Action Figures, Soda, and the Time Capsule Theory

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I collect collections. As I have discussed before, collecting is fun and rewarding. If you don’t do it, you should. But I won’t re-hash that post again.

Today, I want to discuss what I call the “Time Capsule Theory.” As San Diego Comic-Con 2014 comes to a close, attendees are preparing to leave, their suitcases chock-full of new collectibles, promotional items, SDCC-exclusive comics, and sweaty cosplay outfits (I am jealous of three of those things). If I know anything about toy collecting, I know that many or most of these SDCC acquisitions will be kept in their boxes forever. Collectors love things in mint condition. Think about it. Stamp collectors want uncirculated stamps. Comic collectors want CGC-graded, hard-cased, pristine comics. Coin collectors want uncirculated proof coins. Toy collectors want mint-in-box toys. And this is all well and good. After all, who can blame someone for preferring a new item to a used item?

However, in many cases, the things that we love to keep in mint condition are, by design, intended to be used and inevitably worn down. If I buy a video game, I probably want to, oh, I don’t know, play it. If I buy a car, I want to, like, drive it and stuff. No one would ever buy a lawn mower and put it in a glass display case, because it is meant to be used for cutting grass. Most things have some specific, intended use. Why, then, do collectors buy and save things like toys, that they will never touch or play with? What is the point of spending money on something, only to never touch it?

If you watch The Big Bang Theory, you have probably seen the episode where Leonard and Sheldon get vintage Star Trek transporter room toys, and are torn between the desire to play with the contents inside and the desire to keep them in mint condition, in their original, unopened state. This is the eternal woe of the toy collector. As a Spider-Man collector, it is hard to resist the urge to open my mint condition action figures and wage an epic battle on my desk.

Toys are meant to be played with, right? Thus, by keeping my 12″ Maximum Carnage toy in the box and never opening it, touching it, or playing with it, am I defeating the purpose of having it in the first place? Recently, I have been studying the collector market for vintage soda (No, I’m not making this up). Believe it or not, there is a vibrant after-market for old, discontinued drinks, limited edition cans, etc. This raises a similar question: sodas are meant to be consumed and enjoyed. If someone keeps an unopened can of Crystal Pepsi until the present day, did they miss the point of having it in the first place? They never got the intended enjoyment out of the product, and now it’s long expired and taking up space. After all, sodas are meant to be drunk and toys are meant to be played with. I feel that collecting is a nostalgia-fueled activity, all about preserving a historical record. Enter, Time Capsule Theory.

I believe that by keeping items like toys, sodas, and cards in their original packaging, it’s like we are keeping a time capsule. In the most romanticized sense, that unopened can of Crystal Pepsi is a tangible connection to the 1980s. Inside, it contains a quintessential, physical record of yesteryear. Seeing it brings to mind memories one might have of buying it in the store, or drinking it while playing Top Gun on original Nintendo. There is something bittersweet about being so close to the past, but so far. Each time you see this Crystal Pepsi, you know that you could open it (though drinking it might kill you), and experience for a moment the long-forgotten feelings and memories associated with it, but it is perhaps better to let it remain untouched, and allow the past to live on inside.

In an equally romanticized view, my unopened 1994 Spider-Man action figures are time capsules. Inside that blister packaging is a physical link to a more innocent time. It would be so easy to open one up and play with it, but I know that if I did, it wouldn’t make me feel the same as it did when I was 5, because I have changed and grown older. However, this transcendental desire to revisit my youth keeps me yearning for what lies inside.

This might sound like a bunch of hooey, since I am literally talking about plastic children’s toys and junk beverages, but this is real to me, and to many collectors. It seems that collectors often disregard the intended use of an item, in favor of preserving it as a piece of history. What is a stamp besides a tiny piece of paper? Stamps were never originally intended to be saved. They were supposed to be licked, stuck on a letter, and thrown away once they served their purpose. To some people, though, stamps represent a physical record of a important era in history. They are symbolic of bygone days, and preserving them provides an avenue to revisit history.

Some people won’t understand these concepts. They might think that toy collectors are just overgrown man-children who can’t let go of the 1980s. I, however, am a proponent of the belief that there is more to it.

A Geek’s Guide to Collecting

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Everybody should collect something. Collecting is fun, exciting, and rewarding. A friend of mine recently suggested I make a guide to collecting, for use as a reference to new collectors and a refresher to veteran collectors. The following is that guide, a simple set of rules and suggestions to consider when beginning or continuing to collect.

1) Know Why.

First and foremost, why are you collecting this specific item? Are you collecting rare books because you are an avid reader, or because they may have high market value in the future? Either of these reasons are valid. Do you collect Beatles’ memorabilia because you’re a rock ‘n’ roll enthusiast, or because you met John Lennon once? Again, either reason is valid. It’s just important to understand why you’re interested in something, so as to give yourself a baseline. In my case, I have loved Spider-Man for years. His comics have always been my favorite, and the 90s TV show is, to this day, my favorite animated series. With that in mind…

2) Narrow is Often Better.

I like Spider-Man. Specifically him, specifically his comics and toys from the 90s and beyond. It is much easier to collect in this narrow realm, than to collect, say, Marvel Comics in general. That would encompass Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Hulk, Iron Man, etc., and would include some 50+ years of comics history. This is a tall order, needless to say. Moreover, if you’re collecting Marvel, are you including toys? Original artwork? Animation cells from their TV shows? Fast food promotional items? Try to find a smallish niche to collect, at least when you’re first starting. You can always expand beyond this, but quality is better than quantity in most cases, especially on a budget.

3) Know Your Market.

I can’t stress this enough. I truly believe that every collection has someone, somewhere, who would be willing to pony up some cash for items, despite how obscure they may seem. I watch a lot of Antiques Roadshow, and I remember one episode where the appraisers went to this guy’s estate, because his collection was too big to bring to them. What did he collect? Tractor seats. I couldn’t believe someone collected tractor seats, but I was even more surprised to learn that many people did, and there was actually a market for them. A similar feature on the Roadshow had someone who had collected corn things their entire life. Corn Flakes, corn toys (they exist), corn this, corn that. I must say, the collection was phenomenal. The fact that the collection was appraised for a large sum of money suggests that some (insert adjective here) person would drop some cash on this corny bonanza of a collection. Just about any item you could want to collect has a market. You just may not know it yet.

4) Keep Up With Current Prices.

I’ll get this out of the way right now: collecting costs money. The good news, though, is that you can collect at any level of intensity that you want. A collection of 4 or 5 shot glasses picked up from a road trip in 1987 is just as valid as a 10,000 piece stamp collection, valued at a million bucks. What’s right for you is right for you. That being said, it is a good idea to go on sites like eBay, Amazon, and even craigslist, just to get a sense of what certain items are selling for. So-called “market value” is determined by nothing more than what someone is willing to pay for an item. Baseball cards (*sigh,*  yes, I collect those, too) are nothing more than pieces of color-printed cardstock. Why, then, does a Honus Wagner T-206 sell for seven digits? Because it has a market value that is off the proverbial chain. Yes, it has to do with condition, scarcity and availability, age, and a hundred other factors, but, at the end of the day, if no one wants to buy something, it’s market value is $0. Keeping up-to-date with market values will also help you not over-pay for a collectible when you see it for sale, and, by extension, help you know when you’re getting a good deal. On that note…

5) Know When to Hold ’em, Know When to Fold ’em.

A huge part of collecting is knowing when to buy, when to not buy, when to sell, and when to not sell. Some of this comes down to luck, but most of it goes along with #4. In my home state of Arizona, there is a chain of entertainment exchange stores called Bookmans, that is essentially the buy-sell-trade Disneyland of nerdy impulse purchasing. It’s wonderful. Every so often, I strike gold at Bookmans, but I need to be careful! For every one time I strike gold, there are a dozen times I leave with nothing, either because nothing caught my eye, or everything was too pricy. As a collector, I know well the thrill of walking into Goodwill and seeing that (fill in the blank item) that has eluded you for all these years, priced at a mere $5. This is a time when you need to drop some cash, knowing that you may not be this lucky twice. But be wary! Stores also knows how to grossly over-charge for products. Bookmans currently has a used copy of the popular board game “7 Wonders,” which I have seen sell new for about $35, including shipping, priced at $40. Good luck, Bookmans. Someone would have to be a sucker to buy that. Don’t let the thrill of seeing that one missing piece of your collection cause you to over-pay. Sleep on it, do your research, ask if the vendor can put it on hold for a day or two, and think before you buy.

6) Create a Network.

A lot of my friends collect a lot of things. I have a rough idea of what they want, and they know that anything with Spider-Man’s face on it is a good guess for me. This way, you can have extra sets of eyes looking out for collection pieces for you. I was at a secondhand store not too long ago, and I saw a huge case of Warhammer 40K (a nerdy tabletop game, for you n00bs) for a very decent price. I personally don’t play Warhammer, but my friend John is an avid fan. When I saw it, I called him up to let him know about the find, and ask if he wanted me to pick it up for him. I can think of many times someone else has found something of interest to me, and done the same. A system like this creates a great “I-scratch-your-back-you-scratch-my-back” relationship, beneficial for all involved. Get to know store employees, too. My local comic shop knows I’m “the Spider-Man guy.” When they get something in that they think I might want, they often contact me before putting it on the shelves, as a “thank you” for being a loyal customer.

7) Bank on People’s Stupidity.

Collecting only has to be as expensive as you make it. Perhaps you found a sweet deal on a brand new, poorly-labelled “ipdo touch” on eBay. The $16.43 you spent on it might go a long way. You might turn around and sell it, properly spelled, for $100. Nicely done. Go buy yourself that Magic: The Gathering card you’ve been lusting after.

8) Enjoy What You’re Collecting.

More than anything else, this rule is the most important. If you really have fun with and enjoy what you’re collecting, it’s all worth it. The whole idea of “buy low, sell high” isn’t as important as your own enjoyment, unless you’re in it strictly for the money. I love organizing boxes of comic books into numerical order, and admiring my finished work. I love seeing a specific action figure and remember how and where I got it. I love finding old video games at Savers that I haven’t played in years, and popping them in my console for a nostalgia-fueled blast from the past. Some might see collecting as a waste of time and money. I see it as a recreational, conversation-starting, lifelong hobby.

If you don’t already collect something (or 10 somethings), start now. Think critically about what you want to collect, and why you want to collect it. Then, get out there and do it!