Newsletter Signup | Subscribe to Magazine

Recollection riches


Story by Tim Wood + Photography by Mike Ritterbeck

The baseball cards used as bike-spoke noisemakers. The Little People repurposed for a middle school social studies diorama. The countless Happy Meal trinkets trashed after five minutes of folly. So many of us saw our trinkets as disposable memories, and decades later we’re kicking ourselves as we watch playtime nostalgia traders achieve payouts on par with Amazon stock or cryptocurrency dividends. We found a trio of local collectors who know that while buying Bitcoin is a nebulous rush, the tangible treasure of a coveted childhood toy is a far sweeter score.

Mike Clark 
Master of the Toy Universe

At first it was about reminiscing for Mike Clark. The 39-year-old kept a few things his parents were going to throw out, like an original Tyrannosaurus Rex action toy from “Jurassic Park.”

Seven years later the Hardeeville resident is making a family-supporting living buying and selling classic toy collections online. He became a full-time seller and scavenger during Covid.

“Nostalgia is a powerful thing. You get your hands on one toy, and it can bring you back to the best times of your life,” Clark said. “It’s not a bad thing to bring the kid out in us. That’s why this is not only a business, it’s a passion project for me.”

At first, that one thing for Clark was video games. He’d buy, sell and trade Nintendo, Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis cartridges. While looking for classics in Chicago, he came across an original Castle Grayskull, the planet Eternia fortress from “Masters of the Universe.”

“The feeling was overpowering, it just felt so great to hold it and let those memories flood back,” he said. “I thought, if I’m feeling this way, there’s plenty of others who feel the same way.”

That led Clark to take a deep dive into the toy collecting world. Deep as in buying the full inventory of a couple of closing Gamestops in Savannah. His house now looks like the stores he’s bought out.
“You’re always looking for that big score. Action figures from the ‘70s in the original packaging. My buddy, Ray Ranson from Realm of Relics in Savannah, he was clearing out estates and came across a toy collector who had three storage units full of unopened toys that hadn’t been touched since 2006,” Clark said. “That’s the adrenaline rush right there that we’re living for. He spent $5,000 on all three units and just went to the bank with that stuff.”

Clark now flies to at least two toy shows per month, looking for finds like GI Joe, MOTU and his personal favorites, Star Wars and Indiana Jones made by Kenner. Better yet, the rare Toy Belt discovery.

“Columbus, Ohio, is the epicenter, but all the toy companies were in the Midwest, and used to put out test products to the locals to see what would spark a hit,” he said. “Those toys, they are magic. And the toy factory workers, they’d bring home prototypes for their kids. Things like an unpainted, unproduced Ewok will sell for $20,000.”
He just returned from the annual mega-show in Chicago, where he spent his full $10,000 budget – too many toys to fit in his truck for the drive home, so he shipped them back in a couple of giant storage tubs. He then hits Facebook, where he is a regular host and auctioneer on the popular Toy Hive group, doing Facebook Live auctions from his house.

While he loves talking to collectors worldwide, Clark’s dream is to share his passion with locals. He recently started advertising his business on the back of his truck and said that has led to a strong word-of-mouth Lowcountry following and a big score – a seven-foot USS Flagg from GI Joe that had been sitting in a garage for 25 years. He is looking to parlay that following into opening a store in Bluffton next year.
“Nostalgia is a powerful thing. You get your hands on one toy and it can bring you back to the best times of your life.”
“It’s harder and harder to find the scores. Think about it. The things that made us passionate as kids, those kinds of toys aren’t being made anymore. In 25 years our collectibles are going to become antiques,” he said. “But there’s always something new that’s on fire. From Pokemon cards to now NFTs and digital collectibles, it’s all about finding the next big thing.”

Clark laments that the passion is now becoming a way to support his four kids but says there are far worse things than dealing in memories.

“I get to be with my kids at home. I’m boxing, packing, constantly searching eBay, thrift stores and garage sales for finds,” he said. “But to get to be a kid all day and make money at it, it’s pretty cool.”

Sarah Foster
Little People, big passion

She grew up in the Toy Belt in the small town of Medina, Ohio. The oldest of three daughters, Sarah Foster gets an instant smile thinking of her days playing with Fisher Price Little People play sets and her mom’s container of vintage Barbies.

She lived in Medina until she moved to Bluffton 10 years ago to take a job with U.S. Foods. And for most of that time in her hometown, she seethed at the memories of all her childhood toys being sent off to the local Goodwill.
“It’s like a theft, a crime. Those toys go away, you’re stealing memories,” she said. When Foster had her own child, Kayla, in 1996, she vowed to create new memories for her daughter. And as it turns out, Kayla was born to be a collector.

“She is so good at keeping stuff pristine. Her American Girl dolls look like they just came out of the box,” Foster said. Family members gave Barbies to Kayla through the years, and she decided which ones she played with and which special ones never came out of the box.
“She has this natural instinct for preserving and it just spurred my interest in collecting,” Foster said.

It started small at first, finding any Littlest Pet Shop doll she didn’t have. As Kayla got older, Sarah started to focus on the toys of her childhood.

“I love a good hunt for Little People and the sets I played with in the ‘70s,” she said. “I never pay too much. I’m good at finding the folks on Facebook Marketplace that just want to find a good home for their memories.”

She scored a Little People train set with the conductor and the passengers from a woman whose main hobby is collecting Little People.

“I don’t do this for money, it’s the memories. By the time Tilly is older, it might all pay for her college. But for now, it’s about always remembering the kid inside.”

“If you’re a missing a bed from a set, she has it. She makes her own wrapping paper, which she sends the toys out in with a handwritten card and a keychain made out of Little People bodies. It’s so cute.”
Foster has branched out to eccentric memories like a Mulan bank that dances and sings, the Arby’s kids meal characters and Ziggy collectibles. And she has a couple of things from her youth, like an original Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy bank. But she stays focused on Little People, in pursuit of a classic farm set. She recently scored the Little People hospital set from 1977.

“That was an epic pursuit. But the craftsmanship of the toys, the clothes on the Barbies, they were just so well made back then,” she said. “It takes me back to playing with my sisters.”

Foster doesn’t care that Kayla laughed when her mom reached out to be part of this article.
“My sister Laura laughs, but I bought her a Teddy Ruxpin and Grubby Worm, and she loves them. I think she gets it a little bit more now, but most of my family think I’m crazy.”
Kayla had a daughter of her own, Tilly. Being a grandma has sparked a new wave of passion and purpose.

“I don’t do this for money, it’s the memories. By the time Tilly is older, it might all pay for her college. But for now, it’s about always remembering the kid inside,” she said.

And maybe a bit of revenge.

“I had every VHS Disney movie since Kayla was born. I asked my parents to hold on to them, but they gave them to Goodwill,” Foster said. “So for sure, when I get a new classic toy, there’s a moment where I go, ‘Ha! I got ‘em back.’”

Bill Walters
Video games are collectibles, too

There is a portion of the toy collecting world that scoffs at video game collectors. For the old-school collectors, video games ruined their world when kids turned from action figures to virtual action on their TV screens.

For Bill Walters, the draw of an original Nintendo game cartridge is just as powerful as any old action figure. Well, unless it’s a Hulk Hogan action figure.

“I’m a huge wrestling fan. Anything from Hulkamania, I’m in on it, full steam,” said the 38-year-old Bluffton resident. “But video games, that’s my main lane.”

The New York native has fond memories of Friday nights hanging with friends, playing PlayStation 2 favorites like Metal Gear Solid 2.

“It has such a strong narrative, it’s like a movie you play. So many twists and turns, I mean it shocked me, it really made me emotional,” he said.
That connection led to the beginning of a collection nine years ago. He now owns 13 gaming systems, including a Nintendo 64, a Dreamcast and all five PlayStations. His two passions collide when he plays “No Mercy” for the N64 or “Smackdown: Here Comes the Pain” for the PS2.

“The PS2, it was just such a game-changer and they made so many titles for it,” said Walters, who has scooped up more than 275 titles for the console – the largest portion of his collection today. His most valuable find is a 2005 game full of rappers called “Def Jam: Fight For New York,” which goes for $200 on today’s market.

The lifelong gamer is not looking to make collecting his living. By day, he’s an inventory supervisor for a cabinet company in Ridgeland with wife Kimberly and three kids. By night, he slips in to his Shell Hall man cave, cranks up the heavy metal and grabs a title from his three wall-length shelves of games in their packaging and a myriad of binders full of just the game disks.
“Those moments they’re tough to find with three kids and one on the way,” he said. “My mother-in-law watches the kids on the weekend, so I can slip in to my world for a couple hours, look at my games and my wrestling autographs. These games, they should have a Dad Mode. Like, ‘I see you haven’t played in six months, here’s what you were doing and here’s a reminder of which keys do which things.’ Sometimes, it takes me a couple hours just to get back my mojo.”

He hits flea markets and pawn shops when he can, looking for his next obsession to add to the collection. His white whale: a developer-build PS2 that can play any title from around the world (usually consoles only play games from a specific region like the US or Japan).

“It’s all about the number of prints of a game. Sometimes, there’s games that just don’t hit it big, but they’re just so good, they find a following,” he said. “And if you get a Japanese copy of that game, that’s an even bigger score.”

He talks to collectors online and watches collectors talk about their prized possessions on Twitch.

“My mom, she thinks it’s ridiculous I’m still playing, let alone collecting these things,” he said. “My wife, she indulges it to a point and I love her for that. I’ve managed to keep it all from becoming an addiction, but it’s easy to get sucked in to a great game or a good hunt. Games like ‘Soul Caliber’ for the Dreamcast, so far ahead of its time, I just marvel at the innovation.”

Walters said as he gets older, he appreciates all the more the work that went in to creating legendary titles.

“It’s just genius,” he said. “I want to always share that with my kids. I’ll be 70 and I’ll still be playing all these games.”