A shop full of memories: Vintage toys a brisk business for downtown merchant

Step inside Lily Pad Antiques downtown, and you may feel as though traveled back in time.

Vintage posters, antique figurines, back-issues of out-of-print magazines, faded children’s books and old toys fill this Antique Row store, leaving barely enough room to navigate the shop’s narrow aisles. Lily Pad’s specialties are old toys and collectibles, and items range from the contemporary (Hot Wheels, Star Wars, Disney figurines and bobblehead dolls) to the classic (toy fire engines, old baseball bats and gloves, vintage post cards, and other aged accessories). The store is a treasure chest of loot that aims to please South Sound collectors.

“We’re always out looking for items,” says Tom Frogge, who owns the antique store with his wife, Kendra. “We run a lot of ads, people bring things in, and we buy estates.” Lily Pad is the only specialized antique toy store downtown, and Frogge estimates thousands of items line the shelf (with more products in storage).

Many of those items arrive in various states of disrepair. It’s not uncommon to find Frogge (pronounced ‘FRO-JAY’) behind the counter, fixing old toy cars and model trains. “When something comes in and it has 60 years worth of dirt on it, you have to clean it up a little bit,” he explains. “You have to get the spider webs out of it.”

Frogge originally opened the store 15 years ago in a space one-third the current size. As he and his wife frequented more estate sales and auctions, their collection of merchandise grew. They were anxious to find a larger space on Antique Row. When a storefront became available, Frogge moved the business nine years ago.

The antique collectibles business has changed considerably since then. One such change has been the Internet’s role in linking sellers with collectors.

“Everybody is buying and selling on the Internet,” Frogge explains. He started selling his store’s merchandise online in 1997 and estimates that 80 per cent of his business comes from online sales. “It didn’t used to be that way. A lot of small stores down here are closing because they refuse to go that route. They resisted the Internet to the point that they no longer have any customers.”

Because so much of his business is conducted online, many of Frogge’s long-time customers drop by every other week, instead of every other day. They scan the Internet looking for specific items under one category or in one location, rather than scouting antique stores for products.

“The hunt and the excitement are gone,” adds Frogge.

Still, that roster of regular customers is impressive. “We have a big following,” he says.

The most popular items are Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars, as well as Star Wars toys.

“I know a lot of people who have big collections,” Frogge explains. “I know people who move their baby out of the spare room and into the living room so they can create a ‘Star Wars room.”

But Hot Wheels and Matchbox collectors outnumber the Star Wars collectors, largely due to the low costs and limited runs of each car. “Those have been our best-selling items for five years now,” says Frogge. “Millions of different cars are made, and Hot Wheels makes 15 or 20 different colors of each car. Matchbox and Hot Wheels conduct final runs on these cars and decide not to make them anymore. They break the molds and machinery. If a collector misses a car that came out last year, he’s got to look for it second-hand. Besides, a guy can buy that car for $2 or $3 in here, and his wife’s not going to kill him.”

So what qualifies as a collectible?

That’s a tough question, particularly in the toy market. A vintage model airplane might be worth less than, say, a Star Wars figure produced last year. “The toy market is moving along so fast and creating new things and new ideas so quickly,” says Frogge. “Everyone in the toy market has to create new ideas in order to keep their jobs. Something that was out last year might be long gone from the retail store. A collectible could be a year old. It doesn’t have to be 50 years old.”

Because Frogge has been an antique merchant for so long, he’s learned what items to buy and what items will sell. “You figure out eventually that if you put an item in the store and five years later nobody ever picks it up, nobody is interested in it,” he says. “It’s probably not a collectible. It doesn’t matter if it’s old or not. There are a lot of old things that nobody is really looking for and people don’t want. It means nothing to them. It just depends on what it is. I’ve learned about what’s a collectible and what’s not from trial and error over the years.”

Has Frogge ever come across a collectible he wanted to keep for himself?

Frogge says no, but his wife says yes.

“My wife wants to keep everything,” he says. “I have to sell stuff to pay for everything she wants to take home.”

For Frogge, he views the merchandise with a business lens.

“If it’s a hobby, that’s fine,” he says. “You get another job. But if it’s your business, you can’t keep the merchandise. It’s like someone working in a candy store and eating all their profits. You can’t do it. You’re going to end up folding your business.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of a series of articles co-written by Tacoma Daily Index Editor Todd Matthews and Sumner High School student Bobbie Bran. Ms. Bran is presently participating in a job-shadowing program here at the Index, where she will learn about the ins and outs of producing a small newspaper.

Lily Pad Antiques in downtown Tacoma is home to thousands of toys and collectibles (PHOTO BY TODD MATTHEWS)
Lily Pad Antiques in downtown Tacoma is home to thousands of toys and collectibles (PHOTO BY TODD MATTHEWS)

Todd Matthews is editor of the Tacoma Daily Index and recipient of an award for Outstanding Achievement in Media from the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation for his work covering historic preservation in Tacoma and Pierce County. He has earned four awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, including third-place honors for his feature article about the University of Washington’s Innocence Project; first-place honors for his feature article about Seattle’s bike messengers; third-place honors for his feature interview with Prison Legal News founder Paul Wright; and second-place honors for his feature article about whistle-blowers in Washington State. His work has also appeared in All About Jazz, City Arts Tacoma, Earshot Jazz, Homeland Security Today, Jazz Steps, Journal of the San Juans, Lynnwood-Mountlake Terrace Enterprise, Prison Legal News, Rain Taxi, Real Change, Seattle Business Monthly, Seattle magazine, Tablet, Washington CEO, Washington Law & Politics, and Washington Free Press. He is a graduate of the University of Washington and holds a bachelor’s degree in communications. His journalism is collected online at wahmee.com.