Whether or not you’re a fan of toys, collecting or nostalgic items, Steve Presser guarantees you won’t regret visiting his retro Short North toy store.
“If you come to our store, 98 percent of the people are smiling,” said Presser, the founder of Big Fun Toy Store. “The (other) 2 percent either have some kind of medical issue that causes them to be in pain that day, or they just don’t get it. But the feeling is usually happiness. It’s kind of like an ice cream store without the ice cream.”
The store, which opened its doors May 31, is located at 672 N. High St. — there are two locations in Cleveland as well — and specializes in a treasure trove of nostalgic toys, including but not limited to G.I. Joes, Nintendo Game Boys, Pokémon figures, Slinkys, Care Bears, My Little Ponies, lunch boxes, Silly String and whoopee cushions.
“What’s nice about our store is nostalgia never goes out of style,” Presser said. “So we’re always getting a constant flow of items to sell and a constant flow of customers looking to buy stuff from their childhood.”
The 55-year-old owner of Big Fun, which was named one of the “20 Coolest Stores in America” by Playboy magazine in 2009, decided to open his first throwback toy store after visiting Chicago toy store Goodies, now named Uncle Fun.
“It literally changed my life. When I walked in there the first time, I had to sit down. The owner of the store said to me, ‘Do you feel OK?’ I said, ‘I feel too OK,’” Presser said. “As a collector, it was overwhelming and literally everything in my body fired — all the dendrites, somatic cells — it was wild. It’s hard to explain. Remember the first time you watched ‘Wizard of Oz’ when it went from black and white to color? That feeling was overwhelming for a lot of kids — that’s how I felt.”
From then on, he was hooked, opening his first Big Fun in Cleveland in 1990.
Although this isn’t Columbus’ first Big Fun, as a campus-located Big Fun was operated for three years in the early ‘90s (where Urban Outfitters currently resides,) it was Presser’s friend and colleague Jason Williams’ idea to give a Columbus location another try. However, upon being approached by Williams, Presser had his own, distinct area in mind for the new store.
“As soon as (Jason) said Columbus, I said ‘It’s gotta be…’ and simultaneously we said, ‘the Short North,’” Presser said. “We love the Short North area. There’s a tremendous vibrancy to the neighborhood, and the community really embraces small independent businesses, which has been our mantra. We fit in very nicely because we’re different.”
And it doesn’t hurt the store is close to Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, Presser explained — 123 steps to be exact, he counted.
Where Big Fun stands out from other Short North stores, though, is in its stock, Presser said.
“We offer toys and novelties and gifts that are different than most. And I think the community likes that we buy old toys because it’s very unusual,” he said. “Not many stores buy old toys and we specialize in buying toys from the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. So we’ve had a great response from the community.”
For Williams, co-owner of the Columbus location, being around these nostalgic items is what drew him in.
“I grew up with comics and superheroes and wrestlers, and I’m also from a family of hoarders and collectors, so I always like being surrounded by stuff,” Williams said. “And that’s the sort of motto of Big Fun, the accumulation of fun stuff.”
Through his experience, he’s observed customers who agree with him, even those who can’t physically see the “fun stuff.”
“There were few customers once that were blind being escorted by a sighted person at a Big Fun Cleveland Shop, and they described it as sticking your hand inside the change drawer, but it’s full of toys and full of all sorts of knick-knacks and fun stuff. So yeah, it’s like sticking your body inside a store that’s crazy and fun.”
This accumulation of fun stuff isn’t the store’s only mantra. Big Fun, which was named a “Fun Thing to do For $10 or Less” by ThisWeek Community News in July, prides itself on being somewhat thrifty and reasonable for college students.
“Our store’s motto is always big fun, yet affordable, and the motto really rings true because I was a college kid once and I, like everybody else, wanted to buy toys and gifts for friends,” Presser said. “And you can get by without buying really over-expensive gifts and that goes a long way for college kids.”
Some students said they’d be interested in checking Big Fun out.
“If I were at Jeni’s, I’d probably stop by and reminisce,” said Linda Sandvik, a third-year in nutrition.
James Voss, a third-year graduate student in computer science agreed, and said if he visited the store, he would “look for Slinkys and old board games.”
One’s reason for stopping by Big Fun aside, Presser holds that each guest who steps foot in his store won’t be disappointed.
“We make people happy. We put smiles on (people’s) faces,” he said. “They come to Big Fun and they come shopping and they leave smiling and that’s a neat thing to do.”
Daniel Fyffe contributed to this story.