Toy Story  by Sarah Ellerman


       They lived in a store called The White Elephant. It's the kind of place that never rotates its inventory off the shelves. Toys from decades past are still sitting in their rightful places, sporting their original prices. Sometimes, a door disappears behind a messy pile of boxes, and a storeroom is forgotten for years. By the time a clerk glances at the blueprints and opens it back up, it's a grown-up's Christmas, the secret dream of every toy collector--a forgotten vault from another era.
       It was at the White Elephant that Pam Green stumbled onto a collection of punk-rock Jem dolls. Green, a money-conscious student at the time, was impressed by the fact that the proprietors were selling off the campy divas for ten bucks apiece, when collectors were willing to pay between $20 and $40 for a doll. To this day, she's never sold any of that day's find, but was pleased to be able to start off her toy collecting so affordably. Now Green is in the full swing of the hobby--author of a Web page ( http://weber.u.washington.edu/ ~pkgreen/pamstoys.html) and a participant in that ever changing worldwide conversation better known as the Usenet newsgroups.
       "Usenet is the heart of the toy-collecting community online," says Eric G. Myers, creator of a Web site called Raving Toy Maniac ( http://www.mdacc.tmc.edu/ ~neuro/eric/rtm/rtm.html). He believes this wholeheartedly. Although Web pages have transformed the collector's world, the sites can suffer from being static and one-sided. It's in newsgroups such as rec.toys.misc and rec.toys. action-figures (which Myers helped develop) that the essentials of the hobby take place--gossip, trading, support and admiration. "The whole hobby is experiencing a real boom right now," Myers says. "The explosion of sites related to action figures and toys in general is just incredible, and I think it's been over the last year that that's really bloomed."


FALLING IN LOVE

       To the toy connoisseur, the choice of toy is nearly as personal and important as one's life work or spouse. Thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours are spent on these playthings. How do people meet and fall in love with "their" toys?
       An unwary Suzanne Rich was led into an addictive LEGO habit when she found out that a train set she liked was going to be discontinued. "I was just terrified that I wasn't going to be able to get this set, so that collector instinct came out. I bought that train set, and that was it: It was like an avalanche after that." Rich, author of Suzanne's LEGOphile Homepage (http://sebago.internet.com/~srich/), owns about 200 sets, which adds up to about 22,000 pieces. "Now that I have a real job," she explains, "I'm able to buy all the toys that I wanted as a kid."
       Action Girl's Guide to Female Action Figures ( http://members.aol.com/ sarahdyer/index.htm) is penned by Sarah Dyer, a comic artist. Her site is a vast encyclopedia of female figures such as Catwoman, Star Trek's Tasha Yar and ReBoot's Dot Matrix. Her hobby is a logical extension of her comic, Action Girl. "I'm not really a comics collector, and I don't read a lot of comics, especially modern comics," Dyer says. "But I started collecting the old Supergirl and Wonder Woman and then weird characters that were girls." Her specialty leapfrogged from there.
duncan imperial        David Hall, who runs Dave's Wonderful World of Yo-Yos, (http://www.nmia.com/ ~whistler/yo-yos.html) says the Smothers Brothers sparked his lifelong fascination with yo-yos. "The geometry and the dynamics of the yo-yo, it's such a complicated thing, and yet it's so simple," Hall rhapsodizes. "I mean, you can see a piece of string attached to a piece of wood and it spins. It's so simple that you can't even mathematically precisely determine what's going on, but you get a sixth sense about it."
       One thing is indisputable--the super-kitschy decades of times past inspire the avid toy collector. Green's fetish for the pink-haired, fishnet-stockinged Jem stems from the fact that "in a way, Barbie could never capture this period of the '80s. Jem dolls have these weird funky clothes." Barbie projects a more sanitized and timeless image. Similarly, Adam Tyner's interest in He-Man action figures ( http://www.awod.com/gallery/ rwav/ctyner/he-mant.html) is borne of nostalgia for his childhood in the decade of the Masters of the Universe. However, Dyer finds her inspiration in another timeline. "I find that the comics coming out now--they have nothing to offer me. There's nothing in them that I'm interested in, but I went back and found comics made before I was even reading them, mostly '60s comics, and I just really enjoy them."
       These collectors are serious about what they do. They work hard to track down rare models, write extensive catalogs, fact-check and photograph. Do they ever find time to play? To Hall, the yo-yo is "more than just a toy, it's an entire hobby. It's a toy in that I buy the new ones, and I play with them, I can do almost all the advanced tricks. It's very recreational and great for relaxation. But at the same time it's intellectually stimulating trying to find avenues of finding more for the collection."


THE NET CONNECTION

       Rich's favorite pastime with LEGO is piecing together sets and scenarios that LEGO doesn't officially make, such as an intricate chessboard. She finds that her cohorts on the Net egg her on. "It's really fun when people see [the creations], and they write to you and say, ŽOh, I really like the way you used that piece,' and they actually know that piece pretty well," she laughs. "It's neat, because a lot of people in the physical world around me have no clue why I do this, or don't know anything about LEGO, or aren't really interested, but on the Internet, you're apt to bump into somebody with the same weirdo interest as you."
       Dave Hall uses the Net to keep in touch with a group of yo-yo fanatics. "It's really important to [compare notes] because a lot of these companies, like the old Duncan company, didn't keep very accurate records of exactly what they made or when they made it." One of Hall's goals is to fill in gaps in the historical timeline and record stories of yo-yo culture. For her part, Jem collector Green actually says that her collecting habits have changed because of her Web page. Now she says she often thinks of her Web site first and her collection second when coming upon newly discovered dolls and accessories. The possibility of communication, of dialogue, has transformed a hobby that can lean toward the self-indulgent into a kind of education. For instance, Tyner scoured DejaNews to find everyone who had ever written a word about He-Man. "I compiled a list," says Tyner. "It started out with 12 names, and now there are over 250 people who get my newsletter. It was one or two in the morning on winter vacation. I'm not sure why I did it, it seems odd now, but I'm glad I did." His site thrives due to this tight community of He-Man fans. Myers echoes these themes of sharing and community-building. "In terms of bringing us together as individuals that are sharing a love for these things," he says, "the Internet has become the medium of choice. I can't think of how I would do this and get as much enjoyment out of it if I didn't have the Internet, the Web pages, and especially, primarily, the Usenet newsgroups."


FOR LOVE OR MONEY?

       The hobby has long felt the schism between those who collect for love and those who do it for money. "Unfortunately, now, we're seeing an invasion of people who are really into speculating," Myers says. "The popular term for them is Žscalpers.'" Scalpers make it their business to buy up hot or short-packed items. They then re-sell them immediately at inflated prices. This practice is easily the most inflammatory debate in the community, because scalping is highly visible when dealers post unreasonable prices in the newsgroups.
play-doh        "If you want to make an investment, go buy stocks and bonds," Myers sighs. "The toy market is right on the brink of a major correction." He explains that toys are being hyped and marketed using many of the methods of the now-collapsed comics industry. "The problem with toys is that you can take a toy back. You can take it back, and get your money back, or get a credit at the store. Try doing that with a comic or an open pack of trading cards. You can't do it. So until stores are really willing to address their return policies, the action figure and toy speculation market will continue because it's really a very low-risk venture." Sure, everyone's heard the stories about people who socked away the Star Wars line in 1979 and made a mint. But because of those very stories, Myers says, "every action figure released in the last five years will be in very good supply in the coming years. In great condition, too." His ultimate advice is, "If you stick with what you like, you can't go wrong. If you're chasing the latest trend, you're more than likely going to wind up with a worthless piece of plastic that you're going to try to sell in a year."
       Dyer agrees that people should remember the inherent joy and fun in toys. She keeps her "girl army" spread out around her office and rearranges them when she's bored. "I'm definitely not one of those people who is collecting for value and keeping them on the card and everything," she says.
       The overriding feeling permeating the toy pages is one of good karma and a refreshingly innocent set of ethics. "It's all right to not make a profit. It's all right to just collect and trade and not rip people off. It's all right to help people out," Myers says. "If I had to make a slogan for the newsgroup, it would be, This can be a collaborative and cooperative venture if you want it to be."


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