Arts & Culture News

Dallas Toy Story: Inside the World of Toy Collecting

A collection of vintage toys "made cool" in recent times
A collection of vintage toys "made cool" in recent times Scott Tucker
Why do people collect things? Records, concert tickets, stamps and even toys can easily fall into the category of clutter in a world of cloud technology, celebrated minimalism and the ever-advancing strategies to simplify one’s life. Why have a record collection 500 units deep when you can simply keep all of your favorite albums at the touch of a smartphone screen?

The answer to this question may be primal, with human beings' instincts to collect assets going back as far as the Stone Age, when amassing food and tools were important for survival.

Dr. David Henderson, a psychiatrist and owner of the Four Stones Collaborative Group, which specializes in mental health and wellness practice, believes collecting objects to be a thoroughly human attribute.

“Humans have collected since the dawn of time,” he says. “Our tendency to forget leads us to seek out tokens or memorials of experiences that have had a significant impact on our lives. There is a nostalgia to it, a psychological connection to persons, places, activities or events from our past that brought us great joy, safety and/or identity.”

Fast forward several millennia to 2019 and the practice of collecting objects may be at a precipice. TV series like Hoarders and Slobby's World illustrate the thin line between collecting and straight-up insanity. In 2017, Netflix released a short series called The Toys That Made Us, featuring stories, interviews and a veritable time warp back to the “golden age” of toy production when companies like Hasbro, Mattel and Kenner made huge profits producing some of the coolest toys to ever hit the market.

G.I. Joe, Masters of the Universe, Barbie and Star Wars figures were on just about every kid’s Christmas list in the '80s, and the brands produced an impressive arsenal of figurines, vehicles, playthings and accessories kids were dying to have. Thirty-five years later, the toys that survived decades of play have lived on to fulfill collectors’ hearts as nostalgic idols of simpler times.

“People collect toys to either re-buy what they had as a kid, or to get the toys they always wanted and couldn't get their parents to buy them," says Shaun Neinast, owner of the well-stocked vintage toy superstore, Dallas Vintage Toys. "They simply don’t make toys like they used to and they never will. The 1970s and 1980s were the golden age of the toy industry.”

“For the avid collector, the continued searching out of new items for the growing menagerie feeds a longing I think we all have had at some point in our lives: to know that this world still holds hidden treasures." — Dr. David Henderson

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Neinast has been in the collectibles business since the wee age of 7, selling sports cards from a stand he set up in his parents' front yard while most kids in the neighborhood sold lemonade. After graduating college and finding the finance world a bore, he opened Dallas Vintage Toys in 2009 and has made a career out of knowing which weapon belongs to who in a box of what most would call garage sale rubbish.

Neinast always gives one piece of advice for any collector getting into the hobby: “Always collect what you like. Take your time and enjoy it, otherwise you will burn out.” Star Wars toys are Neinast’s passion.

With Disney’s new Star Wars movie due out this Christmas, the demand for Star Wars collectibles is now multi-generational and bigger than ever. This summer sees Hasbro re-release a limited amount of retro Star Wars figures exclusively available through Target. Upon their initial release, the company’s website sold out of the figures immediately. On the second day, Target pulled all of the products because they couldn't meet demand. The figures are now selling for three times the sticker price in the secondary market.

Popular culture now celebrates what some may refer to as “nerd culture” in ways that can be liberating for some and frustrating for others. Collecting miniature figurines was not always as socially acceptable as it is today, says Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital physician Dr. Stephen Vu.

“I started collecting Star Wars re-releases in 1996," Vu says. "A friend in college collected too, and we kept it hidden from everybody. After the movie The 40-Year-Old Virgin came out, all the sudden it became cool. Then when I was in residency at Presbyterian Dallas, I started to collect vintage and bought my first serious vintage piece. My wife was cool with it too. ... She puts up with it.”

Dr. Vu is one of many regular faces in Dallas’ rich and diverse collector community. Over the last few years, several other specialty shops including The Lost Toys, Holocron Toys, Piranha Vintage and Retro Madness have opened brick-and-mortar stores or websites selling collectibles, while mainstays like DVT and Duncanville Bookstore have anchored the community for over a decade.

There are Facebook groups, email lists and even private meet-up groups for the high rollers. These elite collectors buy prototypes, ultra-limited releases and even movie props when offered up. Some of these items fetch a price within the range of a luxury SUV. At the end of the day for most though, it’s all about the toys.

“I just think collecting toys is good because it’s relaxing," says avid collector and toy community staple Trevor Duke. "Action figures put me at ease, and I just don’t see myself collecting anything else.”

As Henderson suggests, it’s the connection to a special time or place that makes these collections so important to collectors. Henry Velasquez, the manager of Dallas Vintage Toys, has worked in the business over the last five years and has seen the niche toy industry grow dramatically with subsequent releases of the DC, Marvel and Star Wars movie franchises.

“I’ve never seen anyone walk out of here and say, ‘I’m done.’ ... It’s an endless cycle, and when people run out of space, they start all over again," Velasquez says of his clientele. "There is also that thrill of knowing it’s never going to end.”

Whether it's limited edition action figures, art or bellybutton lint that people collect now, they will probably be collecting it through the end of time.

“For the avid collector," Henderson says, "the continued searching out of new items for the growing menagerie feeds a longing I think we all have had at some point in our lives: to know that this world still holds hidden treasures, if only we search long and hard enough.” 
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