If Teddy Ruxpin loses his voice or G.I. Joe loses his Kung-Fu grip, Randy Ibey can help. And he's one of only a handful
of people in the world who can.
Ibey, owner of Randy's Toy Shop, a block north of Noblesville's downtown square, is just another small-business operator in his hometown.
But he is legendary among antique toy collectors and dealers worldwide.
"There isn't an antique toy dealer internationally who doesn't know Randy Ibey," said Dale Kelley, editor and publisher of Antique Toy World, a trade publication based in Chicago.
"The kinds of skills Randy has are almost impossible to find," Kelley said. "There are only two other people I know of in the U.S. that offer the types of services Randy does."
Randy's Toy Shop gets plenty of traffic and has been a local attraction for a decade, said Joe Arrowood, executive director of Noblesville Main Street. And during December--when thoughts turn to the North Pole--the local spotlight burns a little brighter on this reserved craftsman.
Ibey can fix more kinds of toys than an elf in Santa's workshop--from a German tin soldier created in the 1850s to a remote-control Pluto made a century later.
Missing limbs and broken mechanical devices are no problem in this land of misfit toys. Since he founded his company in 1991, Ibey, 48, has figured out a way to fabricate just about any type of replacement part.
He works with tin, wood and plastic, and even created a special process to repair celluloid. Ibey and his staff of five also refurbish paint jobs, make and repair doll clothes, and restore the boxes toys and games were sold in. Boxes in good condition can add hundreds of dollars in value to older toys.
Most toys at Randy's Toy Shop cost slightly more than those found in mass retailers. A set of characters on motorcycles from the television show "CHIPS," for instance, is tagged $200. A vintage G.I. Joe in mint condition will fetch $4,000. A few behind glass and under lock and key can be had for five-figure sums.
Ibey, who has an enormous collection himself, actively sells toys, but makes 90 percent of his revenue from repairs. There is such demand for Ibey's work, the repair backlog is six weeks to six months.
Ibey has an affinity for European and Asian toys, some dating back more than 100 years. But he said toys from the 1940s and 1950s are becoming more popular as baby boomers age and buy or restore pieces that remind them of their childhood.
"Almost anything Disney, and the Popeye characters are very popular," Ibey said. "But everybody has their favorite. Star Wars pieces are very popular, and even Transformers from the 1980s have a following. We don't just fix toys; we restore memories."
Playing the market
While the store sees a bit more foot traffic during Christmastime, the flow of repair work is constant. And Ibey said the economy has only a mild effect on his business.
"People interested in antiques see these as an investment," Ibey said. "Sometimes, when the stock market is doing bad, the trade of antiques actually increases."
Not that the toy trade depends on a down market.
Kelley said toys that sold for $35 20 years ago now sell for about $700, and many toys that were selling in the $700 range in the 1980s now go for around $5,000. Some rare games and toys dating back 100-plus years have been known to bring more than $150,000.
Toys in original, mint condition have the highest value, but restoring dinged-up toys also adds to their value.
The work requires such a fine touch, Ibey said he can't toil over the toys more than six hours per day. The rest of his day is devoted to his least-favorite task, keeping the books and handling other un-Santa-like administrative duties.
Because there's a shortage of toy-making elves in these parts, Ibey is forced to scour the area, mostly local art schools and craft shops, for qualified workers.
The limited amount of time any one person can handle the tedious work, and the difficulty in finding workers with the right skills and background keep businesses like Ibey's relatively small.
Ibey doesn't divulge his company's revenue, but industry experts said a venture like Randy's Toy Shop probably grosses in the mid- to high-six-figures annually. Ibey never intended to make a fortune.
"I got into this because I love the toys," Ibey said.
And, no, toys don't arrive and depart by sleigh. The steady stream of boxes that travel to and from Randy's Toy Shop from the four corners of the world comes and goes via the U.S. Postal Service, UPS and FedEx.
Ghost in the machine
Ibey looks beyond the tin exterior or wooden veneer of a toy to catch a glimpse of the soul of toymakers and game players of bygone eras.
"The toys a society makes and keeps and the way people play tells a lot about that society," Ibey said.
Ibey, like the toys that line his shop's walls, is an interesting amalgam.
"You have to be a mechanic, machinist, metalworker, electrician, craftsman and artist to make it in this business," Ibey said.
Ibey got into the business after years working as a diesel mechanic. His wife, Annette, and brother, Darin, a welder, joined him in the endeavor.
Ibey started as a hobby collector in his teen years after one of his uncle's toys, a battery-operated bartender named Charlie Weaver, caught his eye.
Ibey began scouring flea markets for older toys. He couldn't afford the high-priced mint-condition items, so he picked the maimed and mangled toys that could be bought for a fraction of the cost.
"I learned how they worked, and I taught myself to put them back together," Ibey said.
Easier said than done, said Tom Bartsch, editor of Toy Shop Magazine in Cincinnati.
"These are historic pieces, and you have to be familiar with the period and region of origin," Bartsch said. "Replicating the authenticity of these pieces takes a special eye."
Ibey immersed himself in toy catalogs and reference books. The back rooms of his 2,500-square-foot shop are lined with hundreds of them. Like a gearhead with cars, Ibey--with a quick visual inspection--can tell where, when and by whom a toy was built.
Resisting fast-track growth
Ibey traveled the country extensively to antique toy shows in the 1980s and 1990s, and quickly gained a reputation as someone who could fix and restore almost any toy.
Dealers and collectors were amazed at the quality of work by this former mechanic, Bartsch said. It didn't take long for demand for Ibey's work to stack up.
In 1987, Ibey began his work in the garage, basement and kitchen of the house he shared with his wife. Four years later, he quit his mechanic job, and officially opened his business in an abandoned 70-feet-by-30-feet chicken coop adjacent to his house.
In 1997, Ibey moved Randy's Toy Shop to downtown Noblesville. And though every square inch of his shop is covered with toys and tools, he said there's room to grow.
Until the Internet exploded, Ibey said, 90 percent of his business came from antique collectors and dealers and museum curators. Now that his company has a Web site, his customer base has broadened to the general public.
"I've found a lot of people may have one or two old toys from a parent or grandparent, and there's a lot of sentimental value," Ibey said. "To them, price is no object."
Still, Ibey has not used the Internet to grow his business exponentially. He said Randy's Toy Shop has experienced slow, steady growth. His backlog has been constant for a decade, and Ibey prefers to keep his operation small so he can remain hands-on with almost every project.
"This isn't an operation that can be mass-produced," Bartsch said. "There's no manual for the work he does, and it's not easily learned. These are skills you're born with, and they're as precious as the toys Randy works on."