The pandemic had at least one happy outcome, people stayed home and played. When the docuseries A Toy Store Near You brought viewers into the collectible toy store community, they did it to keep the tightly knit group together. The Nacelle Company knows about the power of collective nostalgia. They made Netflix’s The Movies That Made Us, and The Toys That Made Us. But even they were surprised at how many people found comfort in the smallest things. Nacelle will premiere A Toy Store Near You season 3 on June 23, on Amazon Prime Video.
The first season of the behind-the-scenes specialty show showcased store owners scrambling during COVID. Season 2 highlighted the vintage toys. A Toy Store Near You season 3 trots the globe to drop in on stores and lets the owners, employees and sometimes customers explain why this is their favorite vintage toy store. The upcoming season also explores educational and science toys, and brings attention to the local artists who are bringing a new age of collectibles into the community. The documentary series moves quickly through the aisles, but takes time to appreciate the gags, mixing humor with serious play.
Den of Geek persuaded Brian Volk-Weiss, the creator, writer and director of A Toy Store Near You, to take some toys out of the attic.
DEN OF GEEK: I know the point of A Toy Store Near You was to raise money and get exposure for the stores. How are the stores coming out of the pandemic?
Brian Volk-Weiss: This is one of those stories that I’m happy to say is having a happy ending. I would also say a very unexpected happy ending. If you had asked me in July or June of 2020, “How do you think things are going to go for all these stores?” I would have said, “I don’t think it’s going to go very well. I think we’re going to lose a lot of stores.”
By August, everything had changed. Almost every single store that we were talking to, even stores not connected to the series, were having great years or were the best year in the history of the store. The best description I heard of what was going on was from Larry from Blast From The Past Collectibles. Around August or September, he said, and I quote almost verbatim, if not totally verbatim, “Wednesdays are like Saturdays and Saturdays are like Christmas Eve.”
Based on talking to tons and tons of stores, my theory, because there’s a good chance I’m wrong, so I want it to be my bad theory. What I think happened is the public in general, between February and say Julyish of 2020, was very scared about everything. Even people that were not fired or took pay cuts, I think they were worried about getting fired or taking pay cuts, so everybody just drastically scaled back their spending. Then sometime in the mid to late summer, people thought “Hey, maybe I’m not going to get fired. Maybe I’m not going to take a pay cut.” And then they also realized, “I go to Disneyland every year for a week and I didn’t do that this year so that’s five to 10 grand extra. I haven’t gone out to eat for six months.”
Basically, you had all these people that I would say a tremendous percentage of the collecting community did not lose their jobs, did not take pay cuts. And then in the late summer when their confidence returned, they were sitting with an unusually high amount of money in their bank accounts for July and August. And it was like, “Fuck it. Time to buy some shit.”
I want to talk about the community, how much interaction is there between stores themselves?
The stores are incredibly connected to their, for lack of a better word, constituents. I mean all the stores I go to regularly, and I think this is great, I would imagine my wife does not. I’ll walk into the store and they’ll be like, “Oh, Brian, I put this aside for you.” There’s no pressure, there’s no obligation to buy. They’ll be like, “Hey, this just came in. What do you think?” And I’ll be like, “Oh cool.”
I would honestly say, and I am extremely picky about what goes into my collection, I don’t put anything on the shelf unless I’m crazy excited about it. A lot of these stores have an 80 to 90% success rate if they text me or say, hold something for me that I end up buying it and putting it on the shelf. So very connected.
If someone wants a Back to the Future hoverboard, would a store owner know that they can get one at Toy Fusion?
If somebody in that community is a big Back to the Future fan, I would imagine if something like that comes in, they will either text to those fans, or they’ll hold it, or they’ll do a post about it and tag them.
By the way, I have this relationship with my local stores in Burbank, but whenever I’m in Minneapolis, I go to the same two stores. I’m in New York right now and unfortunately a couple of stores went out of business, but it was not because of COVID. They went out before COVID, but because rents have been rising in New York so much.
Will you ever feature specialty record shops or music toys?
We are planning on doing 50 episodes of A Toy Store Near You. Season three only gets us to episode 15. So, if we do 50 episodes, and that’s a big if, then yeah, I would definitely do a record store. I would find that very interesting. Part of why I would find that interesting is I know almost nothing about a vintage record store’s business. I assume there’s some similarities to toys, but I bet you there’s also a lot of differences as well.
How long do you hang out at each store?
That’s such a great question. No one has ever asked me that before. There are times I go to Blast From The Past and I’m in there for 30 minutes. It’s all different. I travel a lot for my job, so frequently I’m going to stores I’ve never been in before, or stores I haven’t been to in a year or two. But the thing that’s so interesting about this hobby is how random it is how the stores get their inventory.
I was in Tucson earlier this year. Phoenix and Tucson are garden spots for vintage toy collecting. I went to seven vintage toy stores in three days. All of them were A or A+. There was not even an A- store.
But one of the stores I went to was this very small store. It was the smallest and the least famous of all the stores. The owner of that store had a walk-in the week before, a widow whose husband had just died. The husband was a huge Trekkie, and not only was he a Trekkie, he was a model maker. He was not just a really good model maker, but he was a really intricate model maker. He would buy these 25, $30 kits that anybody could buy. He would make these gorgeous models that not only were lit up, he would add lights and everything, but they were on these beautiful bases and he had made buttons and stuff so you could turn the lights on and off and everything.
That store got this entire collection of Star Trek stuff. Most of it was extremely unique, meaning they were one of a kind. So, if I had gone into the same store nine days earlier, I probably would have spent five to 20 bucks because they had just gotten all this stuff. I mean I probably spent three, 400 bucks. Like I said, it was a tiny store that had the fewest social media followers. I’m a part of a bunch of toy communities and I’m like, “Hey, I’m going to Phoenix. Hey, I’m going to Tucson.” None of them even mentioned this store, but that’s the store where I spent the most money, and bought the most shit, and spent the most time.
You mentioned the model maker. I noticed that Death by Toys has a local artist who’s affiliated. This season highlights a lot of local artists. Can you tell me about the relationship between the stores and the creators?
It’s a really interesting trend that was always at a low boil for decades. Only in the last three to five years has it really grown exponentially. Basically, what’s happened is everybody, with the rise of 3D printing and the rise of crowdsourcing and all of this stuff going on, a lot of these stores are making the very logical and smart conclusions, “We got a fan base, we have 80 to 300 people coming in every day. Why don’t we just make our own stuff?
Obviously opening a vintage toy store there’s a very high chance that they’re very creative themselves, it just makes sense, partner with a local and start making your own stuff, contribute to, for lack of a better word, pop culture. It’s becoming more and more common and, in my opinion, could not be a cooler thing in general, but also, I think a very good sign of how healthy the business is right now.
I noticed that some of the stores have museums, is this because they want to display the collectibles with respect or is it that they just can’t bring themselves to sell certain items?
Yeah, that’s a great question. A lot of it is that they may not have enough room at home to display it. But also, a lot of the museums are designed to bring in business. A lot of these stores have specialty items that you’re in Sacramento and you go to a store, that’s the only place where you can see certain prototypes. That’s a big draw for this very tight-knit community.
There are a lot of unique, one-of-a-kind things. I think that’s a part of the process where you open a store, it’s going great. But then by the nature of how the business works with maintaining the inventory, which by the way, a lot of that inventory comes from people dying, divorces, finance, someone loses a job and has to raise some money real quick. So, you’re dealing with these very random events. If you’re a restaurant, you do a deal with a farm and you say, “I need 1,000 potatoes a week,” you get 1,000 potatoes a week. Technically all the potatoes look different, but unless you stare at them, they all look the same. A vintage toy store, again, because you’re dealing with divorces, deaths, downsizing, the inventory control process is practically, I wouldn’t say it’s nonexistent, but it’s random.
The museums come about because, very often, because people come in with things that are maybe too expensive to sell, they act like a big, shiny object to get people to come into the store. So yes, definitely connected. But I will tell you this, one of the stores we’ve shown sold very recently their crème de la crème item for a variety of reasons. The stuff in the museum does get sold occasionally.
I love the clips you throw in, things like Dr. Strangelove and the old commercials. Tell me about the editing.
Basically, the whole company now, what I would call our post Toys That Made Us period like Monet had his blue period, or was that Picasso? Somebody had a blue period. I have a comedy background. When Toys That Made Us got greenlit, I didn’t run out and hire editors that I didn’t know to make a show. I hired the editors I was already working with. A lot of those editors had comedy backgrounds.
It’s funny, one of the editors who I’m very blessed to work with and he’s more than just an editor, he’s an EP on everything we do, Ben Frost. I’ll never forget this. We were probably almost done with season 1 of Toys That Made Us. And I was like, “Dude, that last cut you sent me, I was literally crying my eyes out. I was laughing so hard.” Ben was like, “That’s great, man. Other places where I’ve worked, when I do stuff like that, the producers are like, ‘Oh my God, I love it. That is so funny, but you’ve got to cut it.'” And he’s like, “Well, I don’t understand. If you’re laughing and you find it funny, why do I have to cut it?” The answer is usually like, “Ah, that’s not our show. We’re making a documentary.”
From day one, we’ve always infused comedy into what we do. Our rule is we entertain first and if you learn anything or you get any information, that’s a bonus. But our goal is to entertain. The original inspiration for all of this by the way, also goes back to Toys That Made Us where it took me a long time to sell that show. I remember when the show finally got greenlit, it was one of my things I said very early on to the whole crew where I’m like, “Listen, we are making a documentary about fucking toys. It needs to be fun.” That’s what we try to infuse in everything.
I know you are a toy collector. What are your favorite toys?
My collection is over 2,000 pieces. There are less than 20 pieces from my childhood. I’ve never counted, but it’s probably 12 to 15 pieces connected to my childhood. I live in California in the 2020s, so I get to evacuate my house every year because of fires. So, I was able to learn in a real world experience, “Hey shit, we have to evacuate. What am I going to take?”
It’s so funny, I didn’t take any of the valuable stuff the first time. By the way, we now have a whole checklist of what to do when we have to evacuate. But the first time when I literally had 60 seconds to run in, grab stuff and get out, I took my R2-D2 from when I was a kid, I took my Constitution-class Enterprise model, a die-cast, and my Playmate Enterprise, and I had a Stormtrooper from when I was a kid as well. That’s basically what I grabbed when I was running around like a lunatic. We almost forgot to take our pet with us, that’s how frantic it was. Based on that experience, those are the most important toys to me.
Which are the ones that you wouldn’t take out of the box?
It’s funny, the box thing is very interesting. I do not like displaying stuff in boxes. To me, toys are toys. I don’t play with them, but I love the artistry, or the history, or the story behind the toys. All my toy-loving friends make fun of me for this. One of my friends calls me “Brian no box.”
I’ll give you a great example. There’s a specific G.I. Joe vehicle I’m looking for right now, the Warthog. I don’t want to buy it with a box for three reasons. Reason number one, I do not want to display it in the box, so why am I going to pay for it? Sometimes being in the box is 50% more than not being in the box. If I don’t want it in the box, why am I going to pay 50% more for something I don’t want?
Second of all, I’m not going to open the box because that’s just bad. If you’re buying a 40-year-old toy that hasn’t been opened before, it’s not my place. There’s a very finite supply of stuff that hasn’t been opened before, so I feel guilty opening the box.
And then, last but not least, I don’t collect art. I don’t have paintings. I don’t have sculptures in my house or anything like that. I recognize that people think a lot of the artwork from the ’80s and even the ’90s was beautiful and everything should be displayed. That’s great for them. But for me, it’s about the toy and I like seeing the toy on my shelf. I would say less than 2% of my collection, maybe even less than 1% is boxed.
Why is there no substitute for something like the original Wonder Woman golden lasso?
Well, a related story is about G.I. Joe. On the Cobra hovercraft, there’s a spotlight. When the toy was new, the spotlight came with a clear plastic lens. That lens is not only usually missing. Anytime you want to buy one of these things, there is a market for those lenses. It’s so funny, if you buy a complete hydrofoil in good condition, it’ll probably cost you about 300 bucks. That lens is 40 to 50 bucks of those 300 bucks. It’s the same logic with the lasso. There are certain toys like a Luke Skywalker, a Jedi Luke, everybody was like, “What’s Luke without his lightsaber?” So, everybody was very aggressively passionate about the lightsabers and not losing them.
With the Wonder Woman lasso for example, and with the hydrofoil example with the lens, there are other objects that no one really cared about at the time and easily got lost because they weren’t being tracked. And then 30, 40 years later people were like, “Oh shit, I want to get the hydrofoil. I want to get Wonder Woman.” It’s very hard to find things like that in pristine condition with all the accessories that weren’t being tracked religiously, sometimes four decades earlier. If I go to someone’s house and I look at their collection and I see a hydrofoil, the first thing I’m going to do is see if it has the lens. It’s the same thing with Wonder Woman’s lasso where like, “Oh, you have it. Great. But do you have the lasso?” That’s what created that phenomenon.
I noticed a lot of these stores are extremely specialized and some of them are very vast.
There are a lot of stores that are crazy specialized. There used to be a store in New York up until 2018. There was not a single word of English in the store. I mean everything was Japanese vintage. There are stores that focus on role-playing, there are stores that focus on science fiction. Stores like that are getting fewer and fewer, and not because they’re going out of business, but because they’re increasing their product line. They’re basically like, “Hey, this is going great. But we have 10 to 20% of everybody who comes in is asking about X. Maybe we should sell X.” That phenomenon is changing very, very quickly. I’m not seeing as much specialization as I used to. The other thing that’s going on is a lot of stores that for their entire existence, and some of these stores are 20 to 30 years old, only vintage. We’re starting to see a fair amount of those stores slowly but surely get into selling modern.
I’m the Simpsons geek at Den of Geek. You have been all around the world, have you found Comic Book Guy?
Oh yeah. There are tons of people like that. Owning any business is really hard, really hard. It cannot be understated how difficult it is keeping a business afloat, even without a pandemic, dealing with the public is tough. One of the things that these toy stores have in common is a lot of them start with the owner having a crazy collection that they just run out of room. They have a day job that they’re not excited about. So, they’re like, “Fuck it. I’m just going to start a store, and have more room for my collection, and get out of my shitty day job.”
That’s what gets it started. But when you’re sitting there dealing with the public eight hours a day for years, it can get a little grueling. Yeah, that could absolutely lead to a toy store owner maybe not being as jovial in year 10 as they were in year one.
A Toy Store Near You season 3 premieres June 23 on Amazon Prime Video.