Marty Garrett and Salumeh Eslamieh gave up their garage for Hello Kitty.
The married couple turned the garage of their San Francisco home into a permanent showroom for their vast Hello Kitty collection. Museum-style glass cases hold hundreds of rare and vintage Kitty items, including a rotary phone from 1976 and a gumball machine from 1983. A four-foot-tall fiberglass statue of the Sanrio character, which Garrett calls "the holy grail of our Hello Kitty collection," stands in the corner.
The couple met and bonded over the little white cat (or the little girl with kitty ears and whiskers, if you prefer), and will be traveling to Los Angeles this week celebrate the character's 40th birthday at Hello Kitty Con, a four-day festival dedicated to all things Kitty.
"This is the first time there has ever been a fan convention of this kind," Sanrio spokesman Dave Marchi said. "It's the only one happening anywhere in the world."
And it's already sold out. More than 25,000 fans are expected; An exhibition at the neighboring Japanese American National Museum, "Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty," will continue through April 26, 2015.
Garrett and Eslamieh, both 32, were already Hello Kitty fans before they met, and their union has only fueled their fandom. Though most of their Sanrio collection lives in the garage-turned-showroom, there are pieces sprinkled throughout their house. The couple keeps a mini Hello Kitty kitchen inside their real kitchen, and they hand-painted a skylight above their dinner table with Sanrio characters.
"It's a pretty substantial part of our interests together," said Garrett, a lanky man with an armful of tattoos. "It does sort of guide and direct the things we do."
During their courtship, Garrett worked at a Sanrio store where Eslamieh would often visit. When the store closed, they bought its giant Sanrio sign, now on display in their showroom.
They visit Sanrio stores where ever they find them. They made a special trip to Japan to visit PuroLand, Tokyo's Sanrio theme park, and went to Honolulu's Sanrio Cafe on their honeymoon.
"I always wanted more Sanrio," said Eslamieh, who has a Hello Kitty tattoo on her shoulder and a Sanrio symbol on her wrist. The college professor confessed that her mother once called a radio psychiatrist for advice about her daughter's lifelong obsession with Kitty/kiddie characters.
"You have to like cute things, and that's just not some people's personality," said Eslamieh, who keeps her love of Kitty separate from her professional life. "The products and designs are simple enough and cute enough that they fit in a semi-sophisticated home."
Garrett, an elementary school teacher, has always been a collector. He came to Hello Kitty through comic books and anime, inspired by the breadth of characters and products available. He collects video games, too, and has 676 of the 677 original Nintendo games.
"Marty inspires the collecting part," Eslamieh said of her husband, who also considers himself "the biggest Monkichi fan" — another Sanrio character that looks like a monkey. He boasts a complete collection of everything Monkichi has appeared on, housed in a floor-to-ceiling closet in the couple's guest room.
Garrett has integrated his love of Sanrio stuff into his work. Some of the couple's collection is kept in his fourth-grade classroom at Lawton Alternative School. Seasonal Sanrio banners hang outside the door, a giant acrylic Hello Kitty face greets students inside, and a pile of plush toys sit atop the bookcase.
"There are so many pressures in this profession that can bring you down, so it's good to stay afloat with the cuteness of Hello Kitty and Sanrio," he said.
"And especially that he's a man," Eslamieh added, "it gives boys license not to have to be so macho."
Garrett will participate in a panel at the convention called "Guys love Hello Kitty too!" Eslamieh will also appear on a panel with other collectors: "For the Love of the Red bow - Super Fans Unite!"
The event will include hands-on workshops, where attendees can try scrapbooking, cake decorating, jewelry making and other Kitty-themed craft projects. Real tattoo artists will be on hand to ink guests with Hello Kitty. Temporary tattoos and nail art stations will also be available, along with plenty of shopping opportunities, with new Hello Kitty merchandise that includes everything from limited editions Beats by Dre headphones to Jeffrey Campbell custom platform shoes.
"She's world-renowned and beloved everywhere," Marchi said of the character that first appeared on a coin purse from Japan's Sanrio Co. in 1974. "From that humble coin purse, she has helped spawn an $8 billion enterprise."
Follow AP Entertainment Writer Sandy Cohen at www.twitter.com/APSandy .
If you go...
HELLO! EXPLORING THE SUPERCUTE WORLD OF HELLO KITTY: Oct. 11- April 26 at the Japanese American National Museum, 100 N. Central Avenue, Los Angeles; www.janm.org , (213) 625-0414. Open Tuesday to Sunday 11 a.m. - 5 p.m., Thursday noon to 8 p.m. Adults, $9; seniors over 62, students with ID and children 6-17, $5; children 5 and under, free.