Reality Bites: Toy Hunter

There are a million reality shows on the naked television. We're going to watch them all, one at a time.

Did you know private self-storage -- the renting of mini-garages to store your crap -- only came into being as an industry in the late 1950s? Before that, we somehow managed to contain all our belongings under one roof.

Now there are close to 60,000 storage facilities worldwide (almost 80 percent of those in the United States). I probably touched on this theme in my piece about Storage Wars or Pawn Stars or whatever virtual grave-robbing show it was, but we have finally, literally, achieved the state George Carlin warned us about: We have too much stuff.

I admit, I make jokes about "grave robbers" or "vultures feeding on the corpse of a doomed society," but there's nothing inherently wrong with the industry of "picking" that's developed as a natural outgrowth of the storage boom. There's (occasionally) gold in them thar piles of forgotten belongings, so why not let those willing to sift through the crap make a little scratch?

Enter Jordan Hembrough, the titular Toy Hunter of, uh, Toy Hunter. "If there's a fortune hidden in your toy chest, I'll find it." Right away, he speaks to the American Dream. No, not the outdated concept that hard work and integrity will lead to success and contentment, but that ever growing domestic belief that by sheer dumb luck we'll end up millionaires.

Hembrough travels the land searching for rare and valuable toys. The episode I caught found him in Mississippi, where a large number of adults hoarding action figures and robots meant for preadolescents surely correlates in no way with the state's dismal education ranking.

Our first nerd -- sorry, "enthusiast" -- is Mark, who has two storage units of crap -- sorry, "collectibles." And while I personally felt the stirrings of geeky interest at the sheer tonnage of superhero-related items, it appears toys and action figures and the like represent the buyer's market in its purest form. Jordan unearths a 1960s Mattel "X-15 Batmobile," a proto-Big Wheel which seems like it would be a hell of a find. His offer? $150.

Mark also has a ton of Mego figures in various states of repair, as well as a rare magnetic Mego Batman and Robin (the former signed by Adam West himself). And all you need to know about skewed priorities can be demonstrated by Hembrough talking about how collectors view a West autograph as defacement. A "defacement?" West is a goddamned national treasure.

In what turns out to be a trend, Mark is an eminently trusting fellow. All these guys (Hembrough visits three different dudes) more or less take him at his word about pricing. Which leads to some serious disconnect when Hembrough says things like, "Oh, man, this Giganta figure is so hard to find" and "I'll give you $75 for it."

Kenny from Hattiesburg, a Transformers "aficionado," fares about as well. He has something on the order of 1,500 Transformers, an obsession that, by his own admission, stems from his parents' divorce. It's a cautionary tale, people. Hembrough is keen on Kenny's Sy-Klone, a rare-ish "Master of the Universe" figure that somehow failed to ignite America's fascination with human tornadoes dressed like pre-1980 Wolverine.

It's kind of funny I'm writing about Toy Hunter the day after Disney's announcement that they bought Lucasfilm for $4 billion, since Big George was really the guy who put movie merchandising on the map. I know I'm not the only one who watches these shows and recognizes a handful (or a hundred, in case they ever do an all-Star Wars episode) of toys from their own childhood. "Man," we think, "I should've kept that Micronauts Hornetroid/Ice Planet Hoth/Shogun Warrior Gaiking. It'd be worth a lot of money now."

Except it really wouldn't, unless you were a preteen anal retentive. Kids are supposed to *play* with their damn toys, which is why it warms my heart a bit to see that most of these so-called collectibles were pretty well used, even if the economic realities for Hembrough seem kind of grim (he maybe netted $500 in profit on his cross-country trip). "Mint in box," I suspect, is not the secret to a happy childhood.

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