Notes on Pop Culture: Toy Collecting in the Early 90s

Some time ago I talked on the phone with Seth, one of my oldest friends (he's the guy who tells you take up "old timey dentistry" on The Smart Aleck's Guide's How to Make History Come Alive video), and we reminisced about what toy collecting was like in 1992 or 93.

Back then, I was into collecting Star Wars stuff. This did NOT make you cool in the early 1990s. Seth was also into Star Wars, but his main collections were '80s-era GI Joes and Transformers (this did not make you cool then, either). 

Besides just making us look like nerds down at the middle school, Star Wars and Transformers fandom barely even got you any geek cred in those days. We knew Star Wars would one day make a comeback when the new movie finally came out (waiting for the fourth Star Wars movie had been a part of my life since pre-school) , but the great Transformer revival, in particular, was something we never could have predicted. 

Collecting 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 - or any section at all, for that matter. At most, they might have an old lunch box for sale - and selling vintage GI Joe and Transformers was unheard of. There wasn't a store in town that sold such things. There certainly wasn't an ebay, either - the internet existed, but the only guy I knew who USED it was this one guy at the comic book shop who used to say "Yeah, AOL says there are millions of people online, but when you go on, there's like, two other people, tops." 

But this was age of bargains. 


Since action figure dealers were harder to find than drug dealers in Des Moines,  we had to rely simply finding stuff "in the wild." We spent countless Saturdays biking to garage sales and wandering around the giant flea market they had once a month at the fairgrounds. Now and then we'd have really big scores - shoeboxes full of Star Wars figures for two bucks, boxes of vehicles for five. Seth once got an ENORMOUS box of transformers - so big we had to take turns shlepping it - for about ten bucks. I got to a point where I could spot a booth with Star Wars stuff at the flea market from any point in my peripheral vision. Most of what we found was not in mint condition - the figures tended to be badly sandboxed, and the original packaging was almost never present , though we DID occasionally find stuff "in the box," - I once got the Dengar and a Hoth Han Solo still on their Empire Strikes Back cards (albeit with the UPC seals cut out) for three bucks each at a garage sale near the K-mart. Condition was no matter to us, really - just finding the stuff at all was enough for us. It was all about the hunt.

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 said they had a whole trunk of stuff in their attic somewhere, people who said they'd call us when they got around to cleaning the garage, 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 Star Wars stuff, much of it still in the original packaging, and was my hero.

If we needed a specific piece of some sort (I only needed about a dozen of the old Kenner Star Wars figures by seventh grade), 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 - the only store in town that had it was Dragonfire Comics, which was outside of the area where I could take my bike without getting in trouble). Or, if I was impatient, I could 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 goal then was to score an Imperial Dignitary figure - the Imperial Dignitary was 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 during a trip to Chicago). 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 on Ebay - 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 find. I remember one spring day when Seth and I got a ride from his dad to Mason City, Iowa, to visit a comic book shop that sold Star Wars 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 music, 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 or tape it off the radio during the 3 hours per week that the classic rock station played new songs. And there were no CD-Rs; we had to use cassettes. And we liked it! We liked it fine!


Anonymous said...

o man. The bike rides that would go on forever, all in the hopes of scoring some 3rd hand action figures at a garage sale. If we had only known that toys would make us geek chic years later. I will never forget those monthly pilgrimages to "Iowa's largest indoor flea market".

Wayfair discounts said...

When action figures are hard to find, that makes them even more appealing to people who like them. It's just like having great art or an unusual chair. All of those things can add to the value of your portfolio and make your home look better.

Juno said...

I will never forget those monthly pilgrimages to "Iowa's largest indoor flea market".

Adam's New Book: Sept 2013