- Associated Press - Friday, September 12, 2014

MISHAWAKA, Ind. (AP) - Tom Klopfenstein doesn’t mind stepping on the haunting black-and-white image of Han Solo frozen in carbonite on the rug inside his new store.

But others do.

The image from “The Empire Strikes Back” is sacred to devout fans.

“Some people step around it like this,” he tells the South Bend Tribune (http://bit.ly/1m01E3d ), leaping from one side to the other. “They consider it disrespectful to ‘Star Wars’ if you don’t.”

Customers may experience sensory overload when they walk into Klopfenstein’s new store located across from Mishawaka High School. A step inside Tom’s Vintage Toys feels like a step back in time.

From old commercial reels he has playing on the television in the corner, to the action figures, dolls and play sets that rest on shelves, many still wrapped in their original packaging, this retail store is meant to bring back memories.

Memories that customers can’t help sharing.

Lucky for them, Klopfenstein is a longtime outpatient counselor at Brighter Tomorrows in Plymouth, so he is used to listening to people talk.

One of the most common remarks he hears and one of the best comments he could receive about his deep inventory of old toys is, “I used to have one of those.” He actually spent years amassing his collection from items bought at garage sales, toy shows and the Internet. He stored them as best he could inside his basement and garage.

“I’ve wanted to open this kind of store for years, but I was too afraid,” he says. “I figured if I don’t try it now, I’ll always regret it.”

There’s an R2-D2 toy box and Donkey Kong mini-arcade tabletop game, but no modern electronic video systems or accessories in sight. Action figures hang from the ceiling and pack long glass display cases. A giant Hulk sits near the register. He’s not for sale.

Few toys are from his own childhood.

“Toys are meant to be played with, and I remember doing a pretty good job of that, which often led to them breaking. Then I wanted my favorite toys back, so I started looking to replace them,” Klopfenstein says.

In the weeks the store has been open at 1127 Lincoln Way E., his unique inventory has attracted everyone from moms and dads with children to vintage collectors.

He buys and sells toys.

“I’m finding some people come in looking for a specific toy they used to have, and others don’t remember a toy until they see it here. But everyone likes to talk, and it’s fun to hear them share memories of the toys they used to love,” Klopfenstein says.

Fisher Price farms, parking garages, houses and other play sets that required children to use their imaginations line some of the lower shelves; Barbie, Brooke Shields and Donny & Marie dolls as well as G.I. Joe and Planet of the Apes action figures lean up against one another on other shelves.

An entire wall contains “Star Wars” sets and collectibles. Another section features old Disney.

“I remember being a geek or nerd and how you had to keep your love of ‘Star Wars’ or superheroes quiet,” Klopfenstein says. He carried a Snoopy lunchbox to school when he was a boy.

“You didn’t feel proud of it. But now it’s cool to like those things and there’s nothing to be ashamed of,” he says. “It’s been interesting to watch that happen over my lifetime. Superheroes and stuff like that are totally mainstream.”

His inventory spans decades, from vintage ‘40s tin trucks and cars to classic board games from popular ‘70s television shows like “Happy Days” and “The Waltons.”

He has rows and rows of vintage Hot Wheels cars, boxes stuffed with comic books and cabinets packed with just about every action figure ever made. There are bins of toys for 50 cents on up to collectible sets worth thousands.

Behind the counter, Klopfenstein displays some of the harder-to-find collectibles, from a ‘61 battery-operated monster called The Great Garloo to Rock’em Sock’em Robots and a Johnny Reb Civil War toy cannon. He doesn’t buy much from the late ‘90s, or really any recently released toys.

And he doesn’t carry Beanie Babies because “there’s no market for them.”

One of his favorite toys in the store is a “Star Wars” Yak Face action figure that was produced by Kenner in ‘85 but never distributed to U.S. toy stores because of the line’s cancellation.

“Often my favorite thing is the thing I just got,” he says. “There are so many stories behind many of these toys. There’s a lot of nostalgia, and I love hanging out and talking with people about toys.”

He never knows what the next person who walks through the door might bring to sell.

“A lady came in one day asking for Scooby Doo and I had nothing Scooby Doo. Three hours later, someone brought in an entire box of Scooby Doo,” Klopfenstein says. “I’m learning as I go.”

___

Information from: South Bend Tribune, http://www.southbendtribune.com

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