would go up to the gas station, buy a drink and just sit there with Bo holding court about the latest movies and comics," Thimmesch said.
Thimmesch eventually married and had three children. He became the manager of a Ford dealership near Indianola. He made "a good six-figure income."
Still, that memory of those moments fighting the forces of evil under his bed lingered.
Thimmesch got connected with a television production company.
The producers wanted to make an "American Pickers"-type TV show that focused on popular culture items the way the other show focused on antiques and collectibles for the History Channel.
"American Pickers" began with a pair of guys, Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz, from their Antique Archaeology store in LeClaire. It went on to be a successful series for the cable network.
Thimmesch thought it would be terrific to bring a national TV show to Des Moines. Eventually, he quit his job and focused on competing to be the host of the series.
He rented a space at 5902 Ashworth Road in West Des Moines, a pricey rental space in a prime spot near the retail megalith Jordan Creek Town Center.
Thimmesch renovated the space to create what he thought would be the perfect pop culture landmark in West Des Moines. In October 2016, he opened Pop Culture Utopia.
His store mixes comic books and graphic novels with original artwork. Paintings of characters from "G.I. Joe," "Star Wars" and other 1980s children's adventure series hang on the back wall of his shop, displayed almost like an art gallery.
Pop Culture Utopia's inventory includes a sampling of sports memorabilia with a focus on the Chicago Cubs. He has a couple of vintage arcade games, including Pac-Man.
He also sells vintage toys. He has on display a U.S.S. Flagg, a "G.I. Joe" playset in the form of a 7-foot, 6-inch aircraft carrier that stands about 4 feet tall.
Thimmesch decorated the playset with "G.I. Joe" fighter planes, helicopters and action figures.
The store also offers high-end collectibles. He has one Luke Skywalker action figure from "Star Wars" that's priced at $4,000.
The figure had a production-line error that released it without a lightsaber or gun. These kinds of oddities are of paramount importance to some collectors.
"That's one of only two confirmed in the world," Thimmesch said. "The other one sold at auction for $3,300."
Shortly before Pop Culture Utopia opened, Thimmesch learned the TV producers decided to go with a different store as host for its pop culture-themed "American Pickers" program.
It was a disappointment, but not a crushing to Thimmesch. His buddy, Bo, works at the store, as does his wife and his eldest daughter, Madison, a 16-year-old who graduated early from Waukee High School.
Madison stars in Pop Culture Utopia ads dressed as the Batman villain Harley Quinn, the sometimes love interest of the murderous Joker.
She eventually wants to move to Los Angeles and try to make it in showbiz.
Thimmesch knows the competition is steep in the pop culture market. Mayhem Collectibles in Clive is a stalwart, though it does not sell vintage toys and devotes about half its retail space to gaming.
Jay's CD and Hobby has three stores in the metro, its largest on Southeast 14th Street, with satellite stores at both Merle Hay Mall and Valley West Mall.
Jay's sells vintage figures, though few approach $1,000.
Rodman Comics in Ankeny offers a mix of games, comics and toys, both new and old.
Last month, Black Medicine Comics, which focused exclusively on comic books, closed after a year as a retail business and two years as an online business, unable to get past the "break even" point.
Thimmesch believes he has advantages over all three remaining businesses, the biggest being location.
"We are in the hub of retail activity here," he said. "We're serving a part of the metro that isn't well-served for this kind thing. We have a great niche."
Thimmesch's paycheck may have shrunk since opening the store. He says he's just at the break-even point in the business.
But his ambitions remain big.
"I started out with four goals," he said. "One was to open my own store. No. 2 was to get a TV show. No. 3 was to write a comic. No. 4 is to have my own line of toys based on characters I created."
Some of it sounds like fantasy, but he's already got the store open, and he narrowly missed having a TV show.
And he's already come a long way from the adventures under his childhood bed.
Daniel P. Finney, the Register's Metro Voice columnist, is a Drake University alumnus who grew up in Winterset and east Des Moines. Reach him at 515-284-8144 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @newsmanone.