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John's Action Figure Column 5/23/96

GUNS 'N WHAM-O
     So it's Saturday afternoon, and Tracey and I drive on down
to the southern tip of San Francisco in search of a
"Collectibles, Antiques and Toys" show we've heard tell of.  We
find the hall with no problem (hey, you can't hide something that
calls itself the "Cow Palace"), but as we drive through the
entrance gates something seems...odd.  Granted, I've never been
to a toy show before, but are we really the only people drawn to
such things who don't own a pickup truck?  And for that matter,
why does everyone else look so angry and determined -- has toy
collecting gotten this bad?  And what's with all the "Resurrect
Reagan" bumper stickers?
     As we pull in towards a spot, I see what appears to be the
supporting cast of Deliverance bearing down on us in a beat-up
old truck.  Not being one to argue about a parking space, I smile
and back up, indicating their right to proceed with a kindly wave
o' the hand.

DON'T BELIEVE HIM!
     Is it that obvious that I'm lying?  Alright, coming from New
York, I do tend to approach parking conflicts with one hand
smashing down on the horn and the other thrust out the window in
the traditional NYC one-finger salute, screaming "outta my
f%#@ing way, pal!" all the while.  However, when the other
contestants on "What's My Spot" are pointing sawed-off shotguns
out of their side windows on the way in, even a tried and tested
New Yorker knows the better part of valor is indeed discretion --
and a *very* fawning retreat.  I burned a little rubber backing
up (heck, someone must have tossed it out their window the
previous night) and I even offered to dust off the white lines
for my newfound civilization-challenged friends.
     But it wasn't necessary; they barely paid me any attention,
and I realized that the guns they displayed so prominently had
steel bands around their triggers.  O-key dokey, I thinks to
meself, we've wandered into the Militarized Section of the
Twilight Zone....  I thought I knew some tough collectors, but
things are starting to get out of hand.  Must have a bunch of
Travesty Picards in the glove compartment or something, thinks I. 
Hey, wait a second; carded figures wouldn't *fit* in a glove
compartment...
     ...and even the sleaziest, greediest of toy fanatics (at
least in my experience) draw the line at armed aggression...
     ...and it was just as these thoughts were crossing my
confused mind that I saw a small sign with two lines of text and
two arrows.  It said "Antiques show" on top, and had an arrow
pointing to the right, and underneath that it said "Gun show,"
and had an arrow pointing to the left.
     ...yep, something else entirely was going on.

CLOWNS TO THE LEFT OF ME, HOLSTERS TO THE RIGHT
     Now, if you were holding a "Toys, Antiques and Collectibles"
show, and it wasn't quite large enough to fill the hall, what
would you pair it with?  Dog show?  Cat show?  Fine art?  Cars? 
A Psychiatric Convention?  There probably are lots of apt
choices, especially in a large, metropolitan area (even one with
a difference).  Plenty of possibilities spring to mind, the last
of which, the very last, and I just can't stress this enough,
hoo-boy is it at the end of my list, is a Gun show.  Call me
crazy.
     But such a pairing was exactly what the fervent event
planners at San Francisco's very own "Cow Palace" (again, I kid
you not; that's what it's called) had in their minds last
weekend.  "Ladeeze and Gentlemen, in this cornah, weighing in at
nine ounces and wearing blue trunks, the Cyber-Violator.  And in
this cornah, weighing fifty pounds and packing a precision laser
scope and decorator armor-piercing bullets, the Mossberg
'Terminator' Submachine rifle...."  It boggles the mind.
     You know, I read an ad for an "Antiques, Toys & Collectibles
Show," and the images are conjured up are those of Fiesta Ware,
mechanical coin-banks, old postcards, Super-Powers figures,
packrat enthusiasts of every conceivable stripe, even the
occasional vicious scalper.  But gun-totin' cowboys?  Radical NRA
fanatics picking their teeth with honed human bones as they
swagger rudely and loudly through crowded aisles?  Wild-eyed
Travis Bickel wannabes twitching and jerking their way past china
clowns?  What's wrong with this picture, folks?!?
     Maybe the promoters just weren't thinking.  Maybe the left
hand doesn't know what the right one is cocking and aiming.  But
when I saw a guy in a "Kill Mom" tattoo eyeballing a Princess-
What's-Her-Name with unbridled lust in his eyes, I knew this was
not gonna be your average toy show.  No sirree!  "Honey," I says
to the wife, "yer ridin' shotgun.  We're a-goin' in...."  Loading
up the small but deadly accurate missiles in an Optimus Prime I'd
brought as trade bait, Tracey took aim at the thronging
desperados all around us as we carefully, cautiously, made our
way into the melee.  It was high noon in San Francisco, folks,
and there was a new marshal in town....

PLEASE CHECK YOUR ICBMs AT THE DOOR
     First table on my right was covered in antique Victorian
jewelry -- pendants, cameos, pocket watches, rings, tiaras, etc. 
Just beyond it was a booth filled with Benelli M3 Super-90 Semi-
automatic rifles.  Across the way was a stunning selection of
handcrafted Irish linens, shoulder-to-shoulder with "Just
Bullets," an impressive emporium packed floor-to-ceiling with
ammunition, ammunition, and more ammunition.  As my eyes roved
over stack after stack and box after box of lethal metal, I saw
338s, 375s, 416s, 458s, 470s, 475s -- "BINGO!"  I shouted.  I got
a *lot* of squinty-eyed hard stares, but no one seemed amused.
     Next table down was filled with kachina dolls, gorgeously
painted southwestern artifacts in neat rows on stepped shelves. 
Then I saw another table with a "Chef's Choice" kitchen
sharpener, and started to think things might be okay after all --
until I looked closer and realized that they were marketing this
sharpener for deerslayer knives.  Even had a bunch of them
arranged in order of increasing deadliness alongside, and the
really sumptuous ones had intricate paintings on the handles
depicting proud, strong deer.  Seemed bizarre to me, and made me
think that handguns should come with little pictures of children
and drunk, stumbling adolescents on their grips.
     With a chill starting at the base of my back, I moved along
past various "Hide your handguns" displays (did you know that a
stroller makes a terrific weapon concealment spot?), nightvision
goggle dumps and a runway upon which the Bill Blast Fall line of
kevlar evening wear was being paraded, through an antique Gatling
Gun display, and on into the tactical nuke section.  Gee, that
seemed like a lot of money for twelve measly pounds of
plutonium....

REFOCUS, PLEASE
     Alright, alright, it wasn't *quite* that bad.  The two
portions of the convention hall were in fact separate; you had to
walk a fair piece around the parking lot (and past the original
cow stalls and corral areas, which led me to believe -- amidst my
astonishment -- that the place is still at least occasionally
aptly named, but that's really another story, a loud and smelly
story, of bovine lust and glory, a tale of moo or die...) and pay
a separate admission to get in to the second show, whichever side
you started on ($5 for the Collectibles show, $7 for the Gun
show).
     But some people really did.  And until you've seen a couple
'a 60-years-plus aging cowpokes in black boots, black jeans and
black silk cowboy shirts packin' state-of-the-art Glock Aro-Tek
minipistol heat, you ain't lived, pardner, trust me.  I would
*not* have wanted to get into a dispute over the last Cy-Gor with
either of these gentlemen, either; they had a crazy look in their
eyes as they headed over towards the antique french postcards....
and with psychotherapist Tracey in tow, frantically counseling
all ears as guns were slid out of their hidden-behind-a-fake-
beeper holsters, we might well have found ourselves stuck in a
modern "Gunfight at the I'm Okay-You're Okay Corral."  ("Do you
understand that by shooting me you're really firing a bullet at
the looming spectre of your father, old son?"  Yeah, followed by
a loud crack and the sound of my screams....)
     But back to the toys.  Admittedly, it was really a
"collectibles" show; toys made up at most about a sixth of the
booths, stands, tables, whatever you call them.  And whatever you
call them, they did vary, from the truly elaborate -- these folks
have done this before, honey -- to the incredibly simple, bare
(and frequently crooked) tables with nothing besides a few
unadorned items for sale.  And if you're paying attention, it
should come as no surprise that these latter desolate eyesores
(reflecting a complete lack of care and solicitousness toward the
potential customer) belonged without exception to what I like to
think of as the Scum of the Earth(SM) -- the proud unwashed
purveyors of...ridiculously overpriced new toys.  I mean, really,
nastyboys -- bring a box or two, maybe a poster or something; at
the very least, it would give you something to hide those TRU
bags from public eye.  (Which bags were instead just strewn with
unconcern in piles underneath the sagging tables).
     But I'm getting ahead of myself.  (Fury'll do that to
ya....)

DEEP BREATH...AHHHHHH
     The brighter side.  There were probably fifteen to twenty
tables devoted exclusively to toys.  Of those, most focused on
new toys; the few vendors with older toys tended to have them as
an aside to other vintage collectibles.  This served to
illustrate my dawning awareness that scalping really only extends
to new stuff.  The folks with older toys tended to be real "ma
and pa" type sellers, and their prices seemed eminently fair. 
Oh, sure, you could find stuff for which the Kents of Kansas were
asking fairly high prices, but it just doesn't rankle for
something two or three decades old (and consequently hard to
find) as it does for items that you can find on the rack at
Target -- and *without* the specious and condescending "rarity
cant."  But we'll get to that.
     As opposed to those who actually care about and take an
interest in their product, the scalpers were out in all their
insidious infamy.  Maybe you know some marking-up toy resellers
who are, aside from their rampant greed, decent people. 
Apparently these folks didn't make it to the SF show, because
without exception, the people gouging (or rather, trying to
gouge) on new toys were a despicable, mean-spirited lot.  The
lies were flying thick and heavy, and no one was safe.
     I actually watched one coprophyte make a laborious, involved
pitch to a young lad about a Wolverine figure for which he was
asking forty dollars.  Ahhh, I hear you ask yourself, which might
that be -- Wolverine III?  The silver repaint "Dark Phoenix"
Wolvie?  Perhaps some advance figure from an upcoming Wolverine
mold?  Brace yourselves, people:  nothing of the kind.  Not only
was this an old and insignificant Wolverine figure, it was a
BENDY.  Yes, this scum-sucker was trying to take 40 bucks from a
young kid because this Wolverine bendy, in its brown glory, was
"REALLY RARE."  "Why, it was the first Wolverine ever made, and
you just can't find it ANYWHERE anymore.  This'll be the prize of
your collection, kid...."  (As an aside, I found three later that
afternoon at the SF TRU, marked at a whopping $1.98).
     Though that was the most perfidious instance of slavering
greed I witnessed, it was by no means a rarity.  Another
"friendly" scalper was offering the Tick Steel Box for $75,
complete with a sweaty, squirming five-minute lecture on how only
250 of the things were made, and how you'd be stripping your own
skin from your limbs within a week if you left the show without
buying it (Guy probably writes those "don't break the chain or
your family will die" letters when he's not hawking hyped commons
at shows).  Cy-Gors and Maxxes were being advertised at $30-50;
the brand-spanking new Cyber Violators seemed to have a uniform
asking price of $15.
     I have phrased these descriptions very carefully, avoiding
terms like "selling for" or "getting" because I saw not a
*single* such figure sell in the three hours I wandered the fair. 
Granted, I was not everywhere at once, but you could see from the
few and mostly near-empty bags others were carrying (and the
lean, vacant and ravenously hungry look in each vulture, er,
scalper's eyes) that these inflated items just weren't selling.

HI-HO, SILVER LININGS
     I did make some wonderful "finds" -- loose Super-Powers and
Secret Wars figures were available on three or four tables, most
in decent condition.  I saw Hawkmen listed at $6-$10, Kang and
Green Lantern for $6, Luthors, Captain Americas, Spider-Men, all
in the same range.  Very encouraging.
     And there were *lots* of old metal lunchboxes abounding,
arranged in colorful walls of history, casting a warm glow of
nostalgia before them.  I took enormous pleasure in reacquainting
myself with the Superman lunchbox I had as a kid -- boy, did
those illustrations look simplistic!  It's amazing what memory
does to enhance detail.  I was really astonished to see how
uninspired the pictures looked to my older eyes, remembering all
the while how powerful and mesmerizing those same shots were when
I was a kid.  The robot terrorizing Metropolis, Superman flying,
gangsters firing....ahhh, there's my madeline and tea.  Marcel P.
never had it so good.
     There were several booths chock-full of movie memorabilia; I
was surprised to find that still photos (those old in-theatre
publicity shots you used to see) were marked at the same high
prices as the movie posters themselves.  I mean, I have no
trouble understanding someone plopping down $50 to get an "Omega
Man" poster, but somehow the idea of spending the same amount to
get an 8x10 of the wormy guy from "The Seven Year Itch" (it
didn't even have MM in the shot!) seemed really preposterous.  Oh
well, to each their own.
     One booth merits special mention.  As I was cruising the
aisles, going past mirrors and stemware, picture frames, civil
war letters, coin banks and porcelain dolls, I came upon what at
first glance appeared to be yet another unrepentant scalper. 
Though it was already about 1:00 p.m., he was engaged in the
process of putting out his stock.  The two tables before him were
only about 1/3 full, and as I neared I watched him orienting his
carded figures in neat, precise rows.  New FF, Iron Man, Batman,
Superman, Hercules, Tick, and more.  As I got close, however, I
realized that each figure had a post-it on it, and each post-it
had a number, and, lo and behold, each number was the same:  5. 
"Are, are these *prices*," I asked, the only possible answer
making me incredulous.  He smiled as he replied.  "Yep,
everything's five dollars."
     He started pulling new Star Wars boxes out from under his
table, and I saw that they had the same post-its on them.  I was
so gratified to see this, to see actual manufacturer's cases
instead of Kaybee and TRU bags, that I made my only mistake of
the whole afternoon:  I smiled broadly, and walked away --
without getting this fine, upstanding fellow's name!  By the time
my presence of mind returned, we were several rooms away and I
let mounting exhaustion keep me from going back.

AS THE SUN SETS OVER THE STREETS OF LAREDO
     After awhile, you start to get really tired.  Foot-tired,
eye-tired, and belly-tired.  The junk food doesn't help; if you
want to make a killing a couple of times a month, vend decent
food at shows like this one -- are you listening, scalpers?  You
could actually turn an honest buck.  (Hmmm, on reflection, that
probably would be a bad idea -- we'd start seeing "rare, one-of-
a-kind pantiless hotdogs" for the impossible-to-find cow-eating-
man and repaint veggie burgers for $50 apiece).
     All in all, it was quite a fun afternoon.  And while I
departed without purchasing a single toy (yes, it's true,
although I came very close on a couple of those loose Secret Wars
figures), I did find an old Tom Corbet science-fiction book I'd
been looking for for years, and it was still fun to see a bunch
of rarities (red Violator, couple of particular Tick figures,
carded Mals, some carded Super-Powers) that I've only seen in
pictures.  I don't know that I'd want to go to one of these
things every week, or even every month, but I can certainly see
myself going a couple of times a year.  Sure, it's inherently
frustrating, given the proliferation of unethical scalpers, but
there are lots of earnest, honest dealers too, and the crowd --
both toy hunting and other-hunting -- was a trip all by itself. 
Though I believe I'm in the minority in never having attended one
of these things before, I heartily recommend them to anyone else
out there who may be a "Show-virgin" -- you may be enchanted, or
aggravated, or bemused, even enthralled, but you definitely won't
be bored.
     Happy hunting -- er, happy *searching*.
Copyright (c) 1996 by John Gersten. All rights reserved.

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