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The Boston Phoenix The Barbie Czar

In Gary Sohmers's collectibles market, there's arbitrage, there's commodity dumping, and there's poker-faced buying at astonishing margins. There is contempt and envy. There are Beanie Babies.

By Ellen Barry

FEBRUARY 23, 1998:  Gary Sohmers was sitting in his shop last month when a man came in and told him a terrible story. The man's house had burned down, and among his considerable losses was a collection of G.I. Joe dolls, which had melted into featureless globs of plastic. The man went -- as people do in these situations -- to his insurance company. The agents looked at him blankly: the going rates for 30-year-old G.I. Joes?

That's where Gary Sohmers came in.

"All these things, they look at them and say, 'That's junk. That's a toy. We're not going to give you any money for that,' " says Sohmers, who is 45. "Now, he paid heavy for it. He wants it back. He doesn't even care what he paid for it. He wants the insurance company to replace it for him. He wants that toy."

As he tells this story, Sohmers is packed in a nest of ephemera: an empty Dave Clark Five record sleeve; a little girl's Beatles overnight bag; a desiccated, 10-foot plaster face of Marilyn Monroe, inherited from Dead Idols Night when Metro, a Lansdowne Street club, closed 10 years ago. Sohmers's taste runs to sweatpants and polar fleece; down his back is the same ponytail that got him kicked out of high school during his senior year in 1969. On the street he could be mistaken for someone who picks through other people's garbage -- especially if he happened to be doing it at the time -- but he also occupies a peculiar spot in the local economy. He is, he says, the only person in New England who could issue an appraisal for melted G.I. Joes.

Over the last 20 years, the enthusiasm for pop-culture collectibles has spread from a sprinkling of eccentrics to permeate a full demographic bulge. In the mid-'80s, it exploded: the hype was everywhere, prices soared, and industry guides started listing market values for every conceivable niche item. Dealers say the market has plateaued now; the wild profit margins have waned somewhat, and the mint in-the-box finds come farther and farther apart. The amateurs are, for the most part, squeezed out, and the professionals have learned to be very, very good. Gary Sohmers is one of the best.

Now, as Sohmers can attest, buying and selling 30-year-old toys is a viable way to support a family of three -- provided you also produce collectibles shows as a sideline, know every niche market, schmooze every top buyer, wangle valuable goods out of civilians for cheap, bet on objects of future nostalgia, arrive early, leave late, and hustle like a maniac in between. Get Sohmers inside a room full of collectibles vendors and he's a floor-trade wheeler-dealer, shouting out prices in four directions. Inside his junk shop, on Route 9, he's got a grandma standing plaintively in front of him with a fistful of circus posters, a deal pending on the telephone, and a deal on call waiting. "This thing has so many angles, it's a tetrahedrodecagon," says Sohmers, in a moment of downtime. For Gary Sohmers, collectibles are not a hobby.

In Madison, Wisconsin, in the 1960s, Gary Sohmers's father had a job selling shoes on the road, but what he really liked was political buttons. Gary followed him around as he bought rare buttons for $1 at yard sales, then showed up at specialty fairs and sold them for $100. Easy money. "He liked the little hustle," Sohmers says. But it never did get to be big business; at that time, the big auction houses like Christie's and Sotheby's still looked right through anything less than 50 years old. Officially, collectibles were worthless.

Then, starting in the late 1960s, something began to change. Ted Hake -- a Pennsylvania dealer who remembers the period before people had decided whether to spell the word "collectables" or "collectibles" -- began to notice he was selling old toys to collectors of a certain age. They had grown up during World War II, with the first wave of mass production, and now they were in antique shops seeking out the toys that they'd either had and lost, or never had at all. Their reaction upon seeing them was visceral; Hake knew because he had felt it himself.

"There's no real reason for it," Hake says. "When an item comes in here that I had when I was seven or eight, there's just a little burst of electricity that goes off in my gray matter. It makes you want to have it back again."

As Hake quickly realized, the new objects of desire didn't hold the aesthetic attraction of Steuben glass or Louis XIV furniture: these items were made out of cheap materials, manufactured to be thrown away and replaced with newer models. Dealers describe collectibles as a "passion-based market" -- people wanted these toys for reasons that were deeply personal. Or, as collectibles guru Harry Rinker puts it: "Age is no longer a value factor. Desirability is key."

Over the next 15 years, the market grew stronger. Celebrity collectors like Steven Spielberg and Neil Young began putting the word out that they would pay anything for an obscure item to complete their collection, and a dealers' race would begin. A wave of price guides spread the word among the populace by publishing the going rates for whole categories, which brought collectibles out from under the rafters of thousands of homes. Prices went through the roof.

"It's sick money," says William Beaupré, who deals clothes and antiques as well as toys, and who showed up at a late-January collectibles extravaganza in Methuen. "How's this? I sold a 1953 dungaree coat I bought for eight bucks in Worcester. I sold it for six hundred bucks. I sold a pair of Nike Air Jordans I got for three bucks. I shined 'em up, put in a pair of new laces, and sold them for $375."

Dealers, in short, began to feel they were free to quit their day jobs. They became methodical -- at the shows Sohmers produces, you can pay $10 to come in an hour early, or $35 to come in a day early. Even collectibles purists have side rackets in Beanie Babies, which make up in liquidity what they lack in genuine sentimental value. More and more, dealers are shifting their business to e-mail, to save both themselves and their buyers the trouble of schlepping to an expo. Amateurs find flea markets are picked through before the sun comes up. Everyone is trying to cash in. The work is harder. Inevitably, some of the magic has dissipated.

"About seven years ago, when I quit my job, it was, like, unbelievable what you were making," says Beaupré. "Now, I do the same shows, right, and it's not fun anymore. What it's like -- it's like a real job."

Indeed. Here is Gary Sohmers's high-stakes version of his father's hobby: at a recent show, he learned there was a woman with a mint Alfred E. Neumann costume she had just dug up from somewhere. Sohmers sauntered over to the woman, and his heart sank; she told him she had palmed the costume off on a dealer for $25. Sohmers approached the dealer and asked him how much he wanted for it. The dealer said $100. Sohmers said it wasn't worth $100. The dealer let him have it for $50.

Sohmers turned around and sold it for $650.

The moral of the story is, the dealer who knows the top buyer is the only person who knows the real price. You have to know the scarcity, and you have to know the top buyers, and you have to know how to get to them first. This is chiefly a matter of time logged. After the ponytail incident in high school, Gary Sohmers dispensed with the idea of college and dealt in collectibles as a way of supporting his rock band. He educated himself in the junk shop circuit in Madison and Chicago, doling out his goods into specialty markets where they could fetch much higher sums. So he knew about niches. And when he moved to Massachusetts in 1983, he knew something about demographics.

"New England is well-known for having an abundance of product," he says. "People in New England have attics and basements. In California or Florida, there's no attics or basements. People don't save things in other parts of the country."

He also learned how to take cues from current events. The day Paul Reubens was arrested for masturbating in a public place, Sohmers headed straight to Child World. "I bought up every [Pee-Wee's Playhouse] item they had," he recalls. "I paid $3 for things they had marked down from $50."

He also learned from a stool pigeon at Disney that Lion King licensees were required by contract to produce tie-ins for Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas, a film that got little advance hype, so the licensees produced masses of products that retailers wrote off immediately. Sohmers went to see the film on the night it opened and bought high-quality, marked-down Nightmare tie-ins on the gamble that they would develop a following. "There was no way of predicting that," he says now. But by Christmas, "the goth kids and the black T-shirt concert crowd" were paying $25 for figures he bought for 99 cents, marked down from $9.99. Now they're selling for $125, buoyed by the release of the Nightmare video.

The real world can also interfere with the market in less congenial ways; one dealer's O.J. Simpson doll dipped from $150 to $50 after the real O.J. Simpson went to trial. Even seasoned dealers differ on the hypothetical problem of what to do if an entire line -- say, Barbie -- stops producing new toys. One dealer says current Barbie prices would drop, since no new Barbie fans would be produced. Another says the new scarcity would make Barbie prices soar.

The truth is, no one, not even Gary Sohmers, can guess what people will want next. There's no way to hedge your bets. "I know people who have charged up $10,000 on their credit cards and have an attic full of toys. That's financial suicide," says Tom Ranger, a Waltham dealer who attended the Methuen event.

"You only know if you go out in the market and test it," says Rinker. "There is no one right answer. There are millions of right answers. You got a weak heart and no guts, you don't play in my business."

On first examination, the collectibles market is a friendly place: wealthy collectors determine values of a given item through sheer desire to own it. They pay extravagant sums with little concern for objective value, and the whole scene adds up to a benign redistribution of disposable income. But it's also an untrammeled, newborn market. Nowhere is this more clear than at the Beanie Baby table; prices for the $5 plush toys sometimes inflate at a rate of several hundred percent a week, to top values of $2000. Although Beanie Baby salesmen swear their goods will hold their value, collectibles stalwarts sometime compare them to the now stone-cold Cabbage Patch Kids, or to the 17th-century Dutch mania for tulip bulbs. (For those who have forgotten that episode in the history of capitalism, the tulip-bulb market reached an astonishing peak in 1634 -- one collector paid 1000 pounds of cheese, 4 oxen, 8 pigs, 12 sheep, a bed, and a suit of clothes for a single tulip bulb -- and collapsed disastrously in 1637. Secondary markets can be wobbly things.)

At any rate, there's room for a certain amount of arbitrage, and coalition-building, and invective. In particular, dealers lash out at people whom they see as market manipulators -- especially those who manage to make money at it.

For Gary Sohmers, one such person is Cambridge's Scott Bruce, who sprang onto the collectibles scene in the mid-'80s as Mr. Lunch Box. Bruce had expressly set out to create a new collectible. He bought up a large collection of lunch boxes, published a price guide, and saturated the media with high-octane lunch-box hype. The lunch-box market soared from about $10,000 a year in trading to what Bruce estimates as a $15 or $20 million market in 1990.

Bruce then got out of the market all at once, selling his lunch-box empire at auction. After he sold his cache, prices fell, and dealers lost money. The way Sohmers tells it, Bruce had distorted values in his price guide, passing off common lunch boxes for high prices, and underpricing the rare ones. "He basically cashed in and left," Sohmers says. Sohmers's biggest complaint is that Bruce "was doing it without sharing." For that, he says, Bruce will be forever distrusted in the toy circuit.

"In this business, if you burn bridges, your ass catches on fire," Sohmers says. "Let's just say that boy had flaming shorts."

Bruce, for his part, says his only transgression was success: he put out the word that there was a market and lo, the market appeared. He says Gary Sohmers was so impressed with Bruce's market-building that he invited him to join the "Massachusetts Toy Mafia," a small group of dealers who "thought of themselves as the powers within the hobby." And ultimately, he says, the lunch-box frenzy trickled straight down to dealers.

"Gary and hundreds -- thousands -- of dealers were direct financial beneficiaries of what I did, and made far more off it collectively than I did," Bruce says. "Of that $15 or $20 million, I made about 1 percent. Ninety-nine percent of those profits were made by other dealers, of which Gary and my other detractors made up the lion's share. They should be grateful to me for enriching them."

Sohmers says Bruce is greedy. Bruce says Sohmers is jealous. Every player assumes someone else is making a killing: the dealers think the price guide authors are cashing in, and the price guide authors think the dealers are cashing in, and everybody assumes the show producers are cashing in, which Sohmers ruefully denies. The only people who aren't suspect are people like Rinker, who publishes authoritative price guides on collectibles and antiques and isn't selling anything. Of Rinker, Sohmers says: "He's not benign. None of us are. He's just transparent. He's not subversive to the market."

At the end of the day, though, even competitors refrain from tearing each other apart completely. All the players on the toy circuit work together to keep the market in business.

"It all goes back to karma," says Sohmers. "Everyone that believes in it -- that's invested in it, that loves it -- keeps it going. Karma is a very heavy and powerful thing. There's all these really Zen things that happen in collecting. And when you purge -- when you give up something -- it's the weirdest thing. Something comes to you."

During the course of his Methuen show, certain things come to Gary Sohmers, such as a Dr. Seuss tie and two lesser-known Dr. Seuss books titled Boners and More Boners, as well as a new, cordial acquaintance with two more age-tinted celebrities, Bernie Kopell and Jill Whelan of The Love Boat, whom he flew in and put up in a hotel for a night in return for two full days of autograph signing at $10 a shot, as he has done for an astonishing range of half-forgotten stars. ("Write this down: Adam West is a big dick.") The profit margin is not impressive.

Despite his love for the karmic flow of daily commerce, Sohmers still goes home at night and dreams of the big take. Since 1990, his Holy Grail has been a concept he calls the Collectors' Channel, which would offer 24-hour coverage of celebrated collectors and celebrities who collect. He's been met with skepticism from the major networks in part "because there was no way to convince them that the product was valuable." He estimates the cost of the project at $50 million. He's still looking for sponsors.

The wild days of the mid-'80s are finished, dealers say; the truly rich baby boomers already have what they want. Rinker expresses some concern that the market will begin to taper precisely because everyone knows about it -- kids now are more likely to pack away their toys in blister packs in anticipation of a future market, which gets in the way of the nostalgia life cycle. For the moment. We leave Gary Sohmers patiently awaiting the development of another generation of wealthy sentimentalists.

"Every now and then, someone wins the lottery," Sohmers says, hopefully. "There are 23-year-old millionaires. When people come into money, they often waste it on the normal things like cocaine and hookers. I'm giving them another option," he says, and looks out into the crowd. "The key to this life is getting new money into it."

Ellen Barry can be reached at ebarry@phx.com.

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