Toying with the past

Nostalgia: Collectors relive their youthful years by buying up games and gadgets they played with decades ago.

April 08, 2004|By Mary Beth Breckenridge | Mary Beth Breckenridge,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Jim Scichilone was heartbroken the day he came home from school to discover his Playmobile dashboard had been donated to charity.

It was a toy he had craved as a 10-year-old with a passion for cars, a toy he was thrilled to find under the Christmas tree in 1963. He even has photos of himself and his brother on that Christmas Day, the Deluxe Reading Playmobile in prominent view.

But as Scichilone grew older, he played with it less and less. And one day, it was gone.

The Playmobile never left his heart, though. When Scichilone would frequent flea markets and sales as an adult in search of parts for the old appliances and cars he restores, he would always keep an eye out for a Playmobile. He looked for 30 years, he said, but he never found one.

Then he bought a computer.

In short order, Scichilone had located the object of his decades-long desire on eBay and bought it for $227.50, a considerable markup from the $9.99 his mother had paid for the miniature Mercury dashboard.

Today the red plastic dash decorates a shelf in his den, where he can admire its glamour and marvel over its motor and horn sounds, its working windshield wipers and its removable, remarkably detailed ignition key and cigarette lighter. "If ever there was a toy that I was most fascinated with, it was this," he said, demonstrating the kid-size controls. "I was in heaven when I got this. ... If my house was on fire, this is one of the things I'd grab."

Scichilone isn't alone in his desire to recapture a bit of his past. He's part of a movement among adults to buy back the icons of their childhood, a movement that has been fueled in recent years by the advent of online sources such as the auction site eBay.

The Internet has exponentially expanded the market for collectibles, making it easy for folks to locate the Barbie dolls and Little Golden Books of their youth, and for sellers to find nostalgic buyers eager to snap up those items.

In the past, "you could go to a thousand garage sales and see maybe one or two nice things," said Cleveland-area collector Stan Luksenburg, whose basement is crammed with robots, space toys, Pez dispensers and items related to cartoons by Hanna-Barbera Studios and Jay Ward of Bullwinkle fame. With eBay, "now nothing is rare," he said.

The desire to collect childhood items is largely a baby-boom phenomenon, said Dan Neary, director of collectibles at eBay, headquartered in San Jose, Calif. That generation is reaching what Neary called its prime collecting years, when people have the time and money to indulge themselves - not to mention the extra space to display the stuff they buy, now that their children are becoming adults and leaving home.

Boomers also have abandoned the stigma their parents attached to anything old, noted antiques expert Terry Kovel, who with her husband, Ralph, publishes price guides and writes a column on antiques for newspapers.

To previous generations, owning older things meant you couldn't afford new ones, Kovel explained. Antiques weren't collected until the 1950s, she said, and those early collectors wouldn't have stooped to acquire items less than 100 years old. They didn't want what Grandma had, because Grandma's stuff was considered dowdy.

Scichilone thinks there's something to that notion. Collecting childhood items is "a person's way of saying things are changing too quickly," said Scichilone, who regularly sells off lifetimes of acquisitions as the owner of Premiere Estate Liquidators and Tag Sales. That resistance to change is something people don't usually develop until they're older, he said, and, not uncommonly, until they've suffered some sort of loss that forces them to look back.

That's probably why the Stingray bikes boomers buy today are the same ones they gladly abandoned in favor of 10-speed models when they were teens.

Toys represent a big segment of the boomer market. The most popular, Kovel said, include Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse items, Madame Alexander and GI Joe dolls, robots, space toys, comic-related items, early Star Wars items and Shirley Temple dolls.

Toys aren't all boomers are buying. Kovel and Neary said much of what boomers are collecting is related to what they saw on television, particularly the decor on the TV-show sets. Mid-century modern furniture is popular, along with Fiesta dinnerware, Formica with the familiar amoeba design, vintage barware, old sports equipment and cookware such as fondue pots and old coffee makers. Also, more than 6,000 lunchboxes are sold each month on eBay, Neary said.

Both Kovel and Neary, along with collector Luksenburg, said the buyers' motivation is more nostalgic than economic. Some hot-ticket items can command big money; a huge-headed Blythe doll from 1972, for example, went for $1,800 on eBay last month. But they said most people are buying for the pleasure of owning something, not for the prospect of profiting on a resale.

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