Uphill Both Ways: Toy Collecting Before Ebay

Last night I talked awhile on the phone with Seth, one of my oldest friends, and we reminisced about what toy collecting was like in 1992 or 93.

It was a very different scene in those days - actually, it wasn't a scene at all. It was just the two of us, really. None of the comic book shops in town had large sections of Star Wars memorabilia. There wasn't a store in town that sold such things. There certainly wasn't an ebay. But it was an age of bargains. I was into collecting Star Wars stuff (this did NOT make you cool in those days) and Seth was into Transformers (this did not make you cool then, either). Star Wars and Transformer geekiness wasn't at all like it would later become in those days - the great transformer revival, in particular, was something we never would have predicted.

And in those days, man, the hard part was just finding the stuff in the first place - action figure dealers were harder to find than drug dealers (I guarantee you there were more drug dealers in Des Moines than toy dealers). We spent countless saturdays biking to garage sales, wandering around the giant flea market at the fairgrounds, and bugging kids around the neighborhood who were cleaning their closets. Now and then we'd have really big scores - shoeboxes full of figures for five bucks, boxes of vehicles for ten. Seth once got an ENORMOUS box of transformers - so big we had to take turns shlepping it - for about ten bucks. I got to where I could spot a booth with Star Wars stuff at a flea market from any point in my peripheral vision.

We would scour the newspaper classified ads - there'd be someone selling Star Wars stuff about every six months or so. We had a whole catalog of vague leads; people who knew they had a whole case of stuff in their attic somewhere, thrift stores (that may or may not have existed) in some small town or another that were said to have a box of stuff sitting in the corner. I bought a whole bunch of stuff from some guy out in Colfax, and a Cantina Adventure Set from a guy named Doug who turned out to be a serious collector - he had two ROOMS full of stuff, and was my hero.

If we needed a specific piece of some sort, the process generally involved writing letters to comic book shops that advertised in the back of Action Figure News and Toy Review (which, itself, was not easy to come across, as no store in the area I could go on my bike carried it). Or risk my parents' wrath by making a long distance call to one of them - a call that could cost me a dollar that could have been spent on a Marvel Tales Spider-man reprint or a slim jim and a jolt cola.

My main hunt then was for Imperial Dignitary, a wrinkly dude in purple who appears for about five seconds in Return of the Jedi. I never saw a loose one for sale, only carded ones (one of which I eventually bought when the opportunity came up - we drove to the address of one of the stores that advertised in magazines on a trip to Chicago. It was just someone's house, in reality, but the woman was very nice and sold me some of the stuff that they had in stock in their living room). There are currently several loose ones on ebay, all for what would have been a dream price for me even at the time. And blank "card backs" with bubbles are easy to get - NO ONE had those then, or knew of anyone who did. Getting some of those was like a pipe dream for me.

If you'd told me about ebay then, it would have seemed like a dream come true. And it is, in many ways. Maybe the Good Old Days are now.

In other ways, though, it's ruined collecting. For all practical purposes, the vintage figures are still in stores - more expensive than they were in 1985, but just about as easy to get. Even in 1985, getting a Han Solo in carbonite was nearly impossible. Now, if you have the cash, it's as easy as placing a bid.

I remember one spring, around this time of year, Seth and I made a pilgrimage to Mason City, Iowa, to visit a comic book shop that sold figures - the guy who ran it was kind of a jerk, but he usually had the best booth at the flea market. This is probably the only time that anyone, anywhere, EVER, got excited about a trip to Mason City, Iowa. It was a great day for me, one that I'll always remember fondly, even though the place didn't turn out to be a particularly great score. And there'd be absolutely no point in taking that trip nowadays.

And we didn't have emo, either. In my day we had "alternative." And we didn't get to download it, we had to buy it, or copy it off a friend. And there were no CD-Rs; we had to use cassettes. And we liked it! We liked it fine!

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Adam's New Book: Sept 2013