Welcome to the Fun House

“Big Fun is what would happen if Dr. Seuss
took Willy Wonka to Pee-wee’s Playhouse.”

Steve Presser


 

by Jenn Bergin

 

On April Fool’s Day, new and vintage-toy store Big Fun celebrates its 25th birthday. Cleveland’s quirky cornucopia of nerdabilia and nostalgia can be found in one of the city’s oldest and most famous neighborhoods – Coventry Village in Cleveland Heights.

“It’s full of artists, artisans and eclectic small businesses that the community really supports,” explains Big Fun owner Steve Presser. “It’s cool here; sort of a hippie-haven.”

His neighbors include a century-old hardware store, a quadragenarian record store and Tommy’s restaurant, a Food Network favorite honored by Rolling Stone for “The Best Milkshake east of the Mississippi.”

Big Fun itself was named by Playboy as one of the coolest stores in America, and it fits the neighborhood perfectly. Its 3,400-square-foot selling space is filled with one-of-a kind vintage toy brands including Transformers, G.I. Joe, My Little Pony, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and an ever-growing collection of LEGOs.

“We all know toys,” Steve says of his employees; many of whom have worked at Big Fun for 20 years or more. “Most have ‘real’ jobs, but they’re here because they love the store. They were customers before they were employees.”

The fun begins

“We’re primarily a collectible store,” Steve explains. “I uncover goodies like an archeologist.”

He got his retail start by prowling warehouses full of “new old stock.” Some of it had been on the shelves for 30 years. His first big find was an inventory of thousands of Davy Crocket toy watches from the 1950s. “That’s when I saw a market to leverage.”

In 1991, Steve opened the original 1,700 square-foot store across the street from the current location. “The only thing inside was a dead sewer rat and a broken refrigerator,” he recalls. “For the floor, I installed old bowling lanes.”

When he moved 10 years ago, he took the floor with him.

Steve has been a toy collector since the 1980s, at about the same time he was studying to be a psychologist. He got a job working with disabled adults, and then became a stockbroker. Meanwhile, retro toys were taking over his living room, his parents’ basement and, eventually, a rented warehouse. He started thinking about a store; inspired by toy legend Ted Frankel and his store Uncle Fun in Chicago.

“When I first walked in, it was like when “The Wizard of Oz” went from black and white to color,” Steve recalls. “Ted’s shelves were filled with brand-new, in-the-box toys for $5 – just like the toys I was finding at garage sales.”

Ted became his mentor and guru. “If we found a box with Green Hornet hats from the 1960s, Ted knew that the company also made Batman hats, so we would look around for those. Sure enough … score!”

In 2013, Steve partnered with longtime employee Jason Williams to open a second Big Fun in Columbus, in a vibrant community near the Ohio State campus. The 1,200 square-foot store is “packed to the rafters with fun items, goodies and collectibles.”

Taking care of business

Steve’s a regular on “NPR Marketplace.” Host Kai Ryssdal considers him the “eyes and ears of American small business.” He also speaks at schools, senior centers and libraries about toys and pop culture. While it’s great exposure for the business, he says he does it because he believes in small business.

“I’m an old-school store operator,” Steve says, “and an idiot savant with numbers. I can’t remember what I had for lunch, but I can tell you what I paid for something 10 years ago, and exactly where it is in the warehouse.

“A POS system would be useless here,” he adds. “Nothing we sell has a SKU number.”

Steve knows how tough finances can be, and he has struggled with things like cash flow. “I also understand what it means to work where you live.” His kids went to school in Cleveland Heights, and his wife and parents grew up there. Steve often rides his ’60s-vintage Schwinn Sting-Ray the two blocks to work.

He makes countless anonymous donations to community causes. Steve is a founding member of the neighborhood’s Special Improvement District and a local art advocate who brought streetscape renovation to the neighborhood. Recently, he started a nonprofit, a no-car “drive-in” where families can watch movies under the stars.

Last year, to focus on his flagship store in Cleveland Heights, Steve closed his 2,000 square-foot store on the west side of the city. However, it reopened as a pop-up shop for Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and through Christmas. Unlike other pop-ups, it was no small affair – the shop featured multitudinous LEGOs and a 6,000-piece collection of vintage Volkswagen Beetle and van toy cars. He also hosted local art exhibits and special events with bubble magician Dr. UR Awesome.

The store’s busiest seasons are the holidays and summer vacation, when tourists visit Cleveland’s “A Christmas Story” house and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Big Fun’s Cleveland section offers lots of rock-and-roll memorabilia, including newly-licensed Rolling Stones and Beatles items, KISS and Spice Girls dolls, and vintage Jackson 5 cassettes.

A super-enhanced shopping experience

“When customers walk into Big Fun, they should be overwhelmed,” Steve says. It’s hard not to be. At the entrance, a sign made of blocks spells out “Big Fun,” and light-up LEGOs encourage customers to “SMILE.” There’s a funhouse mirror, a life-size Yoda, graffiti art on the ceiling, murals by local artists on the bold-colored walls, and lots of neon.

Get a load of the fixtures. “We like when you go through our drawers!” reads a sign over an old card-catalog cabinet filled with “little doodads.” A nearly 8-foot aquarium-like aircraft display showcases hundreds of G.I. Joe figures and vehicles, including some from the original series launched in the ’60s. There’s also an old-school photo booth that prints black and white pictures. “That’s the only thing I encourage people to do,” Steve says. “You don’t need to buy anything, but you need to get in the photo booth!”

Many customers consider the coordinated chaos of the store comforting, he adds. People with disabilities and autism seem to be particularly happy there. “It’s like the safe place on the Monopoly board.”

The majority of Big Fun shoppers are collectors ages 25 to 45. “Collectibles are our bread and butter,” he explains. “We buy, sell and trade. I’ve bought single items and 5,000-piece collections – even LEGOS. Our LEGO area has grown tenfold over the years,” Steve says.

Toys from the ’80s are especially popular right now, he adds. Big Fun sells and trades video games, and refurbished cartridge systems like Atari, Nintendo, Sega Genesis and Pac-Man. The store also offers Star Trek memorabilia and all varieties of superheroes, both new and new-old stock. Steve has bought and sold thousands of comic books.

As he points out, the store’s diversity meets the needs of parents shopping for newborns, as well as others who are “over the hill.” He is not a purist, and understands that collectibles are a limited market. “Over the years I’ve gone from a collectible store only, to a department store of fun,” he says.

“For years, people asked me what I do and I would say, ‘I’ve got this cool store,’” he explains. “Then I realized something: I make people happy, that’s really what I do. Big Fun is a place where people can recapture their childhood. They feel better after they leave my store.”

 


Something for everyone, from babies to boomers.

“If we collect enough of something, it gets its own section,” explains Steve. Like Grow-a-Buddies. He sells Grow-a-Buddy cowboys, mermaids and a therapist. There are sections for superheroes, space heroes and Godzilla. For babies and toddlers there’s Curious George and Sesame Street, pacifiers with mustaches, tie-dye onesies from local artist Mama Mitch, cool bibs and metal Jack-in-the Boxes. The Wizard of Oz section features a small-scale version of Dorothy’s house. It spins.

For kids – and kids at heart – there are Fisher Price collectibles, Trolls, Muppets, Care Bears and Rainbow Brites. Grownup boys might like the Ghostbusters, He-Man and Masters of the Universe action figures. Of course, there are Barbies – all new-in-box, and many collector and vintage editions. There are games galore, plus Oujia boards, yo-yos, and a whole wall of Rubiks Cubes.

“Our magic section was originally kids only, but adults kept trickling in,” notes Steve.

Big Fun’s large selection of paper goods includes everything from cards, postcards and bumper stickers to vintage 1950’s baby wrapping paper. “We have the best greeting cards in Cleveland,” Steve says. “I handpick each one, from 20 different sources, some are from local artists and many are retro.”

In addition to his gifts & novelty section with an Eiffel Tower French toast press and a Titanic ice cube tray, there’s also a section of just Band-Aids, from bacon to Big Foot and Jesus to Jane Austen. Steve says, “I tell everyone, if you’ve got a cut, come to Big Fun!”

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