OPINION: Why Collect?
A Question For (All) Ages...
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By C.J. Stunkard
Toys have been a significant part of life - some may say too significant. At times, I agree with them. One of my favorite things as a child was that of reaching the action figure aisle, and I have litany of specific, toy-related memories - like when my brother built a LEGO fortress that shot pencils across the dining room table or the time a friend in grade school brought me a 1989 Toy Biz Batman because I had the chicken pox. I had wonderful birthdays and better Christmases full of new figures, vehicles, and playsets - everything from Playmobil pirates to the short-lived C.O.P.S. toy line. I’d spend hours pitting the X-Men against Kenner’s Aliens, leading Micro Machine X-wings against the Imperial fleet, or staging an insurrection with a handful of ExoSquad’s finest. As I look back on these events, I realize that toys played a part in my learning some practical life lessons - the power of generosity, the joy of discovery, and the sting of disappointment (like one Monday when Kay Bee Toy Stores had just stocked the ’91 G.I. Joe Line, but I only had enough money for one instead of two - I think I got Incinerator, though, which was a pretty good choice).
Whether or not this made for a healthy childhood I will leave to the psychologists, but I will say that this pattern has informed my adult years and the collecting hobby I’ve adopted. As a man hoping to make good use of my time and energy, however, I am forced to evaluate this pastime, not only for myself but for an entire subset of men my age, most of whom are gainfully employed, providing for their families, yet still maintaining their collections as well as their enthusiasm to continue.
But for what?
What leads us to want these knick-knacks of yesterday’s memories or trinkets taken from present-day lore? Why do we buy molded plastic representing this or that, usually only to place it upon a shelf to glance at it from time to time or “kit bash” it into a version that we feel is more fitting or to stick it in bins in the attic?
I began to ask myself these questions during a period of spiritual seeking in my late twenties, and while my own conclusions were specific to my experience, I have continued to mull over these answers regularly to keep my hobby in check. I know all too well how rampant it can run (particularly during sales-heavy seasons like this one; I’m sure I’m not the only collector who at times has fallen prey to the one-for-them-one-for-me holiday shopping mentality). So the questions get my repeated attention: “Why do I collect? What’s the purpose of it?”
Perhaps it’s the success of advertisers: a lifetime of commercials during early afternoon and Saturday morning programming has resulted in recurring behavior and positive reinforcement. Perhaps it’s a manifestation of the dreaded “adultalescence” so often discussed by cultural pundits: a refusal to accept adulthood has led to my clinging to childish things. Or perhaps, this is no madness at all—perhaps something can be said for it. As I said, I’m forced to ponder.
And today my conclusion is multi-faceted, and may echo your own in part. I don’t mean to offer excuses; I make no more apologies for my hobby any more than a collector of cars, a fan of a local sports team, or a self-appointed curator of this or that type of art in their home. I am not trying to justify the hobby, as I do not feel it requires it. I am trying to look beneath the surface to what informs it and what leads to my pursuing it over other things.
I once believe that it was the thrill and satisfaction of The Hunt. Mankind enjoys the process of seeking, finding, and acquiring; this act in and of itself is gratifying regardless of the focus. I imagine this once had greater pull for me than it does now. I still enjoy going to shows or stumbling across deals, but I don’t do it regularly, nor do I run out to get new releases the first week they ship (or have them sent to me, such as I did for nearly the full run of DST’s Buffy line). So the pleasure of the hunt is there, but it’s not primary.
I’ve also thought it was The Community. Talking toys is fun, and adults who do not tend to play with them can still wax unpoetic about the engineering of the latest Transformers, or the paint applications to the newest wave of NECA Predators, or perhaps the pristine and admirable sculpting of Hot Toys upcoming 1/6 museum-quality figure (and make no mistake, their work is stunning). A collection can serve as a vibrant conversation piece with insiders (or less judgmental outsiders), and fellow enthusiasts have been known to assist and barter for mutual benefit throughout the hobby landscape. Inasmuch as forum trolls and scalpers can ruin some things, the community at large tends to be a source of fulfillment in the hobby - but to me it’s not the essential motivator.
Then there’s simply The Happiness of Having. I would be lying if I said I did not take some strange pleasure in possessing a LEGO replica of Tolkien’s Bag End. To be clear, I’m not even sure why this satisfaction is derived, but it is real. We enjoy possessing things, especially those that reflect our personalities or may help define us or remind us of other joys in life—the entire concept of souvenirs is rooted in such gratification. And let’s not forget that seeing a child’s reaction to an adult’s more expensive (and usually better organized and displayed) toy collection is always delightful. Yes, many collectors, myself included, find fulfillment in merely organizing, displaying, and keeping our “stuff” (for that really is all it is). Yet again, I do not find this to be my reason.
Ultimately then, I am left with the last central aspect of the toy hobby, that of Using one’s collection; and for me, this is where the foot-hole finds its peg. For whatever reason, despite my age, my available time, and my maturity (or arguable lack thereof), I still get “use” out of my collection and, as such, have reason to maintain (and, yes, increase) it. I love to imagine and create, and toys are a mighty venue in which to do so. Displays of battles that never happened, super teams that never formed, and adventures that had no realization - the very idea of these informs my collecting. I savor the thought of events from the page or screen rendered in 3-dimensional miniature.
Additionally, as a writer, my collection provides a method to test story ideas or be constantly inspired by the creative wealth on my shelf. I recall my filmmaking days of college when action sequences would be mapped by using figures of original characters made from kitbashed G.I. Joes. In fact, one week’s display building helped inspire my first novel. My self-knowledge in this area was the ultimate reason I moved from 6” and 3 ¾” collecting into LEGO and various construction toys. As one who primarily uses his hobby to supplement my creating in other media, I could think of no better line than a modular toy designed for customization.
Of course, I also have my father to remember. He is a railroad enthusiast with a layout in our basement. From what I gather, the trains have been a source of relief for him - the hum of the toy locomotive provided a din of harmony, of things running smoothly even as his five kids provided all manner of chaotic life in the rest of the house. A person can benefit from such an oasis, and I have to wonder if I have not carried his habits into my own life - if I take solace in the control and calm I experience during my time building. Finishing a LEGO model of any size tends to provide a sense of accomplishment, and my creating random characters from my seemingly endless array of mini-figure parts is not unlike my father’s crafting gas stations for his model town, an artist’s sketching on a notepad, or a musician’s playing jazz for the sheer joy of it.
I could go on and on - I already have. For whatever reason, my toy enthusiasm is real and has been for as long as I can remember. Chances are it will not change anytime soon. While I’ll admit to wearing rose-colored lenses when considering the hobby, I will also assert that it’s time and money put to good use. Rest and recreation are good things in a busy world.
But that’s just me. In the end, each collector must answer the question for him or herself, and the process of doing so can be tricky. But I would invite you to do so. Who knows, it may make the hobby even better.
Story by C.J. Stunkard