Stonington toy shop takes visitors back in time
Stonington — Walking into Thomas Chiarella’s shop in the American Velvet Mill is almost like visiting Santa’s workshop — 30 years ago.
Lining the walls of Back in Time are vintage games, toys and action figures.
There’s Kerplunk, Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots, Spirograph, Tank Command, Kaboom, Mouse Trap and many others.
There are action figures from shows such as "The Flintstones," "Batman," "M*A*S*H," "The Six Million Dollar Man," "The Bionic Woman," "The Jetsons," "CHiPs," "Starsky and Hutch," "Little Rascals" and even "The Waltons." Stacked in piles and displayed on the wall are board games from television shows such as "McHale’s Navy," "Baretta," "Kojak" and "The Partridge Family."
“It’s like a kid’s room,” Chiarella said.
There’s also a Flip Wilson doll, a talking Pee Wee Herman, and even a Joey Stivic doll (Archie Bunker’s grandson from "All in the Family") which was controversial at the time because it was the first anatomically correct male doll that drank and urinated.
There are also toys such as an Erector set, Farrah’s (Fawcett) Glamour Center, Suzy Playmaker Oven, a pet rock, model car kits of classic Mustangs and Corvettes, and of course popular collectibles such as GI Joe, Hot Wheels and Star Wars.
One selection that Chiarella is most proud of is X-Men figures in their original packaging that have been placed in an X-Men shaped frame on one of the walls.
“People come in and get a stunned look when they see a toy they had. They think about what they were doing 30, 40, 50 years ago, and who they were with at the time,” said Chiarella. “It’s an emotional thing for them.”
The Brooklyn, N.Y., native, who now lives with his wife in Montville, has been collecting toys for 35 years, beginning with GI Joe figures as a child.
“I love toys, but I’m really doing this to bring a little joy to people in this crazy world that we live in,” he said.
Chiarella’s toy business goes far beyond running his new store in the Velvet Mill.
His main effort is buying, selling and trading toys on eBay as well as handling sales for clients who have collections of toys they want to sell. He also attends the major toy shows held each year.
A longtime stand-up comedian, he also has another business called Back in Time Traveling Toy Show with which he takes vintage toys to birthdays, dinner parties and other gatherings, talks about their history and lets people play with them.
“It’s difficult sometimes when people ask me, ‘What do you do?’ “ he said.
Chiarella and his wife moved to the area 14 years ago to invest in multifamily homes and other real estate.
“I thought I’d become Donald Trump and take over the world,” he quipped.
While his wife remains a real estate appraiser, he focused on the toys he started collecting as a kid, first GI Joes and then Star Wars.
“This is a piece of my childhood," he said. So Chiarella understands when he talks to someone interested in selling their toy collection.
“The toughest thing is trying to get them to part with their toys. There’s an emotional connection to them, and sometimes you can’t put a price on that,” he said. “Sometimes I think I should bring a therapist with me. But people love their toys.”
Before the Internet and eBay dramatically changed the vintage toy business, Chiarella hunted for toys at small shows in Brooklyn and in a toy collectors magazine. He said the hobby exploded in the late 1970s after the release of Star Wars figures.
Chiarella owns some of those original figures. He said they are a hit again with the release of the new Star Wars movie.
But he said hot toys don’t always appreciate in value over time, which is something he as a collector has to be able to foresee.
He said some collectors’ interest goes beyond the toys themselves to the art work and graphics on the boxes.
About six weeks ago, Chiarella first attended the weekend flea market in the Velvet Mill as a vendor. He noticed a store space was being vacated and decided to rent it.
Chiarella said he was attracted by the vibrant business community in the Stonington/Mystic area and the growing popularity of the winter farmers market and flea market at the mill.
Chiarella said one of the early visitors to the store was a woman who was particularly interested in toys by the now defunct Remco Industries, which was popular in the 1960s. When Chiarella inquired about her interest, she said her father was one of its founders.
For some people, Chiarella said, collecting toys becomes an obsession.
“The have to have everything related to that collectible, whether it’s Barbies, Pez or Star Wars,” he said.
Chiarella's busiest months are January to April, when there’s snow in on the ground and people are home on their computers looking at eBay for toys.
“That’s when we put up all the stuff we have,” he said.
He also counsels his clients and customers about what they can expect to be paid for a certain toy. “I have to be knowledgeable. I try to be their trusted adviser. I’ll tell them their toy is worth $10, not the $100 they want.”
As he sat in Chiarella’s store last week getting ready to play Santa at the flea market, retired engineer Dave Lesh of Kingstown, R.I., pointed to the Erector set on the wall.
“I grew up on Erector sets and Tinkertoys. They would keep me quiet for a month,” he said.
More information about Chiarella’s business can be found at BackinTimeToyShow.com.
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