December is toy season.
The toys you played with as a kid may have value other than the emotional kind. And evidence at local stores suggests the retro toy business could be as “healthy” as a muscled-up action figure.
Fan Fortress, which majors in the sale of old and new toys, debuted late last year at 6125 S. Sheridan Road. Business was swell enough that, six months after opening, Fan Fortress moved to a twice-as-big location two doors down from the launch spot.
Broken Arrow’s Vintage Toy Mall, which was christened in 2016, opened a second location in Jenks in November 2019. Breaking news: A deal has been reached to enlarge the original location. A south wall will come down to make way for the Broken Arrow location to expand its footprint by about 40%.
Why are retro toys so coveted nowadays?
“I think it’s nostalgia,” Vintage Toy Mall’s Rasoul Ezzat-Ahmadi said. “Especially right now in a pandemic — and I hate going right to the pandemic for everything. But 2020, despite being closed for six weeks or however long we were closed, our (sales) numbers this year are higher than last year for the whole year.”
Ezzat-Ahmadi said people like to grasp things that are “normal” to make them feel good. When the present isn’t necessarily fantastic, they can go back to things they associate with better times. Childhood toys are synonymous with good times.
Ryan Sokolosky of Fan Fortress suggested the toy business is perhaps recession-proof because there are always going to be collectors who will be in a position to buy toys. He said Tulsa and Oklahoma are blessed with good and active collector communities. Instead of eliminating passions during difficult times, collectors might find comfort in passions they can enjoy from home.
“You may not necessarily be able to take a vacation, but you can buy some Star Wars figures or buy a LEGO set to put together,” Sokolosky said. “When we had our shutdown, we sold pretty much every LEGO set we had, and we sold all of our Gundam model kits. People were trying to stave off cabin fever, I think, and we were able to help with that, I feel.”
Businesses like Vintage Toy Mall and Fan Fortress likely are reaping the benefits of coming along at the right time in history. Long ago, before the internet opened up the world, it was difficult to get a feel for just how big the collector base was. Ezzat-Ahmadi said that unless it was friends in his immediate circle, he had no way of knowing there were people who had way more toys than what his parents considered “normal.”
“I’m mainly a packaged toy collector,” he said. “I think a lot of people have different reasons for collecting. They have different fandoms. There are different topics they are interested in for one reason or another — either they are interested as an adult or they were interested in it as a kid. But the ‘nerd’ fandom, I guess we will call it, is a lot more mainstream now than it was 10 or 20 years ago.”
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Star Wars. GI Joe. Transformers. It’s your time to be cherished all over again.
Vintage Toy Mall can best be described as a toy-centric version of an antique mall. Dealers inside the toy mall stock their booths with merchandise.
Vintage Toy Mall’s creation was sort of an accident.
Ezzat-Ahmadi started a Toy Shield company (toyshield.com) in 2015. The company sells protective cases for toys. The following year, a toy swap partner in California died. Ezzat-Ahmadi worked with the deceased man’s family to appraise the collection left behind.
“They asked if I would buy it,” he said. “I didn’t have a store or plans for a store. I bought it not knowing what I was going to do with it.”
Fast forward a few months and Vintage Toy Mall was born.
“I had no idea that it would do well enough to expand like this,” Ezzat-Ahmadi said. “I’m a computer guy. That’s kind of my main income for paying the bills. When I started Vintage Toy Mall, it was kind of a labor of love knowing full well that everybody that I personally know that has started a toy store has started and failed.”
If you go into the toy business, Ezzat-Ahmadi advises that you should enter with the expectation of not making any money. He said he re-invests proceeds from Vintage Toy Mall into the business.
“I feel like a lot of people that have a small business don’t have the luxury of doing that because they also have to pay bills, and honestly, that’s the only reason I’m expanding as fast as I am,” he said.
“I’m not relying on it for my income, so whatever I make from it goes back into it just for growth. My main focus is growth. Eventually, whenever I do need to take payments from it or take a paycheck from it, I will have the structure in place to allow me to do that.”
Fan Fortress recently celebrated its first anniversary. Sokolosky said Toby Mask, a partner in the business, has been selling toys off and on for about 25 years. Sokolosky said he was 10 or 12 when he became one of Mask’s customers. Sokolosky began selling toys on the side for extra income and the stars ultimately aligned for them to unite under the Fan Fortress banner.
Sokolosky, asked if he wondered whether they could sell enough toys to pay Fan Fortress’ rent, said, “It was definitely scary, but if I was going to take a huge financial risk, I wanted to do it in my 30s and not in my 50s, so I went for it.”
They had reason to be scared when the store went dark during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Cash flow continued by way of online sales, eBay and Facebook. Sokolosky said he hopes to launch a Fan Fortress website in the next month.
Fan Fortress has been around long enough to accumulate “regulars,” but Sokolosky said it seems like there are new faces in the store almost every day. One of the joys of operating a toy store is seeing what customers bring in to sell or trade. Visitors have included collectors and the curious, adults and kids. Maybe it helps that a comic shop, Shadow Mountain Comics, is next door.
Sokolosky was asked if retro toys also are doing well nationally. He said this: “Generally, I think people that are wanting to buy these toys have disposable income to buy these things and then they finally can. A lot of the stuff from the ‘90s has gotten real hot because (people who grew up in that decade) have gotten good jobs and everything else. If you wanted your Power Ranger Megazord when you were 10 and you couldn’t have it and now you’ve got a decent job, now you can. We’re one of those places where you can come get the things you couldn’t get when you were a kid.”