In this post, I’d like to pay tribute to what I fondly call “the Magic Toys ‘R Us.”First, a bit of background. Back in ye old dayes of the 1980s, action figures were relatively plentiful. You could walk into Child World or Caldor’s and find a rack of C3PO, R2D2, He-Man, Skeletor, Trapjaw, and any other popular figure you were looking for. Some figures were a bit harder to find than others, but eventually you’d be able to find just about anything at retail.
That began to change in the late 1990s, when action figure collecting became an adult collector’s hobby as much as a kids’ childhood rite.
But scalping was taken to a whole new level–and not just in action figure collecting, but in pretty much any collector’s hobby you can imagine–by the advent of eBay. In the early days of eBay, there were plenty of deals to be had. I was able to amass quite a collection of old 1980s toys from my childhood for relatively reasonable prices. By the early 2000s, savvy eBay sellers had started to use the power of the Internets to make better profits. With a few clicks of a keyboard, a Midwestern grandmother can hit a toy website and find out those old G.I. Joe dolls her son left in the attic are worth $100 or more. Soon, prices for the action figure after-market went up as a whole.
And then it got worse. Enter the action figure scalper–fat, smelly, goateed misanthropes who live in their parents’ basements (I’m stereotyping here…partially, anyway), and who wait outside toy stores before opening on shipment day so they can go in and buy entire waves of brand-new action figures to sell on eBay. Due to the rising costs of plastic and production, action figures are harder in general to get these days. And the scalpers make it ten times worse. Yes, you can try and blame the collector who pays ridiculous prices online for the toys, but on eBay, the highest bidder always wins, and there’s always some crazy person or trust fund baby who is willing to pay some ridiculous price–thank you very much, Buy-It-Now.
(Of course, scalping is nothing new in toy collecting. In the 1980s and early ’90s you could always hit a science fiction convention and find some comic shop owner willing to sell you a MOC Boba Fett–provided you could drop $75 or more. I distinctly remember begging my parents to buy me a 1979 Kenner Alien figure that was on sale at a flea market. The price? A mere $200. Yeah…though my parents often indulged my toy-related whims, that was one battle I had no chance of winning–and rightly so.)
The end result of all this is that there’s really no cheap way to get action figures anymore, other than beating the scalpers and finding them at a retail store.
So recently, I’ve started to order most of my action figures from online retailers. Yes, you have to pay shipping, but when you factor in the cost of all the gas and time spent driving around to retail stores looking for toys, it more than balances out. What’s more, some toy companies have started to figure out that a good way to cater to collectors is to make it easier to order online. Thus, Hasbro has its own toy shop, while Mattel is changing its case ratios for DC Superheroes–my favorite line, at the moment–so that a case contains one of each figure from the wave and one variant, meaning that collectors who order a case won’t get any pointless extra figures.
So, I do most of my ordering online these days. But in the interest of saving a little cash, as well as satisfying a deep-seated need for instant gratification, I’ll still cruise the retail stores from time to time. And throughout September and October, I was hitting the stores pretty hard trying to find some rare DC Superheroes figures. My searches of the local Targets and Wal-Marts invariably came up empty. The Toys R Us near my parents’ house in the South Shore was similarly vacant. But then I found the Magic Toys R Us.
I’m not going to tell you where it is, because I want to preserve the secret. Suffice to say, though, it’s not in any place where you wouldn’t expect scalpers to haunt, so I’m not sure why it always has what I’m looking for.
And I mean that. It always has what I’m looking for. Not “it often has cool stuff, that I pick up when I stop by.” No, it has exactly what I went in looking for.
That wasn’t entirely true the first time I discovered its magic. While it did have an amazing find, I didn’t specifically go into the store looking for it. That first discovery was the Toy Island Creature from the Black Lagoon. I’d seen the figures online, but the only way to get them was to order a full set. I only wanted the Creature, so I’d tried to get some friends to pool our money and buy a case, to no avail. So I was surprised to come across the Creature at that Toys R Us. It was a great find, one of those fist-pumping victory moments (even though the thing was way overpriced at $13).
Cut to a few weeks later. I’m on the hunt for a line called Legendary Heroes, which features a number of independent comic book heroes. I read online that they’re popping up in Wal-Marts all over Massachusetts, so I start hitting the Wallyworlds. For weeks, nothing. Then one day, I walk into the MTRU and there they are–a full set of Legendary Heroes.
At this point, it was a bit odd that the only place I was having any luck was this TRU, but I didn’t think too much of it. It started to get weird when I went in there one day specifically looking for a purple Bizarro–a relatively rare variant in the aforementioned DC Superheroes line. I don’t think I’d ever seen one in a store, and it was only that day that I decided to start looking for him. My fiancee and I were in the area, so I went in and there he was. Nothing else I was sort of half-looking for–no Two-Face, no Clayface or Catwoman. Just the purple Bizarro I’d went in to find. And there was only one.
A couple weeks later, I found the Two-Face there. There was only one. A couple weeks after that, I found Catwoman and Clayface (the latter a strong candidate for my Toy of the Year vote–I’ll discuss him in greater detail later). Again, I found only one of each.
I did have to hit this particular place a few times to make all these finds–they weren’t always there every time I walked in–but what’s significant is that I never saw any of these toys anywhere else. Not in Wal-Mart, not in Target, not even in another TRU. Just that one store.
There’s only one logical conclusion to make, of course: a magical elf lives in that Toys R Us and keeps telepathic track of what I’m looking for and creates them from thin air just before I walk in.
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Now, I’m off to look for $1 million in unmarked bills.