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Features, Interviews

The King and I: meet Elvis’ biggest memorabilia collector

He has been held at gunpoint by Putin’s “mafia” and single-handedly confronted the Presley Estate. His enterprise rocked the Berlin wall; his legal battles revolutionised trademark legislation and his memorabilia business, Elvisly Yours, is renowned worldwide.

In a crumbling Watford warehouse, fluff from Sid Shaw’s fleece surfs the stifling air and settles on a bust of the King. Two hundred thousand magazines – his pension fund – scale the walls and dampen the light. Elvis’ blue eyes monitor us from clocks, posters, badges, t-shirts, playing cards, bubble bath.

It’s a fortnight since Elvis’ would-be 78th birthday and Shaw’s conversation is rambling. “My mind’s like a Catherine wheel,” he admits. “I’ve got a million stories; sometimes they come out all at once.”

He’s Jim Royle without the beard; an inflated Elvis tribute act whose scratched aviators distort his eyes like translucent saucers. Yet his gap-toothed grin conceals intellect and spunk.

“Given all I’ve been through, most people would have given up years ago,” says Shaw. “I’ve taken on the Memphis mafia, the Russian mafia and the Hackney mafia.”

In March 1999 Elvisly Yours stymied Elvis Presley Enterprises’ attempts to stop his business in Britain. The judges ruled: “there should be no assumption that only a celebrity or his successors may ever market his own character.”

“People are famous because the fans put them there,” he said. “Elvis can’t be trademarked because he’s so famous, he’s generic. I changed history.”

It’s hard to believe that in 1982, when Graceland opened to the public, Shaw supplied all its souvenirs. He held the keys to Shelby County and Memphis City. Five years later the Presley powerbase slapped Shaw with the most powerful commercial injunction to date.

“They didn’t want a slice of my profits, they wanted the lot.”

It’s a measure of Shaw’s self-belief that he ridicules the idea of giving into the “Goliath”: “Most people would back down to their cease and desist letters. Well, screw them. ‘You’re getting your knickers in a twist’, I said, when they sued me for selling ladies’ lingerie.”

The knickers read: “Are you lonesome tonight?” “Love me tender” “It’s now or never”.

“Eventually, they [Elvis Presley Enterprises] wanted $50,000 on each of the 300 products I sold and 4 years back money, that’s $60m.”

He doesn’t hide his disgust when recounting the threats made to his customers: “EPE are so intent on keeping their monopoly they’ll slit their own throats. It’s greed gone mad.

“Elvis would be turning in his grave knowing what’s going on in Graceland.”

Today, he is still not allowed to trade Elvis goods in the US.

Shaw’s tales of the next two decades rollercoaster violently between daring and disaster. His flailing arms, almost choreographed, relay his emotion: they beat the air one minute, cross the next.

“I like to think I helped bring down the Berlin wall,” he said as he recounted opening the first western, Elvis-themed supermarket, in the Soviet Union in 1989.

Three years later, Russian police ransacked $250,000 worth of his goods, cut of all utilities and, ahead of a meeting with Vladimir Putin, then minister for foreign trade, intimidated Shaw into leaving the country.

“It was 1:30am, 6 October 1992. There was a knock at our hotel door.” He thumps the desk. “As I reached for the lock there was a shot. The door flew open and a guy was towering over me with a pistol pushing into my head. Five men behind him had machine guns.”

He rolls his eyes. “Some one up there must be sticking pins in my effigy.”

If Shaw has perfected dealing with this barrage of bad luck, his childhood is to thank.

Born within the sound of Bow Bells in Stepney’s Jewish community inMarch 1946, the youngest of 7, he grew up fast. His mother, Etty, died when he was 11; his father, Joe, when he was 13.

From the age of six Shaw sold linens with brother, Harry, “the most amazing sales man on Shepherd’s Bush [market]”.

“He’d grab a floral duvet set and say to a woman, ‘smell these flowers’. She’d get her friend; someone else would lean in. Suddenly there’s a crowd. ‘Sid! Sid!’ he’d shout and I’d peddle the penny handkerchiefs. He’d created this frenzy and before you know it would be a shilling for a teacloth, £2 for a bedspread.”

“Harry was more like a father to me than my father. I was still his ‘kid’ when I was 50.”

So, entrepreneurialism drives him? “The spirit of it. Most of the time I couldn’t afford to pay for litigation against the Presleys. People represented me for free or I did it myself.

“If you’re fighting from here [pointing his heart] instead of here [jangling his pockets] you’ve got a better chance.”

Sid established Elvisly Yours in 1978 after a dissatisfying teaching career that swerved between students’ foul language and flying used sanitary towels.

“I sold my house and moved into my partner Maureen’s 3-room Harlesden flat, where I made busts of Elvis in the garage. It was a huge gamble.

Thirty-four years on Elvisly Yours exports to 50 countries and has sold over 3000 items. Shaw’s favourite item is the talking clock. He winds up one up and laughs: “It’s 4 o’clock and I’m all shook up.”

“My biggest regret since I’ve started is not keeping one of everything, I could’ve opened a museum. You always think you can get more items and suddenly you’ve sold your last one.”

Why Elvis? “He was the best, no one can match him, not Michael Jackson, not Madonna. If you don’t like him, you don’t like music. He did all the genres.”

“I used to hang around market stalls with Elvis records and sit in the fish and chip shop that played him on the jukebox.”

Shaw fails to convince me that he’s not absolutely fanatical about side-burned star as he hums ‘Teddy Bear’, the first record he bought.

“I’m not a collector, I just sell to collectors” he insists. “Some fans have their homes covered wall-to-wall Elvis. I don’t want to over-do it.

The crease of his feigned-serious mouth wriggles into a sly grin: “although, I do own a lock of his hair.”

Indeed, Shaw stood for the Elvis party in the 1984 Chesterfield by-election, winning 20 of the 52,000 votes cast. He sang along to ‘That’s the way it is’ during a hip replacement last year.

He places Elvis on a pedestal: “He’s brought more pleasure to more people that anyone else in history. Jesus, Mohammed, too many people have died for religion. Look at Northern Ireland, the Middle East: if they sat down and listened to a little Elvis they would drop as many bombs”

Shaw’s unashamedly proud of his achievements. With each anecdote he parades photos and mementoes. Yet there’s something pained with each memory. His enthusiasm, I feel, overcompensates a little too much.

“I should be a millionaire,” he admits. “EPE took $16million … I can’t do anything without a struggle.”

“It’s not all business, I lost my wife Maureen to cancer in 2007.”  The two teachers met during a 1971 ‘Milk Snatcher’ protest. “She was always behind me, supporting me, never on the front stage.” His eyes pierce the floor, cheeks tense, flush.

Having raised thousands for charity since 2007, Shaw’s future plans include hospice work, healing with humour. He also wants to conduct shows and open themed restaurants across the UK.

Reflecting on his own legacy he added: “I’m not deluded enough to think my fifteen minutes of fame haven’t passed.”

“If I’ve made people happy that’s the main thing. I’ve done that as a teacher, with Elvisly Yours and I plan to do in hospices. Making someone smile, it’s worth everything.”

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Rae Boocock, 24. An aspiring journalist. Loves: interviewing, writing, reporting, reading, current affairs, culture, travel, food and feminism.

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