At the end of May, Cleveland will be a little less fun.
Owner Steve Presser announced earlier this week that Big Fun, the popular vintage toy store located in the Coventry neighborhood of Cleveland Heights, would be closing after 27 years.
“The two words I’m using: ‘It’s time.’ I used to joke that I’d have to be carried out of there on a gurney, but I much prefer the alternative. I like walking out,” Presser said.
A number of factors played into Presser’s decision, most notably, the changing nature of retail. When the store opened in 1991, online giants like Amazon and eBay, which are now major players in the kind of merchandise Big Fun sells, didn’t exist.
But it isn’t just the stiff competition online retailers provide. Presser made a point to locate his store in Coventry, because it was a destination neighborhood filled with independent merchants, whose establishments complimented his. He said online commerce has changed the way consumers shop.
“I go across the street to Phoenix Coffee and it will be packed. I look around and maybe 10 percent of the people have been in my store and it is right across the street. Same with Panini’s Bar and Grill. The whole concept of people walking neighborhoods has changed. People don’t walk as much. People go directly to places and then they leave.”
Presser was inspired to open Big Fun after a visit to Goodies, a Chicago store run by Ted Frankel, a former Shaker Heights resident.
“I walked in there in 1982, and it was an epiphany for me. It was the most magical place in the world,” Presser said.
Presser and Frankel became friends. Presser turned to Frankel for advice and support when he decided to open Big Fun.
“I called him up and said, ‘I’m interested in opening a store. What do you think?’ He said, ‘I think you would be wonderful.”
In 1991, Presser opened Big Fun. He said the first two decades of the store were its most successful.
“I got my father out of retirement and for the first ten years, we were up 20 percent. We grew and grew and grew and then moved across the street to our current location, because we needed space. We probably peaked about ten years ago,” Presser said.
Presser attributes his early success to the merchandise he offered that a lot of other vintage toy dealers didn’t have.
“I brought in a lot of unusual warehouse finds. These are items that have not seen daylight for years. So, it’s “new” old stock. People were used to buying a rickety broken toy at a flea market. Here I had on my shelf, 12 of these brand new toys in the box. I think people got the initial flavor of Big Fun when they saw these items. My collectors liked this kind of stuff.”
Presser said his whole philosophy about owning Big Fun changed a year ago.
“People would say, ‘What do you do for a living?’ I would say, ‘I have this award-winning toy store,’ but then it came to me. What do I do? I make people happy,” Presser said.
For Presser, an avid toy collector himself, finding a prized item for a customer was the best part of the job.
“It is really wonderful when we find something that people have been looking for, for years. There’s nothing better than getting a toy in a person’s hands that will cherish it like the Holy Grail,” Presser said.
Presser, who is a partner in the Big Fun store located in Columbus, which will remain open, is pondering his next move.
“I have something lined up, but it isn’t ‘for sure.’ Until it is, I’m not going to talk about it. I love interacting with people. I need to be on the sales floor more. I love toys. I like retail. I see retail changing, and I’d like to help change it back. I’ve always been a little bit of an activist, so I’m hoping something fun,” Presser said.
Hear more of Steve's conversation with Dan-including what inspired Steve to open Big Fun.