Kids who grew up during the 1980s tend to be nostalgic.
If you doubt it, just take a look at the summer movie marquee, where resurrected versions of Mad Max, Poltergeist, and The Terminator jostle for space.
There are new Ghostbusters and Alien flicks in the works. Popular ’80s playthings Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have been reborn as lucrative franchises, and My Little Pony is back on television.
Ellen Grimm of Portland, Oregon, has discovered a novel way of fulfilling the longings of ’80s kids who cherish fond memories of childhood toys.
At Etsy shop ellies80stoybox, she reunites customers with vintage treasures, from Rose Petal Place dolls to Sweet Secrets Charms, Care Bears to Strawberry Shortcake, and Pound Puppies to plush Smurfs.
Grimm combs Portland thrift stores, eBay, private collections and other sources to find the sort of gems many ’80s kids thought they’d never see again, including rare My Little Ponies and Cabbage Patch Kid dolls, and collectibles ranging from Mickey Mouse, to Sesame Street, to Masters of the Universe.
The ellies80stoybox founder recently answered my questions about her intriguing business. As a bonus, she crafted a list of her Top Five ’80s movies.
How did you get the idea for your Etsy shop, ellies80stoybox?
I’ve loved thrift store shopping for a long time — I started in high school and it’s something that just never lost my interest. I noticed how often I’d find old toys that I recognized from childhood. It seemed a shame to let them sit there and likely end up being trashed. I didn’t want to collect them all myself, but I realized there were lots of people out there who would be interested in them.
It made sense to me to be able to find things for people who couldn’t find them otherwise — people who don’t have the time, access, or inclination to dig through a thrift store to find them. Maybe I took The Velveteen Rabbit to heart too much as a kid, but I like the idea of the toys finding the right home, and I like making people happy by reuniting them with something really special from their childhood.
Do you have a special fondness for ’80s toys? What is it about that era that appeals to you?
Maybe it’s just nostalgia for the era in which I grew up, but I really do think there is something special about these toys. There are so many unique, fantastical characters that sparked my imagination and provided so much fun as a kid. From Saturday morning cartoons to all the toys, books, and breakfast cereals that came as a result, I think the ‘80s were probably the start of the crazy mass-marketing to kids. Whether that’s good or bad, it certainly helped provide myself and other ‘80s kids with a colorful childhood!
What were some of your favorites growing up? Did you keep any of your toys from the ’80s?
I was always a big fan of My Little Pony. I remember having a lot of them, and playing with them for hours! I also enjoyed playing with a friend’s Strawberry Shortcake dolls, and playing with He-Man figures with the kid down the street! I was always into baby dolls too when I was little. Most of my childhood toys unfortunately did not make it through various moves after I left home. I do still have a few of them though — and those I’ll never sell!
How old were you in the ’80s? What do you remember most vividly about that time?
I was born at the very end of the 1970s, so the ‘80s were solidly my childhood years. When most of the toys in my shop were popular, I was in the right age group to be playing with them. I vividly remember Saturday mornings, with the cartoons, the sugary cereal, and staying in pajamas. Being a Southern California kid, I remember trips to Disneyland and to the beach. It seems like I had so much time to read books, play with toys, and watch TV!
Where do you find the toys you sell in your shop?
The majority of the toys in my shop come from thrift stores. I occasionally purchase larger lots on eBay to stock up on harder-to-find but popular items. Just recently I purchased a personal collection from a woman around my age — I found an ad on Craigslist and it turned out she had some great items. I’ll probably try to make more purchases like that one in the future.
Are they difficult to find?
I tend to look at thrift store visits, garage sales, and other such shopping excursions as a treasure hunt. Sometimes I find something that amazes me! Other times I don’t find anything. Over time I’ve found that even the things I’m hesitant about — ones where I’m not certain anyone will be interested — even those things eventually have someone looking for them.
Are thrift stores in Portland different than, say, Los Angeles or Orange County? It’s hard to picture some of the items you sell just lying around in an L.A. area thrift store, waiting for someone to buy them.
I definitely have my favorite thrift stores in town, the ones that I rarely leave without finding something. There are also a fair number of stores where I never have any luck. Whenever I’m heading out of town, I try to find a way to visit a thrift store, especially in out-of-the-way places. Portland thrift stores can be pretty picked-through, as there’s plenty of thrifting and vintage culture. I’m sure the same is true of most thrift stores in LA.
Once you’ve purchased the toys, what do you do with them?
I always give the toys a really good cleaning. If they can go through the washing machine, they will! For others I just give a good surface cleaning. I use special cleaning products designed for dolls and action figures to ensure I don’t damage them in the process. Once they’re cleaned up, I make sure they have as much of their original outfits, accessories, and style as possible. Then they’re ready to be photographed and listed in the shop.
How do you know if a toy is salvageable or worth selling?
I’ve learned a lot since I’ve started regarding what is worth buying for my shop and what I should leave behind. Toys that are really rare are almost always worth it. Other toys, like Cabbage Patch Kids for instance, are not quite as rare so they have to be in very good shape and have something special about them to make the cut.
Did you have to do a lot of research before you started the shop? Do you have to do any research now about particular items?
I do a lot of research as I go. I continually check sites compiled by collectors to make sure my items are described accurately, priced fairly, and have as many of their original parts as possible. In the world of collecting, the minutia are extremely important.
Do you have a lot of competition in selling toys from this particular era?
One thing that has been awesome about delving into the world of vintage toys is discovering that there is a really fun community of people out there who buy, sell, and trade with each other. Many of these people are collectors as well. I’ve met many people through social media — connecting my shop to an Instagram account has really helped widen my audience and allows me to make personal connections as well. All of that is to say, even though there are plenty of other people selling vintage toys, I rarely think of them as competition. We each have unique finds, and generally people are supportive and helpful.
Is your shop a solo endeavor, or do you have help?
I definitely wouldn’t be able to do it without my partner Asher! Ash has been supportive since the beginning. She does most of the photography for the shop, she’s usually my shopping companion, and she is often my courier for getting packages to the post office. Besides that, she’s always encouraging and doesn’t complain when there are My Little Ponies in the sink, stuffed animals in the washing machine, or dolls on the guest bed. Also, one of my best friends is also running an Etsy shop (she sells vintage clothes and housewares). We often thrift together or help each other collaborate on business ideas.
What are your customers like? Where are they from?
I’d say the majority of my customers are thirty-something. There’s probably an even split between people who are collectors and people who are parents or have children in their lives that they want to share these toys with. One of the fun things about my customers is that they are from all over the world! I’m actually starting a map to pin the various locations I’ve shipped to. Most of my customers are in the US, followed by Australia. I’ve also sent toys to Russia, Sweden, Italy, Spain, Singapore, and the UK!
Why do you think people buy these old toys?
I think that something about the toys from that era (and the cartoons, books, and movies that accompanied them) really resonate with so many people. It seems to be more than just nostalgia — these characters were imaginative, colorful, and fun. Some people really want their own kids to have some of the same cool toys that they had.
What are some of the rarest or most difficult to find items you’ve encountered?
Many collectors refer to thrift store or garage sale purchase as things found “in the wild.” Finding really rare things in the wild doesn’t happen too often, so it’s really special when it does! I’ve found some really cool Cabbage Patch Kids that are rare. Though I mentioned above that they’re a bit more common, there are a few that are especially sought after by collectors. There were very few factories making CPKs that weren’t in China, and the dolls produced by a factory in Spain or in Japan are rare. I’ve come across a couple of Spanish Cabbage Patch Dolls in my searches, and they’re really cool. Also, I almost never come across vintage My Little Pony toys in thrift stores, but the few times I have, the ones I’ve found also happen to be very hard to find ones!
Is there a really elusive dream item you’d love to stumble across? Is there an item you couldn’t bear to sell but would have to keep for yourself?
It’s always a dream that I’ll stumble across a whole bin or suitcase of toys. While individual items are always great, the idea that a collection, including some of the harder-to-find pieces, could be out there is really appealing. I’ve not had a problem parting with most of the toys I’ve found, even ones that have nostalgic value for me. However, there’s probably a special doll or stuffed animal out there that’s just like one I had that would be harder to let go of.
Have you ever received a special or particularly odd request from one of your customers?
There’s nothing I can think of that’s been particularly odd. People often ask if I have XYZ item that they’re looking for. Occasionally people will ask for a lower price (I’m sometimes flexible, especially when someone is buying more than one item). Sometimes they ask for a price that is much too low (once or twice it’s even been less than I paid for the item).
What do you enjoy most about your shop?
Besides that it’s admittedly pretty fun having toys around all the time, I really love the aspect of the shop that allows me to make someone’s day by helping them find something that’s really meaningful. I love reading the reviews people leave as most of them express how happy they are to have a cherished childhood toy back or to provide something very special for a child in their life.
Do you have any future plans or ideas for ellies80stoybox?
For now I’ll carry on with business as usual! The shop’s first anniversary was in May, and I’ve now made almost 400 sales. I have a 20% off discount going right now, and I plan to keep stocking more awesome toys in the shop. I’m looking into the possibility of starting to participate in toy fairs/expos, which would be a fun way to get out there and connect with other toy collectors and sellers in the real world.
What do you do when you’re not working on your shop?
Most of my time is taken up with my regular job at Trader Joe’s. When I’m not at work and not working on my shop, I’m probably just at home spending time with Ash. Our household entails the two of us, a dog, three cats, and five chickens! There’s always something going on. I really enjoy reading, and crafts (sewing, knitting, and such) but to be honest I have limited time for those hobbies. My life is pretty full, but I love it!
Ellen’s Top Five ’80s Movies
In order to narrow down my movie selections, I’m sticking with ones that I remember loving as a kid, as opposed to movies that I love now that were made in the ’80s. So, without further ado, my five favorite ’80s movies:
1. Annie (1982)
I can’t remember when I first saw this movie, but I do know that I was obsessed with it for much of my childhood. What was it about Annie that made so many of us wish, just for a moment, that we were orphans? The songs were so fun to sing along to, and in my mind nobody will ever match Carol Burnett’s Miss Hannigan.
2. The Neverending Story (1984)
I first watched this one at school; it was played in the auditorium on a day we didn’t go out for recess for one reason or another. I was pulled in by the fantastical characters and the story-within-a-story. I’m still sad when I think of Artax in the Swamp of Sadness, I still want a flying dragon like Falcor, and I’m still a bit scared of Gmork.
3. The Wizard (1989)
An adventure where two brothers (and a friend they meet along the way) travel across the country to make it to a video game competition in California, dodging the adults who are after them the whole way. This movie stars tiny Fred Savage and tiny Jenny Lewis and basically amounts to a 100 minute commercial for Super Mario Brothers 3, and I loved it.
4. The Princess Bride (1987)
Another story-within-a-story and another movie with Fred Savage! The characters in this are unforgettable and the script is endlessly quotable. I loved it as a kid and I now love it more as an adult (when you get some of the things that flew over your head when you first saw it)!
5. E.T. (1982)
I know I was pretty small when I first saw this one, and I’m sure I didn’t quite grasp what if was about until later. But I remember Drew Barrymore as Gertie, and I remember being so sad when E.T. was sick. The scary chase with the government guys and the awesome bicycle flight definitely made this movie stand out to me from childhood.
I must also give an honorable mention to Return of the Jedi (I mean, really the Trilogy, but yes, I was one of those children to whom the Ewoks were really the most important part (I know, I know.) Also, The Little Mermaid (we named our dog Ariel), The Secret of NIMH, and Return to Oz.
Photos: Asher Grimm; My Little Pony tails, Ellen Grimm; E.T The Extraterrestrial, http://www.amazon.com.