Dr. Slump, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Buy more Anime Toys!
By guest columnist Lee Bourgeois
1985 was the year I was introduced to anime collecting. That was the year Robotech hit TV, and there I was, a grown man (or so I thought), watching a cartoon religiously. I ended up going to the San Diego Comic Con because of this, met the voice actors, and Carl and Ahmed. My first time at this convention made me kind of wild and crazy, there was an overload to the senses. Almost immediately, I found so many interests in all directions at once that, it was very difficult not to immediately spend all the money I had on me. I remember wandering around aimlessly after the con closed for the evening, looking for action, my attention being drawn to whatever after-hours activities were happening. I couldn't sleep; I was too excited by all the discovering I had done earlier that day.
Around midnight, I found the "anime room" in one of the hotels nearby, a CFO (Cartoon Fantasy Organization-Fred Patton) sponsored event. Most of the "otaku" had lined up their chairs into beds for an all-night anime marathon. It felt a little like a camp-out, with everyone gathered around the campfire. We drifted in and out of consciousness as raw Japanese language tracks blared into the darkness from two tiny TV's in the mostly empty ballroom. I got my first taste of one of director Hayao Miyazaki's works, The Castle of Cagliostro. That made me a Monkeypunch/Lupin the 3rd fan for life. Back then, people got lucky if someone had a translated script (God bless Sue Shambaugh). This was an entirely new experience for me, having lived isolated in a small non-metropolitan city. Anime was still a primarily urban subculture.
I was revved up for more the next day, and it got me to go poking around in the dealer's room for the anime trinkets and baubles. There was a booth back then, that was run by Pony-Toy-Go-Round, they had me mesmerized, like a kid in a candy store, I was looking at the mother lode, a real watershed of otaku goodies the likes of I have only seen recently at Mandarake in Torrance, CA. I should've realized I was in a museum, cause most of what I saw I wouldn't see again, except in a magazine. This lesson in collecting taught me the virtue of "buy it now, cause you may not see it again."
Pony Toys had a shop in the LA's Honda Plaza, near 2nd and Alemeda streets, and I went there immediately after the con was over to further my education and cleanout what money I had left in my pocket. They had a display of older toys that were now priceless relics of the 70's. I set my sights on finding the Macross models I couldn't get at the con. The counter staff was made up of students from Japan that were continuing their studies here in the states, most spoke enough English to help me get the answers to my constant questioning of "what's this?" and "where did this come from?" I had made a connection into the culture and was hooked. They were very friendly and had a mail-order service from a catalog. I ordered when I got home.
This experience caused me to hit the road in search of more bootie and the knowledge that came with it. I found some stores up in the San Francisco Bay area, my favorite being the Iron Wolf and Iron Horse stores run by Butch Lee up in Albany and Pinole near Berkeley. Butch was a "sensei" to me and taught me a lot about collecting. He had been to Japan in the 70's and brought back many toys and manga. I saw my first Macross "Blue Max" Takatoku toy there and of course inquired about it's sale, it wasn't and because so many customers back then wanted to acquire it, Butch thought the better of leaving it displayed in his front window. Smash and grab came to mind. Most of these stores are out of business like the "Robot Store" in DeAnza near Santa Clara, where I found an original Gundam MkII RX-78 cutaway model.
My collecting habits have rewarded me many times over through sales and purchases. Back in the 80's, Japanese companies used to warehouse or actually take what didn't sell to the dump. Many entrepreneurs scoured the warehouses back then and made a good living at it. Now if you travel to Tokyo, you will find many anime antique stores have sprung up, as well as the prices for the rare and out of print. Be resourceful and you'll be rewarded. Know your market and "word of mouth" is all you need.
These people and their stores were ahead of the wave that would crash on our shores in the 90's, when Animecon started, leading to the Anime America and Anime Expo conventions. These were giddy times indeed; everyone knew each other and shared in the educating of the ranks that became legions towards the end of the century. Currently, it's a lot easier to get your hands on the goods, but the standard for buying still holds true: get it while you can!
Retailing anime and manga products are a reward in itself, you love what you're doing, by making new customers happy, educating them as well as selling them some cool swag. A friend of mine worked for the Sub, our local comic and counter-culture shop. Around '85 there had the Macross toys from Takotoku and later Bandai and Matchbox, but the influx didn't last long. Soon after, I started working at a new shop, Games People Play, where I convinced the owner to set up a little comics stand. When Eclipse comics (soon after changed to Viz) started releasing its first titles like Area-88 and Lum, they became instant hits. Slowly but surely we started seeking out more anime and manga stuff. Mostly, I would have to go to San Francisco or LA to pick things up from Books Nippon or other stores. At the time there was so little stuff available, that anything was cool. Some of the bigger items would sit around for months, but when someone finally did discover it, we'd have a new customer for life.
Now I own half the store, and anime and manga are a bigger part of it than ever before. We can be thankful for the Gundam Wing, Dragonball Z, and Sailor Moon TV shows for bringing in new customers, and it's a fact that the same result will happen when young fans of Pokemon and Digimon grow into the genre. Fortunately, this time American companies are supporting the demand while it's hot. Now that Diamond and other distributors are picking up Japanese toy lines, we can get in great stuff at an affordable price (of course, Diamond also keeps a lot of stuff out of our customers' hands, but that's another story). The new EVA toys especially have sold tremendously well with long time otaku and new fans alike. Now we order anime videos and DVDs as casually as we would comics and graphic novels. This is a great time to be an anime retailer, and with this much selection, it's a great time to be a fan.