Hidden amongst the tourist trap accessory shops, the surprisingly still erect STOMP theatre, and countless ramen restaurants of the St. Mark’s Place area of Manhattan’s Lower East Side is an adult toy store called Toy Tokyo. (That’s adult toy-store, not adult-toy store.)
Imagine if your childhood comic book store kept the same subject matter, but magically (perhaps assisted by mysterious super-powers) turned into an antique shop. I can hear my mom telling me to put my hands in my pockets as soon as I walk in the door and spot the three foot tall Damien Hirst-esque statues by designer/artist Kaws. To call this stuff “toys” is almost insulting. This is great design in its most playful form. They’ve got everything from big plastic busts of Abraham Lincoln and Mr. T Chia Pets to Thunder Cats and Michael Jackson action figures and Star Wars backpacks. Of course it wouldn’t be Toy Tokyo without a section dedicated to Godzilla, but other than that, the only thing Japanese about the place is its level of obsession with all things nerd.
Almost everything sold at Toy Tokyo is carefully placed, featured, if you will, behind big glass display cases. Despite being toys, you get the feeling that everything is fragile, and way too expensive to leave exposed to a quickly swung backpack (worn by most of the patrons). Because of this fragility it seems that these “toys” aren’t manufactured at all, but painstakingly crafted by people who love what they’re working on (except for all the clearly bootlegged Simpson’s paraphernalia, most likely made with at least a little help from slave labor). It’s because of this vast accumulation of increasingly cool, carefully designed collectables, imports, and keepsakes that Toy Tokyo has gained international recognition in the world of dork. (Editors note: the use of dork here refers to a nerd, and not a whale’s penis.)
When I first stopped by, the place was packed full of 18 year old kids from Texas. Toy Tokyo was the first site they needed to visit on their trip to the “Big Apple”. Not the Empire State Building. Not Ellis Island or the Statue of Liberty. Not even the flashy billboard advertisements of Times Square. What’s even weirder is that these kids weren’t nerds at all. In fact, they were pretty damn cool.
Fresh new Nikes with the tongues sticking out. Baggy pants with trendy designer backpacks. Sure, being a nerd has become a lot cooler than it was back in the days of Lambda Lambda Lambda, but this was kind of surprising. These kids looked more like they should be telling Kanye how to dress than collecting plastic Japanese figurines.
Has design changed this? Have these well crafted tributes to nerdom actually made it cool to play with dolls? To proudly display your guilty pleasures without the guilt? Well, you wouldn’t put a haphazardly assembled Green Goblin on your desk at work, would you. Any regular picture of Joseph Stalin would seem a little off, but when it’s a gold-painted plastic bust of the former Soviet dictator, all of a sudden it’s a whole lot less offensive, and a whole lot cooler. So does great design explain the path that “Cool” has taken to arrive at Twilight Zone action figures and Futurama trading cards? Could Toy Tokyo be the epicenter of this transformation? Upon hours of deep meditation, I’ve decided that yes, it very well may be, but don’t bother looking for the Mr. T Chia pet. It’s in my living room.