Johnny Jimenez watched the signs, and they pointed him a new career direction.
Before the recession began, Jimenez owned a sign company. Business was good until 2007. That's when people began asking him to take down signs more often than they called about putting them up.
But Jimenez had a head start on a new company: In 2005, he started Toy Shack, selling vintage and new toys. In Toy Shack, he saw a recession-resistant business, because everyone has fond memories of the dolls, Hot Wheels cars and Tinker Toys of their youth. Toy Shack got an additional assist in 2010, when Gold & Silver Pawn Shop in Las Vegas began tapping Jimenez' expertise on-air for the History Channel's "Pawn Stars."
Not only has the series boosted Jimenez' sales, but people who heard about the business on TV bring in collectibles for sale. Tops on the list of neat-o goods at Toy Shack? A vintage radioactive science kit with a Geiger counter. Really.
Question: Why did you go into toy sales?
Answer: I've always worked long hours. Back in California, whenever I'd be stressed, I'd go to a toy store or collectibles shop, buy a toy and put it in my office. It reminded me of being young, when my brothers and I would mow a few lawns for $70 or $80, and our dad would take us to the toy store. It took me back to a simpler time. I realized that when things in the economy or country go south, sometimes people need that happy place. When the economy takes a dip, cosmetic sales, beer sales and cigarette sales improve, because those are people's comfort zones. I felt the same thing with the toy business. It's a happy place for people to go when they're stressed out.
Question: What are your best sellers these days?
Answer: Right now, Hot Wheels and bigger die-cast cars. Transformers and Marvel toys are really hot, because of their movies. Movies set trends for toy sales. Batman has always been a big seller. With girls, Mattel's Monster High dolls, which look like Barbie and the Munsters had kids, are big sellers. A lot of people who come to the store prefer toys that are no longer available, or certain characters you can't find on the shelves today. Ten to 12 years ago, plastic and gas were cheaper, so toys were made better. Companies can't produce toys today for the same price they did back then.
Question: What's the strangest toy you've sold?
Answer: The most unusual thing I have is the Atomic Energy Lab, made back in the 1950s by the A.C. Gilbert Co. The lab came with uranium, plutonium and a working Geiger counter. It's one of the most dangerous toys ever made. We're selling it for $6,000. I'd been looking for one for three years, and it just walked through the door three months ago after a lady brought in her ex-husband's lab.
Question: Is it safe?
Answer: Yes. It didn't have a lot of radiation to it, but if you were a young kid and you played with it every day and then went to eat with your hands, that exposure made it dangerous. Me handling it is not that big a deal. When that toy came out, people were driving to Las Vegas to watch mushroom clouds, so at the time was it was cool. People didn't know any better. Also, back then, it was a $50 toy, and not too many families could afford it. Today, it's a really nice example of as good as you get -- a really rare toy of which not too many versions survived.
We also had a $2,600 white enamel Hot Wheels Camaro from 1968, a prototype of which only 17 existed.
Question: What's your personal favorite? Do you collect anything?
Answer: I've always collected Hot Wheels Mustangs. When I was a kid, there were never less than seven or eight Mustangs in my dad's garage or front yard. His hobby was restoring old Mustangs, so as kid I always looked for Mustang Hot Wheels. My dad collected real cars and I collected toy ones. I've got about 3,000 Mustangs. I have a 1968 rose-pink Mustang that came out only for store displays. It's worth about $2,000. A lot of times, with old Hot Wheels, the condition and color determine value. Certain colors are really rare. Another one of my favorites is a purple 1973 Hot Wheels Bye Focal. It was something a little different that consumers didn't take too well to, and that didn't sell well that year. It's very rare and worth $3,000.
Question: What's the best toy ever made?
Answer: Transformers from the 1980s. The engineering that went into those toys -- they were made with metal, and made really well. Some would turn into six different things. What keeps the prices high today is the number of Japanese trying to buy them. The 1983 "Transformers" cartoon series was huge in the United States, and even bigger in Japan.
Question: Have you noticed any kind of trend in what people want based on economic times?
Answer: You don't need a few thousand dollars to start a collection. Guys who collect Hot Wheels or Star Wars toys spend maybe $20 when they come in. The only difference when the economy takes a hit is how many times that guy comes in. He might have come in two to three times a week, and now he comes in only once a week or every two weeks. But collectors are always going to want to add to their collection. And on Fremont Street, we get a lot of people from everywhere. We get people from Canada and Brazil coming in. It really balances out. I think that's the key to Las Vegas. Las Vegas has a different economy than anywhere in the world. As long as tourists keep coming, our business will thrive.
Question: What do you like best about your work?
Answer: I've been a single dad since my daughter was a year old. What I love about being in business for myself is that I'm able to spend time with my daughter, and with the store I can do something she can relate to. She has her knowledge of toys as well, and it's great to interact with my daughter and to share the business with her.
That's the great thing about toys. This is a happy place for people. You get to see huge smiles on their faces when they come in and see a toy that takes them back. They're reconnecting with something they lost, or something they always wanted and never got. We get a lot of moms who, maybe 30 years ago, couldn't find a toy on the shelf, or times were hard and they couldn't afford a toy, and they're buying that toy today for their kids. Or we get people who had a toy on their Christmas list, but Santa Claus never brought them that toy. Now they have expendable income to buy the toys. It's just a good feeling to have a store that can connect people in that way. They come in, get a good vibe and it takes them back.
Somebody once told me that if you love your job, you never have to work a day in your life. That's how I feel. I still get excited when really cool stuff comes through the door.
Contact reporter Jennifer Robison at email@example.com or 702-380-4512. Follow @J_Robison1 on Twitter.