The PopCulteer
July 27, 2018

So more than a month after the fact, after being buried under unexpected work and falling victim to the perils of procrastination and power outages, your PopCulteer is finally ready to tell you about his late-June trip down South to attend the final Official GI Joe Collector’s Club Convention.

A little history first: Years ago, before I was writing PopCult, and right after I had lost my gig as the action figure columnist for Toy Trader Magazine (we were bought up and merged with the inferior Toy Shop Magazine, who offered to pay one-tenth of what I was getting from Toy Trader), Brian Savage, the man behind Fun Publications–the company that ran the Official GI Joe Club and staged the annual conventions, hired me to contribute to I was basically writing the same column that I did for Toy Trader, and had fun doing it.

One of the perks of writing for Toy Trader was that I would have been given complimentary attendance at the annual GI Joe Conventions. These were huge gatherings, sanctioned by Hasbro, and it would have been really cool to get to go to one.

But if you remember your PopCulteer history, this was during the time when I was taking care of my mother following her massive stroke. As her primary caregiver, I couldn’t even consider traveling to a toy show. I was housebound for nearly nine years, and right after that my aunt asked me to help take care of my uncle, which curtailed my travel for an additional eight years.

But Brian and the club were very generous, sending me the expensive 12″ GI Joe convention figures for years…even after the time that I was unable to continue writing for them. I think they sent me six convention sets after I’d turned in my last assignment. These sets usually ran close to three hundred bucks each, and it was ridiculously nice of them to keep sending them to me as long as they did.

So I really like Brian and the GI Joe Club crew, even though I’d never had a chance to meet them in person. Since my uncle passed away, and largely due to the persuasion of Buddy Finethy, I did start attending JoeLanta (now ToyLanta), the second-biggest GI Joe show, and something that has become an annual must-go event for me. Now Mel and I are free to travel, and we’re having a blast doing so.

In 2016, Hasbro pulled the license for the GI Joe Club and the Convention from Fun Publications, and it looked like I’d never get the chance to attend one of their official conventions. They rotated cities, and were usually too far away for me to get to them. However, that year, in Denver, they got a two-year reprieve, and this year, the final-ever official convention, was slated to be held in Chattanooga.

Mel and I had made Chattanooga our resting place on the way to ToyLanta for the last couple of years, so we knew it was within easy driving distance. We prepared to undertake the rather insane schedule of attending WonderFest USA in Louisville the first weekend of June, The Marx Toy Convention in Wheeling the third weekend of June, and the GI Joe Convention in Chatanooga the fourth weekend of June.

Sanity prevailed, and we decided to skip WonderFest this year. Still, our itinerary had us arriving home from Wheeling on Sunday, and then hitting the road to Chattanooga the following Wednesday.

However, there was one other change of plans. Originally I wanted to go all-out for the last official GI Joe Convention and purchase the deluxe admission with the convention set and after-hours events and mingling and casino nights, early admission and all the works. But I discussed this with my buddies at ToyLanta in March, and they told me that I’d be able to see everything I wanted to see in four hours.

I’m not a gambler, and casino night didn’t really appeal to me, and the entire thing, buying attending packages for me and Mel and paying the very high hotel rates to be near the convention would have been a real pain in the wallet. I didn’t think I would get that much out of going for the full package this year.

See, the Official GI Joe Club caters to all versions of GI Joe, but focusses mainly on the 3 3/4″ Real American Hero incarnation of GI Joe. It’s a fine toy, but it means nothing to me. I collecting 12″ GI Joes, and I collect the guys with fuzzy hair and Kung Fu Grip and all the cool adventure trappings. For years, I’ve been burned out on the military aspects of Joe.

So the convention set for 12″ collectors, a two-man Green Beret Machine Gun post, held little interest for me, and the nearly four hundred dollar price tag kept it from being even an impulse buy. It’s a fantastic set, if you’re into the military stuff, but I’m not, so I will admire it from afar. With that, we decided to just go in for one day of the show.

Mel already had her time off blocked out for the whole trip, but now I’d decided that I’d be fine just popping in to the Convention on Saturday morning, getting some cool stuff from the club store, poking around the dealer’s room, and getting out of dodge. I did hope to meet Brian Savage and Lanny Latham, whom I’ve only known online for over twenty years.

That decision left us with a few days to meander down to Chattanooga, so Mel and I decided to have fun and do things we don’t normally do when we travel, mainly I’m talking about tourist-y crap. We hotel-hopped our way down, staying at a different place every night (all the better to rack up rewards points).

I found an outlet mall near Pigeon Forge, so we blundered into ground zero for goofy tourist attractions. Across from our hotel was a Hard Rock Cafe. To the left of that was a giant upside-down mansion. Immediately to the left of that was the Hatfields-McCoys goofball dinner theater. And of course, that was next door to the Titanic.

This is what we saw as we approached our first hotel.

Then we saw this.

We had dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe. It was our first time. The experience was as delightfully horrible as you would expect. Nowhere else on the planet can the words “Hard Rock” be used in conjunction with Taylor Swift and Katy Perry. The memorabilia was very country-centric, with this being Tennessee and all. We turned our brains off and had a blast. It was hokey as hell, but fun.

To be fair, while the place was loaded with memorabilia from Chet Atkins, Ronnie Milsap, Porter Waggoner and other “not-exactly-hard-rock” types, there was some cool stuff, like the Nehru jacket that belonged to Jimi Hendrix (along with a bass guitar, for some reason). That’s it to the right.

For what it’s worth, The Hard Rock Cafe delivered on it’s mission to bring you only-slightly overpriced meals with a whole bunch of cool things to look at while you eat.

They have a stage, which was not in use while we were there.

And it looked pretty cool from the outside.

We skipped the other attractions in that stretch. Turning our brains off enough to enjoy the Hatfields-McCoys Dinner Theater might result in organ failure, so we gave that a pass.

The next morning we checked out of the hotel and hit the Tanger Outlets, and indulged in retail therapy until the place got crowded and we decided to leave before we declared war on all humanity.

On our way to our next stop we hit a few tourist traps along the way. At Cherokee Rose (seen right) Mel got some blue moccasins while I got a Tomahawk (toy) and a cowboy-ish hat (real). We were having a blast and didn’t have to keep to any schedule. It’s a cool little store, filled with cultural appropriation and neat stuff.

Our next stop was a hotel near the sprawling Turkey Creek Mall in Knoxville for some additional retail therapy, and dinner at the wonderful Mimi’s Cafe (below), which is a nice local restaurant down there, and is in no way related to the dingy gambling dens that bear that name up here. We had fun, and rested for the night.

The next morning we checked out of hotel number two and backtracked a bit up Interstate 75 to check out the Knoxville McKay’s. McKay’s is a giant bookstore chain. I don’t mean that it’s a giant chain. It’s a small chain of giant bookstores. There are five or so of them scattered around Tennesee and North Carolina, and they have to be seen to be believed.

I mean, this place was huge, filled with used books, vinyl, action figures, comics, electronics and more. If you ever have a chance to stop in one, do it. Just budget your time carefully because you can easily spend hours here and just scratch the surface of all the treasures within.

Here are a couple of photos to give you an idea…

The thing is, this really doesn’t give you a full idea of how vast this bookstore is.

Seriously, these photos don’t even show the loft.

After McKay’s, we trundled on a bit, using my new smartphone to navigate, and found a cool antique shop called “Nostalgia,” that had some nice pop-culture items. Mel also got to hang out a bit with their store kittys, Felix and Oscar.

Unassuming, but packed to the rafters with coolness.

Felix, and Oscar (under the bench), the store kittehs.

And with that, I have to break this travelogue in two. Here, I set out to write about attending the last ever GI Joe convention in Chattanooga, and I have to take a break before we even get out of Knoxville. Tune in for part two of this wordy epic next week. For now, I have to get ready to hit the road for the Kentuckiana GI Joe Toy Expo.

That’s the PopCulteer for this week…check back for our regular features.