Thursday, April 4, 2013

There are Toys in New York

But it's not a Mecca for toy collectors.

And that may actually be a bit strange, because New York had literally everything you could imagine, and lots of it. Shopping in NYC was an amazing experience, and if you were looking for shoes, clothes, jewelry, food. I hoped the toy stores would match the quality of the other stores. I guess they did, it's just that my expectations to the toy stores were significantly higher than those towards clothing stores. There's also the fact that I know where to find toys in abundance: online. The online toy stores and forums are the best places to buy toys, and that's not even a secret. I assume this "new" market has more or less destroyed the potential for having truly great toy stores in New York.

But when completing my excursion of the toy stores on Manhattan, I may have discovered what the point of toy stores today should be. It's about presenting a selection so great, and in such a way that you'll want to want something. It's about giving an experience greater than the price reduction you'd get from buying online.

I had a blast visiting these stores, so much in fact that I decided to take a couple of pictures and write a few words on the various stores. I guess you can see this as a review of the toy stores in New York, but it's definitely not complete. I know I missed out on a couple of stores (like Midtown Comics), and I'm sure there were some I don't even know about. And we were only sticking to mid/lower Manhattan. But for the stores we actually did visit, you can look at this article as somewhat of a guide.

So come in for more, and leave comments if you want!

Caution: This is a long article with many pictures, and the gravy is all the way at the bottom.

The Lego Store - Rockefeller Plaza

My first stop was one I had really been anticipating: The Lego Flagship Store, located right in the middle of Rockefeller Plaza on 43 street.

Not really that unlike the store in Legoland, Denmark, here you could pick your own bricks, you had a couple of store-exclusive sets, and of course all the hard-to-find sets. Prices were almost equal to the prices I get on, so I skipped out on the sets I had been planning to get, mainly the new modular. I got to see it live and assembled, and that was cool.

The Lego Store had a couple of cool features. The column in the middle of the store, where you could pick your own bricks. It was massive, and had a better selection of random bricks than I have seen in similar stores. It was also interesting to see how good a rotation these bricks had. In retrospect I should have filled a can of bricks, mainly flowers for a potential city structure, and random gray bricks, which are always useful.

Can you spot Avengers' master marksman?

Another cool thing was the Lego-scale model of the Rockefeller Center. This was massive, and had a couple of nice details. It also had various Lego-Avengers guarding the Plaza. Hawkeye was spotted in this - as well as all the other stores we visited.

The Lego Store was definitely worth the visit, and it was apparently popular. We visited the Rockefeller Center for our favorite coffee place on several occasions and on different times of day, and the Lego Store was filled with people every time we passed it.

Toys R Us - Times Square

It's the big one, and by far the most popular toy store in the city, but this was in my opinion also the negative about it. It felt just a bit too mainstream and commercialized (completely unsurprising). It had only the absolutely most current selection of toys, and nothing else. Three stores filled with toys, a couple of impressive displays, and decent prices - specially if you could find something on sale. Expect an insane amount of people here at all times, even late in the evening.

Near the entrance was a massive candy store, a Ferris wheel, and people dressed up as random superhero and game characters. It really set the tone. This was the toy store in New York. As it turned out, Toys R Us had contention, a rival. But I'll get back to that later.

The ground floor was interesting, as it had a varied selection of stuff you usually don't find in toy stores. You had the "science department" with fossils, dinosaur effects, funky looking minerals, and such. You also had a sports section. Finally there was an ice cream section. This floor also had an impressive selection of Nerf guns. All floors were filled with employees demonstrating various toys, which quickly got annoying.

The top floor had all the toys, here you could see everything from bricks to superheroes. Transformers, Star Wars, Turtles, Lego and Marvel's superheroes had the most prominent displays. But as you know, there is a constant rotation of toys in stores like this, and what is cool among the kids today may be completely irrelevant tomorrow.
Case in point, first time we visited, they had a nice display of The Avengers. A few days later, we returned to find a display of Iron Man toys in the same cabinet.

The newspaper was a nice detail. 
Impressive as usual, the massive Lego structures. King Kong climbing Empire State Building was a nice details.
Are those.. jumpers?
Vintage-styled lunch boxes. Nice display pieces, but unsuited for actual use, due to extremely poor quality. One broke in my hands when I was holding it. 
The fossilized teeth are nifty, but I question their authenticity.

For the upcoming Iron Man 3, Hasbro is literally giving us an army of Iron Men, and the option to randomize them. 
How popular will the Turtles Lego actually be, I wonder? I think not at all, despite the sets looking amazing. I guess this will be another case of the Lego ending up un-bought and underrated, similar to the Prince of Persia Lego. 
TRU Times Square was impressive in many ways, and far too commercial in other ways. 
I was looking specifically for a couple of items, but TRU Times Square let me down. Masterpiece Optimus Prime and Hot Rod (but alas, only MP Thundercracker, and I already have the Japanese release), DC Universe figures (of which they had one single figure left), and G.I. Joe figures (of which they had none). But I did find the Lego Winter Village Post Office on sale, and I guess that's the function of Toys R Us for a collector - picking up the stuff kids didn't want for cheap.

F.A.O. Schwarz - Near Fifth Avenue

Like I said, TRU had a rival, and it was so obvious it almost was a bit awkward. This was, like TRU, a multiple-floor store filled with toys and tourists. The store with the ridiculously non-toy store sounding name FAO Schwarz was located near the ultra fancy fifth avenue, sandwiched between signature stores from the likes of Prada and Gucci. And it showed. This was more a toy store for the rich parents than it was for the kids, because I can't imagine any kid likes this type of store. It was the parody of a "classy" toy store.

Like TRU it had a candy store in the entrance floor, except this one was all old-timey and retro. And like TRU, it had impressive displays, like the full sized plush animals. Top floor actually had a nice selection (for a toy store) of superhero stuff, including comics. And they also had Tonner dolls, which just re-affirms the fact that this store was for the parents and not the kids. Tonner is essentially Barbie for grown ups.

FAO Schwarz was a bit too pretentious for my taste, and fell between two chairs. It's not child friendly enough to be a toy store for kids, and it doesn't have the selection, staff or prices to cater to the toy collectors. I guess you can compare it to the luxury brands. It's all about appearance.

But mommy, I really really really want the $350 1/1 Sized Batman Utility Belt Replica for Christmas!!
But mommy, I really really really want the $250 oversized Barbie!
Unassuming, but eventually impressive. 

Forbidden Planet - Near East Village

This one I had been looking forward to. And it delivered. I had experience with Forbidden Planet in London a decade ago, and they have since then branched out to a couple more cities. Forbidden Planet in East Village was impressive in every way imaginable.

Located right next to the massive bookstore Strand, which was equally impressive, this felt like a no-nonsense store. The store front is unassuming, but inviting. The employees were knowledgeable and helpful, the selection of merchandise was solid and thoroughly presented.
With that I mean that it didn't feel cluttered and random, like otherwise impressive Toy Tokyo, which I'll get back to in the end of this article.

Forbidden Planet mainly focused on comics, and as I am first and foremost a comic book collector, I was ecstatic.  Picked up a couple of X-Men and Avengers titles, and ended up regretting not buying more comics. But I know where I can find those as well...

They had a nice selection of action figures, specially the Marvel Select figures. I also found, for the first time, the new G.I. Joe figures. Sadly it was only the one for the upcoming movie, which doesn't interest me that much.

I absolutely love the superhero statues, and in a different universe, I'm probably collecting them. And I fianlly got to see Hot Toys' Black Widow. Hot damn what a fantastic toy! Expensive, but probably worth it. Hot Toys Thor was equally impressive. They do look amazing in a glass cabinet.

I want one!

The adjacent store, Strand, also had a nice selection of comics and superhero action figures. Like any good book store should. But in no way was it as impressive as Forbidden Planet.
Now, all these stores I've mentioned so far have something in common. They only sell contemporary toys. No vintage, used or rare items. I knew of at least two stores on Manhattan that could potentially have old toys. The first stop was St.Marks Comics, also located in the East Village.

St. Marks' Comics

Just skip this one, a complete disappointment for many reasons. St.Marks' Comics was a comic store that also had toys. They had a selection of vintage comics and toys, at prices you can easily match on the internet. And there's no other reason to visit this hole of a store. It's located in the middle of the East Village, with neighbor stores like the youth hostel, where hippies sat outside smoking weed. Also nearby was the stores that sold equipment for the hippies that smoked weed. St.Marks' Comics had the same vibe, it was just not the place you wanted to be if you had any self respect. It felt run down, filthy and far from as delicate as the stores it would be compared to: Forbidden Planet (for comics) and Toy Tokyo (for toys).
I wasn't allowed to take pictures, even though I asked politely. They just didn't want people to take pictures of their $5-100 comics and toys. This was the day after we had visited stores that had merchandise for millions, which we were allowed to fondle, caress and photograph as much as we wanted. I'm not sure if St.Marks' Comics are compensating for something, or that they just have that ridiculously unrealistic sense of self worth.
So instead of toys that I weren't allowed to photograph, here's a picture from the Audemars Piguet flagship store, which was surprisingly laidback about their $15000-$200000 watches.

Audemars Piguet flagship store. Weirdly enough less pretentious than St.Marks' Comics. 
Most relevant for you visitors: you just didn't feel welcome, and you were treated like a potential thief, forced to hand in your bags at entrance, and being eyed by the employees at all times. This is probably due to the clientele that usually ventures the streets of the East Village. But if thieving hippies are such a big problem, and in the process of protecting your $5 comics you end up scaring away clean toy collectors with dollar-filled pockets, maybe it's time to move away from St.Mark's street?

As an intense contrast to this hole of a comics store, not far away we would find gold. Toy Tokyo, quite possibly the best toy store in New York.

Toy Tokyo - East Village, near 2nd Avenue, between 5th and 6th street. 

This one had it all. Modern, vintage, rare, exclusives, toys I had never seen, toys I had never heard about. Toys for kids, toys for adults. It was definitely an experience to walk around, and even if the store was small, you could literally walk around for hours looking at the extremely varied and exciting selection. Prices weren't bad either!

Walking around in Toy Tokyo was almost like walking in a toy store as a kid, the experience of not knowing what to expect. Ever display had something interesting, and there was a toy for almost any taste.

As you would expect, the prices for the vintage toys were more than you'd have to pay on ebay. But not that much more! In fact, being able to see the toys, and evaluate their condition for yourself could make it worth the additional 10-20%. Complete G.I. Joe figures were like $15-20, Masters of the Universe dudes were $20-50.
The real treat in my eyes was the vintage Masters of the Universe Slime Pit. Opened, but unused! At $95 it was a steal. Well, you can probably get it cheaper on ebay, but the box was nice and the contents was flawless. The only thing I regret not bringing back from my trip to New York.

Aaaww. I should have bought this one. Hopefully another collector picks it up and passionately displays it in their living room, like I would have done. 
The store felt smaller than it probably was, due to the massive amount of merchandise.  But it was still clean and tidy, and the employees were all helpful and forthcoming. 
Lots of vintage goodness greets you the second you walk into the store. Notice the Go-Bots Leader 1 in package. Didn't ask for the price, but I assume it was a fair one, like the rest of the merchandise in Toy Tokyo. 
Those are the coolest decks I have seen, and was tempting even though I have never tried skateboarding. 
Toy Tokyo, as you would expect, had an impressive selection of Godzilla toys. 
The new Battle Beasts, based on Minimates. 
Knock-off Transformers! 
Those in the bottom there are the aliens from the Four Horesmen, right? Deliciously retro looking packaging. Sorry for blurry pictures. 
Is that the robot from The Black Hole? I watched that movie as a kid!
Vintage toys at decent prices. Can't go wrong with that!
Retro robots. All were recent remakes of vintage toys, but still displayed nicely. 
I had heard lots of good stuff about Toy Tokyo, and it's all true. If you're a toy collector, you'll love it. And if you like quality stores, but not necessarily toys, I'm sure you'll love it as well.

Slightly hidden in one of the shelves, you'll find something you didn't realize you wanted. And that just may be the main selling point of toy stores today.

I didn't travel to NYC with the intention of buying toys. But I appreciate that there still exists physical toy stores, whether they are completely mainstream, like Toys R Us and The Lego Store, or slightly more underground, like Forbidden Planet and Toy Tokyo.

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