In A Digital World, There’s No Substitute For Nostalgic Toy Store Joy
The holiday shopping season was a far cry from the experience of parents 30 years ago, waiting in line for hours and hours, forging through the crowds, down the aisles to get the hot new toys.
Not many people who lived in Appalachia over the past several decades could forget Hills Department Stores around Christmas time.
Those days are gone. Many department stores that carried toys have closed after years of pressure from super-stores like Wal-Mart. Hills filed for bankruptcy and was bought out by Ames in 1999. KB Toys closed in 2008 - while K-Mart held on in the region until 2018.
But on Mercer Street in Princeton, where Matthew Collins opened the 80’s Toy Store in 2019, it’s a little bit like visiting Christmases past.
Inside, you’ll find toys like a 16-inch talking Beetlejuice doll modeled after Michael Keaton’s character in the blockbuster hit.
The store is also filled with vintage and replica toys from the 1980’s, including Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers, Strawberry Shortcake and more, sure to take anyone older than 30 back in time.
There’s even an entire room filled with wrestling toys like Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, Kurt Angle, and Bobby Roode,
“Wrestling is king around here,” Collins said. “It's probably my biggest-seller in the whole store, the wrestling toys, whether they're from, you know, old classic wrestlers or the new stuff that comes out.”
The 80’s Toy Store is part of the Mercer Street Grassroots District. In 2006, the street was 80% vacant with boarded up storefronts and a bad reputation. Today, there’s only a few vacant storefronts left.
Collins grew up in this area and like so many of his generation, his childhood memories are connected to toys --- that experience of walking into a store and carefully choosing your favorite one.
“I miss some of those stores,” Collins said. “I remember as a kid going to Hills. Hills had the best selection of toys. I can still smell the popcorn. We loved to eat popcorn from Hills.”
Collins was adopted, or as his parents would tell him, he was “chosen.” He grew up in Mercer County with a stay-at-home mom. His dad worked second shift at a mining equipment company called Ingersoll Rand in Beckley, about 40 miles north in Raleigh County.
“I would do whatever chores I had to do and then we would go usually to town on Saturday,” Collins said. “I would take my allowance and go buy a toy.”
“At the time, the biggest toy line I collected was Transformers so I was always looking for Transformers,” Collins said. “I watched the cartoon. I had the comic books. We would play like we were Transformers.”
In fact, Collins still has the first Transformer of his collection. He keeps it in the store, at his computer.
“Kind of a reminder of where I came from,” Collins said. “You know, our family, we didn't have a lot of money, but you know, they obviously tried to spoil me because I was chosen, I was adopted. It really set the direction for my life.”
In his day job, Collins works with the Department of Health and Human Resources so he’s familiar with the needs of children in the region.
“The Toy Store is my fun job,” Collins said. “My 9-5 job, I'm a CPS worker so I know the importance of families having the items that they need.”
One day, Collins took a look around and realized, there weren’t a lot of options for kids, young and old, to go into a store and pick out a toy.
“So I decided that I was going to open up a toy store and have a place where the shelves will be stocked,” Collins said, “Just to kind of create some excitement in the community.”
So far, it’s working. Shoppers might not find the popcorn, but they’ll find many of the toys that were available in Hills during the 1980’s.
“Business is pretty good overall,” Collins said. “Even though we are in a pandemic, the community has rallied around my store, and they’ve shopped here.”
Collins has met customers half-way during the pandemic, even making trips from the curbside to the store shelves, selecting a toy and taking it to the door for the customer’s approval -- several times.
He said eBay has also helped when he needed to make ends meet or to clear out some inventory, but there’s nothing quite like the experience of selecting your own toy. So he’s opening the doors to a special section of the store, not just to paying customers, but families in need, by hosting a toy drive, this holiday season. Collins was determined to make it happen so he came up with a plan.
“So we started in November and we asked people if they would like to round up and donate to the toy drive,” Collins said. “We've had people round up and give extra, like, you know, $1, $5, $10. I don't carry everything here at my toy shop, unfortunately, things like basketballs and things like that. So we're going to go and use that money and spend so we can have a lot of toys for the actual toy drive whenever we let the parents come in and, and pick out their toys.”
Many in-person holiday parties were cancelled this year because of COVID and the cut-off time for other toy drives has passed. But anyone who comes into the 80’s Toy Store in Princeton between now and Christmas Eve and simply says they are there for the toy drive, will get a toy.
“If for some reason I get a phone call on Christmas Eve at 10 o'clock at night that says, ‘Can you open the store?’ I'll be here,” Collins said. “We'll let somebody in here to make sure that when the kids get up on Christmas morning they have something.”