Nov. 24, 2022

From Star Wars to Pez, Inside the Thriving World of Collectibles

The collectibles industry is booming


Ever wonder whether that old box of toys is worth thousands of dollars? Nora explores the world of collectibles and the lucrative business behind it. Steve Glew, the collector featured in a new documentary called The Pez Outlaw, along with director Bryan Storkel, reveals the secret world of Pez (yes, those candy dispensers) and how the collectibles community changed their lives. Then, producer Brian Volk-Weiss, creator of the Netflix docuseries The Toys That Made Us, explains what makes a toy valuable and what drives collectors to seek these prized possessions. For more info on our presenting sponsor, check out https://purple.com

 

Host: Nora Ali

Producer: Raymond Luu   

Video Editors: Sebastian Vega and Evan Frolov 

Production, Mixing & Sound Design: Daniel Markus & Rosemary Minkler 

Music: Daniel Markus & Breakmaster Cylinder

Fact Checker: Kate Brandt 

Senior Producer: Katherine Milsop

 

Full transcripts for all Business Casual episodes available at https://businesscasual.fm

Transcript

Nora Ali: For Morning Brew, this is Business Casual, bringing you convos with people you know, and some you may not know yet, to make business less intimidating. Because money talks, but it does not have to be dull. I'm your host, Nora Ali. Now, let's get down to business.

I had a lot of random, sometimes strange, collections as a kid. I collected keychains, books by Roald Dahl, Pokemon cards. Not with any sense of what was rare or valuable. I just wanted more. I collected Poggs, rocks—not pretty ones, just regular rocks. Feathers, which is weird because I'm afraid of birds. And, yes, I collected Beanie Babies. I have yet to make a single dollar off of my collections, which are probably just collecting dust in my parents' basement, and as we learned in this two-parter episode, sometimes the whole point of collecting is just the pure joy it brings.

But, for all of you business-minded folks out there, collecting can also be an extremely lucrative business. A new documentary called The Pez Outlaw, now available to stream on demand, follows the adventures of Steve Glew, a quirky dude from rural Michigan who decided to get into the business of collecting and eventually selling Pez dispensers. You know, those plastic toys that dispense terrible chalky candy. Steve decided to head to a secret factory in Eastern Europe soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall in the early nineties, where he tracked down the most desired and valuable Pez dispensers in the world.

What followed was years of adventure, black market smuggling, and millions of dollars changing hands. Steve even managed to find himself an arch nemesis, the president of Pez...or the Pez-ident. This story was way more gripping than I could have imagined. Today, we're going to find out why cheap plastic Pez dispensers can be worth thousands of dollars. First, you'll hear my conversation with the Pez Outlaw himself, Steve Glew, and director Bryan Storkel. Then, we'll take a look at how Pez fits into the bigger business story of the collectibles boom, and discover what actually drives people to collect seemingly random things. That is all next, after the break.

Bryan, Steve, welcome to Business Casual. I watched the film last night and I was absolutely tickled. It was so good. Very well done on both your parts. Before we get into talking more about Pez and the film itself, a little icebreaker for a segment we like to call OG Occupations. Steve, starting with you, what was your very first job that you have ever had in your life?

Steve Glew: Burger King. I got fired from most jobs I had as a young person. But BK was epic in that it was probably the biggest ketchup fight in the store that they've ever had. I mean, to the point where...usually, you just take the squirter bottles and chase each other around. We got to the point where we were dumping buckets of ketchup on each other, and we all got fired.

Nora Ali: How did that escalate? Were you all mad at each other?

Steve Glew: No, we were just young. I was probably 15, 16. We were all friends. It was my brother, and it was just our crowd. It was my tight unit of friends and we just...we went over the deep end.

Nora Ali: That sounds disgusting, but fun. Bryan, probably different, very different for you. What was your first job ever?

Bryan Storkel: Yeah. No ketchup. My first official job was working at a retirement home washing dishes in the kitchen. But also with a couple close friends, and that's...we got to stay late night and we would sneak into the ice cream fridge and get all the ice cream we wanted and...you know, we didn't get into as much trouble as the ketchup fight stuff.

Nora Ali: Maybe you washed some ketchup off of a plate once. That was...

Bryan Storkel: Yeah. There you go.

Nora Ali: That was your ketchup nod.

Bryan Storkel: There you go.

Nora Ali: Okay. Let's get into it. The Pez Outlaw. I'd love to play a clip from the trailer first to help set the stage here.

Speaker 6: No one knew where he came from.

Speaker 7: But everybody wanted what he was selling.

Steve Glew: Pez. It's like printing money.

Speaker 8: Some Pez are quite rare.

Speaker 9: And how much is this worth?

Speaker 10: Between three and four thousand dollars.

Speaker 11: The most I ever paid for Pez was $11,000.

Speaker 12: For one?

Speaker 11: One.

Nora Ali: By the way, the use of music, Bryan, in this film was incredible. So if that didn't pique our listeners' interest, that trailer, I don't know what will. So, Steve. I used to collect Pez as a child but I had like only a handful of Pez. This is discussed in the film, but we want to give a little teaser to our listeners. What got you interested in Pez in the first place?

Steve Glew: It piqued my interest when, back in the day before computers, before everything, we used to toy shop and in the back there was a guy called John the Cool Pez Man Devlin.

Nora Ali: Amazing. Bryan, how much did you know about Pez, the Pez industry, before you found Steve? And how did you even find him in the first place?

Bryan Storkel: Yeah. Not a lot. I mean, it's a whole world that I found out eventually, of wonderful people and all sorts of adventures. But we read about Steve. There were a couple articles out and that led us to his blog, and he'd been keeping a blog for 20 years, telling all about his stories in Europe and dealing Pez for so many years. And yeah. We were just fascinated by it. So we reached out to him on Facebook and started talking through Facebook Messenger and as soon as it...this was during the pandemic, so we were waiting for a time when it was...as soon as it was safe enough to travel out and see him, we just, we went out to visit him on his farm in Michigan as soon as we could.

Nora Ali: Mm-hmm.

Bryan Storkel: And yeah. Met him and his family and we were completely hooked with the story and with them as people. They're just wonderful people.

Nora Ali: They're wonderful people. Also, just a lot of surprising numbers and metrics around the Pez industry. We just heard, in the trailer, one Pez collector say that the most she had ever paid for a single Pez was $11,000, which is outrageous. It sounds outrageous. Steve, where does the value come from in Pez dispensers? And I guess more specifically, when you were selling Pez, how did you determine the price at which you wanted to sell the most valuable ones?

Steve Glew: There's two worlds in Pez. There's Walmart and then there's the high end. I was Walmart. My goal from the beginning was to bring $25 pieces down to $5 each and $35s down to at least $20 or $25. But the high end is a whole different thing.

Nora Ali: Who is dabbling in the high end, then? You likened yourself to the Walmart. But who is selling $11,000 Pezes?

Bryan Storkel: There's a whole world of collectors and Pez conventions and people trading online, showing up physically in these...where they set out a table in a ballroom and they sell these Pez to different, you know, other collectors. But I think the value is driven up just based on the rarity of them. I mean, the ones that are selling for $11,000, there's not very many of them, and that's probably because they've...some of them have been destroyed or they just had very few made to begin with. If you're ever at a garage sale or something and you're looking for...one of the things I learned...looking for rare Pez or old Pez, one of the telltale signs is the feet on the Pez.

Nora Ali: Hmm.

Bryan Storkel: They didn't put those feet until much later. So, if you ever go to...if you ever find a box of Pez at a garage sale and there's no feet, chances are those ones might be worth some good money.

Nora Ali: Oh.

Bryan Storkel: So that's one thing to look for. But yeah. There's some Pez that there's only a few of. One of the guys in the film, went to his house, and he has basically the first Pez ever made, and there was one model that was made and only one exists. And so what's the value on that? I don't even know. He's not selling it.

Nora Ali: Hmm. Bryan, let's back up a little bit. We're talking about this film, The Pez Outlaw. Can you just very quickly explain to us what Steve was doing in terms of getting the Pez from overseas, selling them in the US? And we heard in the trailer that it was maybe illegal, bordering on illegal? So, what exactly was Steve doing that made him turn into the Pez Outlaw?

Bryan Storkel: He lives near Lansing, Michigan. His world of...like he said, he hadn't been to Europe. He hadn't done many things. He was working at a machine shop. But Steve's always been, I think, a bit of a collector, and you'll see in the film, he collected cereal boxes before this, and I think talking to him too, I've found that he always has a...he's always thinking about the business of things. So, when he saw Pez and realized the value there, he kind of heard about this factory in Europe and went to find these Pez that were there that were possibly more rare or different than the ones in the US. Similar to going to Canada but just taking a bit bigger of a step this time.

So he went over there and it went really well. The first trip went really well and it kind of turned into a bit of a business for him, and I don't want to give away too much of the movie, but he was bringing back different Pez over the course of a few years, and smuggling them, basically, into the US because he wasn't supposed to be. And there were some gray areas as to what was legal and illegal. But he made a living off of this and ended up quitting his job and going full time into the Pez business, and hiring all of his family to work for him and had several employees, and it was just like a full-time...became this full-time thing and they did really well with it, until his arch-nemesis, the Pez-ident, decided to try to stop him.

Nora Ali: We don't want to give too much away.

Bryan Storkel: No. No.

Nora Ali: But my favorite part is how Steve managed to get past customs in the US.

Bryan Storkel: Yes.

Nora Ali: But you're going to have to watch the film to find out.

Bryan Storkel: Steve, do you consider yourself, looking back, do you think you were a good businessman, or...?

Steve Glew: No. No. I was horrible. I was horrible. But you know, you can't...

Bryan Storkel: Why?

Steve Glew: Everything bad leads to the good if you're doing things right. You have to mess up in order to know what to do. So it's all a learning curve. It works out. It does work out. I mean, you get gifts, which are you and Amy, but...I couldn't be more grateful for what you and Amy did. I couldn't. I want...I will never watch the movie. I can't. But I lived the movie and watched them make it and it was just so wonderful. I couldn't hope for more. I really couldn't. Like I told Bryan, the only thing I regret is that we can't do it again.

Nora Ali: And for our listeners, Amy is also a director of the film. You said you didn't think you were a good businessman, but what would you have done differently, Steve, if you did this all over again? You're discovering Pez for the first time. What would you do differently?

Steve Glew: I never would have made the misfits. But then we wouldn't be sitting here if I hadn't. So was it a mistake to lose everything?

Nora Ali: What are the misfits?

Steve Glew: They're the color variations, and glow in the dark, and crystals that I created. But you can't get here without that. You gotta do your time. You gotta make your mistakes, do your time, and work really hard, and then something wonderful can happen again.

Bryan Storkel: My perception is like Steve was always about bulk. Right? And so, that big order that he talks about, the misfits, is when he went and bought just a half a million dollars’ worth of Pez and then sold them for fairly cheap. You know, looking back, there could have been a long game to it where he came back from Europe and said, instead of saying he had $100,000 or $500,000 worth of Pez, that he only had a few, and then just kept bringing some out as we go. So, I think there's other collectors that...instead of saturating the market and dropping the prices, there's other collectors that will say, yeah, there's only five of these in the world, and then mysteriously, couple years from now, they found another five.

Steve Glew: He's talking about the war.

Bryan Storkel: And then five more.

Nora Ali: Ah, yeah.

Bryan Storkel: So that's the difference in Steve's pricing and what he did with businesses. Yeah, he was the Walmart. He did just try to sell them in bulk and he kind of oversaturated the market a lot of times, where if he had held onto it, I think, and kept them a little more hidden and sold them for a higher price, it would have lasted possibly longer. But also, that's not the way he operates.

Nora Ali: So Bryan, you talked to so many Pez collectors and people within the industry. Are there any common traits or themes for the people that you talk to? Who becomes a Pez collector, a passionate Pez collector?

Bryan Storkel: Yeah. I mean, I collected baseball cards and things, you know, and then autographs and things when I was in high school and college even. You know, it's people that just really like the product, maybe, but also, there's also people looking for community. I think it's a great community. The collectors have come together and they all just enjoy getting together with each other as well. So it's not just a business for them. It's hard to say that it's all one type of person that collects Pez, because there's quite a variety that we've met through all of this.

Nora Ali: I'm sure. Steve, how would you describe the Pez collectors community?

Steve Glew: It's one of the richest and friendliest groups of people I've ever met, and I've been in a lot of different things, and no group compares, to me. None. Nice people. Good people. Supportive, loving.

Nora Ali: Wow.

Steve Glew: Just...it's a good group.

Nora Ali: Can you describe how it's maybe changed over the past few decades from when you were the Pez Outlaw until now? How has it developed?

Steve Glew: My numbers are gonna be all wrong, but when Josh and I came to the community selling, I would guess there were somewhere between two and three thousand collectors, and the known universe was attainable. The known universe being how many different types of Pez there were at the time. You could actually do it. Now, the known universe is almost impossible to me.

Nora Ali: Well, you mentioned your son Josh, who is a character in the film, and he helped you get your business up and running in the first place. You went to Europe together to go meet with Pez manufacturers. Steve, talk to me about how this business, the world of Pez, has impacted your family. One of my favorite things about the film was that at the end you say, "You know, this...it was always about Kathy." About your wife, which I thought was so touching. So how has this all impacted you and your loved ones?

Steve Glew: We had money. Lot of money for a while. Life was good. Better than I could have expected. This is like my second act now. Through the writing and Bryan and Amy, we've achieved something that I could have never dreamed of. But the first act...like I say, we had money. It changed our lives. And then the crash in the 20 years of building to Bryan and Amy, and I don't...it's hard to describe. Everything about it is something I never thought would happen in my life as a child. When I was little, there was a guy who owned a car wash named Swank, and he had like a million dollars, and we were like, "Oh my gosh." Well, in 11 years, I earned $4.5 million or handled that amount of money, so...and traveled. I'd have never thought as a child that I would ever go to Europe, and I went somewhere under 100 times, traveled around the world. South Africa. Everywhere.

So that was a shattering of the possible within my life, and now a movie made about the character Pez Outlaw is again shattering any possible dreams I could have had. I mean, you write stuff down and you say you want to do this or you act like it's possible, then when it happens, you're just flabbergasted. I'm...you know, you go...you're a nobody and you get to experience and live all these dreams that you never thought would happen.

Nora Ali: I'm excited to see your second act, Steve, or more of your second act. Okay. We're going to play a very quick game with both of you before we let you go. It's called That Was How Much? So it's about collectibles and I'm going to list four collectibles that broke world records for their hammer price at auction, and I would love for you guys to list them in order from least expensive to most expensive.

Number one: the Stefani Canturi Barbie, released in 2010 and created to raise money for The Breast Cancer Research Foundation. The necklace was created with emerald-cut Australian pink diamonds. Okay? So, this is a Barbie that's wearing Australian pink diamonds.

Number two. I hope you're taking notes. Number two. This past August, Heritage Auctions sold a Mickey Mantle baseball card. The card, depicting, of course, the famous New York Yankees player, was produced by Topps in 1952.

Number three: In April 2021, auction house Sotheby's sold Kanye West's Nike Air Yeezy One prototype. The artist wore these shoes during the 2008 Grammy Awards for his performance of "Hey Mama" and "Stronger."

Last but not least....well, maybe it is. I don't know. This past April, Captain America Comics number one, a 1941 comic book issue featuring the first appearance of the titular character, became one of the most expensive comic books ever sold at auction. From Forbes, the issue written and drawn by groundbreaking comic book creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby also features the first appearance of the Marvel hero's ally Bucky, who would go on to become the Winter Soldier.

Okay. So, to reiterate, we have Stefani Canturi Barbie, Mickey Mantle baseball card, Kanye's Nike Air Yeezy One prototype, and Captain America comics number one. What do we think is the least expensive?

Bryan Storkel: Which one do you think is least, Steve? I think it's Kanye's shoes or the Barbie.

Steve Glew: Yeah. Yeah. Definitely.

Bryan Storkel: Okay. Let's go with the Kanye shoes for least.

Steve Glew: Yeah.

Nora Ali: Well, I'm going to tell you if you're right or wrong as we go. All right?

Bryan Storkel: Oh no. Okay.

Nora Ali: Yeah. So, the Barbie auction price was $302,500. So that's the least expensive.

Bryan Storkel: Okay. So, Barbie's the least.

Nora Ali: Yeah.

Bryan Storkel: Okay.

Nora Ali: Mark that off the list. We have the baseball card, sneakers, and the comic.

Bryan Storkel: Should we do the Kanye or the Captain America for number two? I kind of think...I mean, we were wrong on the Kanye shoes the first time, but I think I'm still going to go with them as number two, Steve. What do you think?

Steve Glew: I don't know.

Nora Ali: He's right, though. Say yes, Steve. Say yes. Bryan is right.

Steve Glew: Yes. Yes. Yes.

Nora Ali: Kanye's shoes' auction price was $1.8 million.

Bryan Storkel: Wow. Wow.

Nora Ali: Now, it's between the comic and the baseball card.

Bryan Storkel: Steve sold his shoes from the movie, from The Pez Outlaw, and he didn't get anywhere near that price.

Nora Ali: How much did you get, Steve, for your shoes?

Steve Glew: 500 bucks for the paints.

Bryan Storkel: Yeah. 500 bucks for a pair of shoes worn in the movie.

Nora Ali: Okay.

Bryan Storkel: I mean, he's a businessman. I think he's thinking about these things, you know?

Steve Glew: No. I tend to weight things according to how much I love 'em, and I would always put the comic ahead of whatever.

Bryan Storkel: Yeah. Maybe we should go with the comic, then. Let's say...let's say Mickey Mantle is next and then the comic last for the...because Steve would rather have the comic.

Nora Ali: Well, Steve, I think the moral of today's story is listen to Bryan, because Bryan was right before.

Steve Glew: That's always true.

Nora Ali: Mickey Mantle's baseball card was the most expensive, kind of by far. So the comic auction price just a mere $3.1 million. The baseball card, a whopping $12.6 million. But I think you guys win the game anyway. That was fun. Steve, Bryan, thank you so much for the time and for joining us on Business Casual.

Steve Glew: Thank you for having me.

Bryan Storkel: Thank you so much for having us.

Nora Ali: Steve Glew is featured in the documentary The Pez Outlaw, directed by Bryan Storkel and Amy Storkel. You can watch The Pez Outlaw, now streaming on digital and VOD.

We just heard from Steve Glew, a man who made a fortune in Pez dispensers. One Pez collector featured in The Pez Outlaw said that the most she ever paid for a Pez was $11,000. A recent article in Life Hacker reported that a, quote, "rare" Mickey Mouse soft head prototype dispenser from the 1970s sold for $3,500 in an eBay auction in 2019, and a similar Dumbo soft head dispenser prototype went for over $2,700 that same year.

But what makes Pez dispensers, and more broadly, toys, collectible? What determines value in the modern collectibles market? Over the past few years, the prices for everything from comics to sports trading cards to sneakers have surged. A recent report from marketdecipher.com estimated that the global toy collectibles market was at $12.5 billion in 2021 and forecasted to grow to $35.3 billion by 2032. For some insight on this, I spoke with Brian Volk-Weiss, the CEO of Emmy and Grammy award-winning multimedia production house Nacelle Company. Brian has made a career out of his passion for toys and the toy community. You might know him as the creator and producer of documentaries including Netflix's The Toys That Made Us and Amazon's A Toy Store Near You. I started by asking Brian what determines whether a toy like a Pez dispenser is valuable.

Brian Volk-Weiss: So, the obvious and easy answer is, it's all about rarity. The stuff your quote unquote "mom and dad threw out." Odds are, all mom and dads threw that out. So then, when people get older and they start to miss their childhoods because they didn't have to worry about credit card debt or STDs or other fun things that you have to deal with at 25 and 35 and 45, but you didn't deal with at 10 or 12, then you're like, oh my god. That gives me a good feeling in my chest. Let me get it to put it on my shelf, 'cause now I got money and psychological problems. So that's what it usually is.

Nora Ali: Okay.

Brian Volk-Weiss: But it's different for G.I. Joe versus Transformers versus Barbie versus He-Man.

Nora Ali: Mm-hmm.

Brian Volk-Weiss: But if you're coming at me with Pez dispensers, that's a whole other world, because Transformers and Barbie are important because they're characters that affected childhoods. But the thing that's interesting about something like a Pez dispenser is there is value to it, but that value is due to two real issues specific to Pez. One, it's a tiny, tiny community compared to Star Wars or Hello Kitty. But also, it predates almost all modern IPs, so those things were really thrown out, largely because at the time, they were absolutely considered to be disposable. Nobody saved it because it's just not something you would save.

Nora Ali: Yeah.

Brian Volk-Weiss: But now that people collect everything, they want what they can't get and that's what drives up the value.

Nora Ali: Great explanation. How can you determine in real time if something will become valuable, say, in 20 years? You predict that this particular type of toy is going to become a collectible, so I better hang on to it now. Are there signs?

Brian Volk-Weiss: I've been collecting for over 30 years. I have just under 4,000 pieces in my collection and out of all this time and all this work—"work" in quotes, by the way—out of all this time, here is my honest to god's answer to your question. If you are holding something and you think it's going to be valuable, it probably won't be.

Nora Ali: Yeah.

Brian Volk-Weiss: If you are holding something and walking towards the garbage to throw it out, that is what will probably be valuable.

Nora Ali: Why?

Brian Volk-Weiss: Because it's the throwing out that causes the scarcity. So everybody knows Superman One is very valuable. But why is it valuable? It's valuable because there's not many. And how come there's not many? The reason is there was never a comic book business, so when Daddy Joe or Mommy Lisa bought their kid a comic book, it was always assumed that would be like under the bird next week when it went to the bathroom, or wrapping the fish or whatever. There was no collectible market, so they all got thrown out. Then, cut to me in the eighties and nineties, growing up collecting comic books. Everybody knows Superman One is worth a million dollars.

Nora Ali: Mm-hmm.

Brian Volk-Weiss: So nobody's throwing out anything. And then 20, 30 years later, everybody has saved everything.

Nora Ali: Yeah.

Brian Volk-Weiss: And there's a million of them. That's why. But the thing that's interesting...I'll give you a great example from my own lifetime. I'm one of the only people I know my age that immediately liked Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and I always was a fan, literally from the movie, of Ahsoka Tano.

Nora Ali: Mm-hmm.

Brian Volk-Weiss: So I would buy...and up until about three years ago, there was no Ahsoka Tano to buy. So when Clone Wars first came out, there was one Ahsoka Tano anything.

Nora Ali: Mm-hmm.

Brian Volk-Weiss: It was a beautiful statue. She had like magnets in her feet so she would stand up. And it was cool. But it was the only Ahsoka Tano thing available at launch. I bought one for $40. It's been on my shelf for whatever, 15 years or something. Those are now eight, nine hundred dollars, because everybody hated Ahsoka and everybody hated The Clone Wars for 10 years, and only as The Clone Wars started to wrap up and Ahsoka Tano became a cool character to most people did her value skyrocket.

Nora Ali: In the Ahsoka Tano example, why wouldn't the manufacturer just resurrect it and make more when Ahsoka Tano as a character becomes more mainstream popular?

Brian Volk-Weiss: They do. In fact, that literally just happened with Hasbro. Hasbro started making redos of the original figures that didn't sell. But here's the interesting thing. Morally, they must identify on the packaging and the figure that it's a reprint. Well, what does that do for me? It just makes everything go up that isn't a part of the reprint.

Nora Ali: Mmm. Okay. So, if it's not a part of the OG manufacturing, then it's just...it's totally different in value.

Brian Volk-Weiss: Exactly.

Nora Ali: Talk to me about maybe the trends you've seen in collectibles. We saw a bit of a boom in interest in collectibles over the pandemic. Now there's a looming recession. People are tightening their wallets a little bit more. What do you foresee as sort of the near-term future of collectibles, given what we've seen over the past couple of years?

Brian Volk-Weiss: So it will always go up and it will always go down, and different things will go up at different times. Different things will go down at different times. But the thing which I believe is the new twist in collectibles is largely due to what Marvel did starting with Iron Man that everybody has started emulating, and what I mean by that is I played with Star Wars figures as a little kid and I played with Transformers as a little kid. So I played with Darth Vader and I played with Optimus Prime. My nine-year-old and my seven-year-old, they're playing with Optimus Prime and Darth Vader.

So that means, for the first time within reason in human history, that we don't have to worry anymore about the people in their eighties today dying and then there being fewer people that'll spend the big bucks to buy a Vlix, which you probably, if I had to guess, no offense, have never heard of.

Nora Ali: I do know what that is.

Brian Volk-Weiss: And by the way, if you have heard of Vlix, I feel bad for you and your family.

Nora Ali: Who is that? Can you tell us who it is, though, for our listeners?

Brian Volk-Weiss: It's actually in many ways a better answer to your question of what creates value.

Nora Ali: Okay.

Brian Volk-Weiss: So, Vlix, V-L-I-X, literally like the 89th lead of the Star Wars: Droids cartoon from 1980.

Vlix: For what they cost you to build, I could have got a few of the old boys together. That's the way old Size would have done it.

Nora Ali: Okay.

Brian Volk-Weiss: So the cartoon comes out. It does very badly. Kenner, at the time, they had the rights and they had made...because, nothing Star Wars had ever bombed before.

Nora Ali: Mm-hmm.

Brian Volk-Weiss: So, they make wave one and wave two simultaneously, even though only one season of the cartoon had been picked up. Kenner was positive there would be at least two seasons. Well, the cartoon does terribly and it gets canceled. Kenner has already made the Vlix figures and they think they're going to be a little sneaky because they've already spent all the money. They ship 'em down to Brazil and they say to Brazil, "Hey, Brazil. Here are some figures for you. Do whatever you want with 'em."

Well, the company in Brazil was called Glasslite and they got into a lot of bad luck, because there happened to be somebody from Lucasfilm on vacation in Rio de Janeiro, went into a toy store and saw it full of Vlixes, which was a huge no-no because when the show was canceled, Lucasfilm told Kenner, "Stop. Destroy everything. Pull everything back. The show was canceled. We don't want anything else sold." Which they had the legal right to do. But as I said, Kenner had already snuck these off to Brazil.

Nora Ali: Mm-hmm.

Brian Volk-Weiss: So Lucasfilm goes crazy. They start screaming at Kenner. Kenner's like, "Sorry. Accident." For those who can't see, I'm doing air quotes. "Accident. Accident." And they tell Glasslite, "Pull them off the shelves. Pull them off the shelves. We're in trouble with Lucasfilm." So Glasslite goes crazy, sends people to every single store they had sent Vlixes to, pulls them back, and puts them in a warehouse. A week later, the warehouse burns down.

Nora Ali: No.

Brian Volk-Weiss: So now, the only Vlixes in 2022 that you or I could buy are the people that before Lucasfilm, in the week or two that they were for sale, grabbed 'em and then for some reason didn't give 'em to their kids. Maybe their kids were naughty and didn't get the Christmas present. So the Vlix sat on a shelf and then 20 years later, the parents died, the kids come home, they're going through the house, and they find this thing on a shelf that's been sitting there for 40 years that is now worth close to a quarter million dollars.

Nora Ali: What?

Brian Volk-Weiss: That is the...everybody talks about Boba Fett, the rocket-firing Boba Fett. Those were all prototypes.

Nora Ali: Okay.

Brian Volk-Weiss: And those are worth even more. But you've probably heard the name Boba Fett.

Nora Ali: Of course. I love Boba Fett.

Brian Volk-Weiss: You've never heard Vlix.

Nora Ali: Never heard Vlix.

Brian Volk-Weiss: Yeah. When we made Toys That Made Us, Vlixes were going for about 80 grand.

Nora Ali: Wow.

Brian Volk-Weiss: They're now...one just went for $280k.

Nora Ali: So what's the idea then? These folks are going to hang on to them and sell them eventually? Or it's just like, what they do is collect them and keep...like, what is the point for most people who are getting into this, collecting this stuff?

Brian Volk-Weiss: Again, I say this to you as someone who has close to 4,000 toys, and I also just, for the record, I am aware I do not have an infinite life span. There is no point. There's absolutely no point. It's, within reason, a somewhat—unless you're putting your family at risk—it's a healthy addiction. It's not...or, maybe a better way to say it is, it's not an unhealthy addiction. You smoke cigarettes, that's easy. You're messing up your lungs.

Nora Ali: But if you're spending $250,000 on a toy, that seems, like, detrimental. It sounds like these folks are just hanging on...so, why? I still don't understand the why, if you're not going to sell it when it goes up in value.

Brian Volk-Weiss: If I'm understanding your questions correctly, you would understand it better if it was about the money. But in my experience, that relates to no more than 15% of the collectible community.

Nora Ali: Hmm. Okay.

Brian Volk-Weiss: So if we're talking about 85% of the community of which I consider myself to be a part of this group...

Nora Ali: Mm-hmm.

Brian Volk-Weiss: Comes down to one word, and it is so cheesy I wouldn't blame you for not believing me. Joy. I'll tell you this right now. I just moved. So my toy collection is in dozens and dozens and dozens of boxes, as I start building their shelves and the lighting and all the infrastructure for my collection to go into. And, again, I'm not that crazy. I have three kids and a wife. Their health is all that matters to me.

Nora Ali: Yeah. Yeah.

Brian Volk-Weiss: It literally is. And I tell you that to give you a baseline that I'm not a true lunatic.

Nora Ali: Yeah. I didn't think you were.

Brian Volk-Weiss: But...well, the day is young. But I feel like a part of me is missing, that my collection that I normally get to see every single day is in boxes in our basement. It gives me joy to walk in and see these things.

Nora Ali: Mm-hmm.

Brian Volk-Weiss: That, in a nutshell, is my version of why.

Nora Ali: We're going to take a quick break. More with Brian when we come back. So let's talk about your Netflix docuseries, The Toys That Made Us. So this explores the ideas and creators behind some of the most iconic toy franchises, like Star Wars, which you mentioned, G.I. Joe, Hello Kitty, Lego. From your perspective, which collectibles do you think will stand the test of time. Of the ones that maybe our listeners are most familiar with, that we grew up with, elicit the most nostalgia? What is going to last for decades and decades and decades?

Brian Volk-Weiss: Anyone who would answer your question with a specific brand, you should never trust again, because it is absolutely impossible to predict. But an easy way to figure it out is, pick a brand that you have confidence will be in production for multiple generations and has already been in production for multiple generations. If you want to, quote unquote, "play it safe," that's a great way to play it safe.

Nora Ali: You also have an Amazon documentary series called A Toy Store Near You, which focuses on independently owned toy stores, the customers that flock to them, the community they create, how that's all been impacted by the pandemic. What have you learned that's most interesting about the community around these toy stores, and what should our listeners take away as to sort of who's building up these communities?

Brian Volk-Weiss: They're all mom and pops. I mean, every single one of these stores are either owned by one person or a married couple, or every now and then two brothers. But 90% is one person or a married couple. I've been going to these stores since high school. But I never understood how the business works, and the first thing I'll tell you, it is a lot of work. Like, a lot. I mean, these toy store owners, they're looking at obituaries every day.

Nora Ali: Oh my.

Brian Volk-Weiss: They're looking at court records to see who's getting divorced. It's that kind of stuff going on on a daily basis.

Nora Ali: Wow.

Brian Volk-Weiss: So that's the kind of stuff. You think "toy store owner." Woo! What a fun job. You hear "salt mine person," like someone who works in a salt mine chipping away at salt. That sounds like a horribly difficult job. But there are aspects of being, many aspects of being a toy store owner that I would argue is as grueling as, like, working in a salt mine.

Nora Ali: So Brian, where do you see the collectible market being in 20 years? Do you think it's going to grow? More people are going to get interested? Nostalgia's just going to keep growing? What is your vision for what it's going to look like in the next couple decades?

Brian Volk-Weiss: It'll absolutely grow and it will grow exponentially, for a few reasons. First of all, there's more people. So the more people you have, the more money there is, the more people that can buy and sell. That's obvious. But the other thing that might not be as obvious is, pop culture as a thing, it only became a thing less than 10 years ago. 

I'll give you a great example. There is a town in California, about 100,000 people, called Visalia. There is an antique store in Visalia that I've been going to for about seven years. The first time I went to that antique store...and this is 20,000-square-foot antique store. Maybe bigger. Less than 3% of the objects for sale in that store were toys. I was in there in May. It's like 35% toys now. And the reason is it's becoming a thing. And, by the way, another reason why it's becoming a thing, and I got a bunch of theories about that...my conclusion is black and white. Undeniable. But it's still a little gray as to why. Women were never a part of this, ever, until about eight years ago. I went to San Diego Comic-Con for the first time ever in 1999. At the most, with no exaggeration whatsoever, at the most was 10% female. It may have been 5% female. I brought a girl with me and she was literally like, "What...?" Like, I mean, it was weird.

Nora Ali: Uh-huh.

Brian Volk-Weiss: I was there this past July. It's at least 50-50.

Nora Ali: Mm-hmm.

Brian Volk-Weiss: It might even be 55% female.

Nora Ali: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Brian Volk-Weiss: But like I was saying about more people, more money, well, if you all of a sudden have half of the sexes using money to buy toys, that's gonna drive the price up. So that's a big part of it as well. The other thing that's going on now, back to why will this be a bigger thing in 20 years than it is today. So I was born in '76. I was in high school like 1990 to 1994. I mean, I literally was at the nerd table. If I wore a Han Solo or Luke Skywalker, let alone a Princess Leia T-shirt, people would have made fun of me, if not beaten me up. I mean, that really was how it was.

Nora Ali: It's cool to be a nerd now, and that's exemplified by the fact that Stranger Things is one of the most popular shows ever, and it's about kids who play Dungeons and Dragons. It is absolutely cool to be a nerd. And most of my T-shirts are Star Wars and Marvel T-shirts, so I get it. I grew up a nerd, too. I was not cool. Still am not cool, but it's cool to be uncool now. So I'm right there with you, Brian. Awesome. Brian, I have learned so much in this conversation. I get it now. Thank you so much for joining us on Business Casual to talk about collectibles. We loved it.

Brian Volk-Weiss: Thank you. This was fun.

Nora Ali: This is Business Casual and I'm Nora Ali. You can follow me on Twitter @NoraKAli and I would love to hear from you. If you have ideas for episodes, comments, thoughts on episodes you loved, fun segment ideas, feel free to shoot me a DM and I will do my very best to respond. You can also reach the BC team by emailing businesscasual@morningbrew.com, or call us. That number is 862-295-1135. And if you haven't already, be sure to subscribe to Business Casual on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen. And if you like this show, please leave us a rating and a review. It really helps.

Business Casual is produced by Katherine Milsop and Raymond Luu. Additional production, sound design, and mixing by Daniel Markus, Rosemary Minkler, and Nick Torres. Kate Brandt is our fact checker, and AB Silver is our senior booking producer. Sebastian Vega and Evan Frolov edit our videos. Music in this episode from Daniel Markus and The Mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder. Thanks for listening to Business Casual. I'm Nora Ali. Keep it business, and keep it casual.