What do a 73cm tall alien statue and a 1923 Australian florin coin have in common? Their price tag.
Collectibles have been around for centuries, with many ancient civilisations taking war mementos to bandy about and flaunt to their enemies. The hobby has since become much more civilised. What from the domain of warlords of the ancient world, moved to the aristocratic higher class as they commissioned archaeologists to loot ancient tombs and historical sites for their treasure. The ideas associated with that are what drive collectors now, for the weird, rare and often retro. Some hobbyists collect stamps, preserving them for their intricate artwork while others might collect items of historical value to their country (“Australiana”) for their own preservation.
In 2011 popular hobbyist forum, Just Collecting released a list of the most popular collectibles; memorabilia and figurines took two spots in the top 20. Bradley Merriel is one of the many who collects – his penchant is for movie memorabilia. Sitting in a tiny store wedged between a deli and a house, he squeezes his stock into every bit of space he has in his five by ten-metre shop.
He opened his store in 2007 with his now business partner Hansen Setiawan, however, it wasn’t an instant success. For a year and a half, they faced the threat of bankruptcy until one summer, everything changed. “If we didn’t have a three-year lease we would have shut,” said Bradley, despondently. “And then, during our second Christmas, I don’t know why, we just went ‘boom’.”
Nearly nine years later, Bradley’s shop Anime at Abbotsford is the leader in Pokemon card sales, beating out national retail giants Kmart and EB Games. Until recently, they were also the number one small business distributor of Lego in Australia.
When I visited the store, it was immediately apparent why such a small endeavour managed to claim these titles and why it was possible to expand and open a second store in the CBD last year – customer service. Not a single customer walked in knowing what they needed or wanted to buy, yet Bradley helped them, scouring his back room of stock and emerging with exactly what the customer needed. Not a single one left ignorant, and most remarked how amazing the little store was.
“We’re the official distributor for Good Smile Company,” he proudly declared. Good Smile is one of Japan’s leading figurine manufacturers and exporters, owning the popular Nendoroid line and something “a lot of people have tried to take that, a lot of big companies”, he explained.
“We were ordering a Miku [a popular computer generated singing idol, who uses a speech generated synthesiser to sing, think Microsoft Sam meets T-Pain] and we couldn’t get any legitimate figures, so we called Good Smile, and they noticed our area didn’t have a distributor, so they offered it to us. I asked why when we were so small, and they just said that was how they started,” as he told me this, he was darting around the store, pulling down impressive items off hard-to-reach shelves, practically bounding with excitement as he remembered more interesting and rare items to show me.
The reason he exudes such an amazing amount of enthusiasm is for the same reason he collects for a hobby. “I’m a fan,” he said, his excitement was palpable. “I love movies and games and I want to show that off to other fans.”
He dropped an anecdote on me (of which he had a book’s worth) about the perks of the job. “The Managing director of L.A. Noir [a popular 2011 game] came in, and I saw him. I only saw his Team Bondi bag [the team that worked on the game] and I asked if he had anything to do with the game. When he told me who he was I could only say ‘you’re my Messiah’.” A few months later, the man returned with game memorabilia otherwise only released to staff members. Bradley is, of course, an avid collector, however, he couldn’t contain his excitement to tell me of more interesting collectors that had passed through.
The people that walk through the door of Bradley’s shop are definitely varied, from young children rushing in after school to office workers and seniors long gone from the workforce. The main reason for this is the stores many reasons to offer a discount, often cutting their prices for little more than being in an anime club. Bradley also used to put up trivia questions on the stores Facebook, the first to answer received a 20 per cent discount. “The smallest thing someone used it on was this,” he said, as he pulled out a small Lego mini figure worth five dollars. “Y’know, she got a dollar off. But the biggest was a guy came in and said I want this, this, this, and this,” he says, ticking off an imaginary clipboard. “And two of those were the most expensive items we’ve ever gotten – two Xenomorph heads worth $1600 each.”
Other notable additions to the stores catalogue include: a 90cm tall Rei Ayanami centerpiece from Neon Genesis Evangelion that comes with an $800 price tag; a $600 figurine at 30cms (in an all Japanese box we could not read. “Anime is Hansen’s passion, I like movies and games,” explained Bradley); and a $1000 Chucky doll, from the famous horror classic Child’s Play (1988). “Can you believe this? It came in a brown box, why would you not spend the $20 extra and put it in a Chucky box?” he frantically asked his audience of one.
Boxes are something collectors are stereotyped for being meticulous about – just look at The Simpsons portrayal of character Comic Book Guy, who needs all his memorabilia in mint condition with pristine packaging. “I’ve lost a lot of sales because of scuffed boxes,” Bradley lamented, as though a disappointed customer were a blade in his heart. “We have to hope they’re in good condition after they move from China to Japan for inspection, back to China for shipping, shipped either by plane or boat here, through customs where they might open it damaging the box, and then not even put it back in properly.”
He paused to check where he is through his mental journey of a figurine, his eyes looked to the Mortal Kombat statues as though they would remind him. “Then there’s trucks to the warehouse in Sydney, then they get delivered here and I have to hope it’s not raining when the delivery guy brings them in, and then be sure I don’t bump the corners when shelving them, and then the customer even has to be careful taking it home,” he finished his his tale of boxed bravery with an exasperated sigh.
His own opinion on boxes is vastly different. “Ebay killed the box. I don’t trust them. I want to see a photo out of box so I know what I’m getting,” he said, his eyes gained a thousand-yard stare as he recalled all the times he had been scorned by discoloured, poorly proportioned, and overall disappointing bootlegs. These are unofficial merchandise with no quality assurance, leading to malformed purchases and understandably irk the community.
Hansen, Bradley’s co-owner of Anime at Abbotsford, has done as much as he can to educate the more casual collector on how to identify bootlegs, and avoid purchasing them. However, sometimes even official releases are not quite amazing. Matty, a helper of Bradley’s, explained, “Take the new The Force Awakens toys, they don’t look good, but the boxes all have official artwork and is really cool, so I keep them in their boxes.”
Not all collectibles are made to be kept in their boxes, though.
Mitchell Middleton is an avid collector almost exclusively of items that are made to be opened and assembled. Having collected Zoids for nearly three years now, the 18-year-old from Sydney has built up quite the collection, with some pieces running him in excess of $200. The Zoid franchise began as large animal shaped machine hobby kits that have since spawned multiple TV series and books. “The best part is definitely putting them together, taking the time to just do that one thing, and then when I’m done I get a cool statue out of it that looks distinct,” he said. Of course he has other motivations for Zoids in particular, having collected Warhammer 40k figurines for eight years before beginning his current collection, citing specifically the similarity between the depth of story the two franchises share. “There was a lot of lore behind 40k, and with Zoids as well which is another thing I like, but it also had the tabletop game, but it just became a money sink and games became too hard to organise, so I moved onto something else.”
The biggest problem hobbyists face is the scrutiny for “wasting their money”, particularly with the much older hobbies of stamp, coin and antique collection; there are single items worth $53,000, which pales in comparison to the $17 million that could be netted by a twenty dollar US gold coin from 1933. However, there is a special kind of joy that comes from collecting, and the old adage, “if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life”; if that’s the case, I doubt Bradley Merriel even remembers what work is. It’s not wrong to spend money on the things you love, and it is very possible to love collecting.
Whether your Genghis Khan taking trophies from a razed village, or Bradley Merriel, happily darting through your store to help any who need it, collecting is a hobby that can be appreciated just for its “neat” factor. – Christopher Pirina
Top photo by Ben Atkinson-James.