Forever Young: Store manages to exist without computer help

Kay Hofmann and her daughter Carilee Nelson got an idea while strolling through an antique mall in 1985.

“We didn’t even buy that kind of stuff. We just said, ‘Isn’t this fun?’ We both had so much stuff, and we thought of it as a way to make a little money,” Hofmann said. “So we decided to rent a booth for the month. And we never left.”

Fast forward to today, more than 20 years later, and you’ll see that the small weekend operation grew into a full-time business known as Forever Young, a toy and collectible store located in Elmwood Park, Ill. Hofmann and her daughter still have “so much stuff,” and if you don’t believe it, then drop by their store.

“People come in, and they say, ‘Oh my God!’” Hofmann laughed. “It’s sometimes overwhelming to some people because I’ve got so much. It’s a little bit of everything.”

Everything means Star Wars, Barbie, G.I. Joe, He-Man, lunch boxes, Hot Wheels, McDonald’s toys, wrestlers, comic books, games, dolls, T-shirts, action figures, Megos, monsters and anything else they can find.

“There’s probably hundreds of other things that I haven’t mentioned,” Hofmann added.

 “We just sold a gorgeous Amos and Andy Marx toy taxi. It was from 1939 and absolutely Mint,” Hofmann said. “And we just sold a Gene Autry guitar from 1950 that was in the box and absolutely Mint. We try to get the hard-to-find stuff.”

It’s all in their store, and Hofmann sometimes has to point out some things to customers. Whenever people buy Star Wars items, she always asks what they think about the rare, limited-edition, 6-foot Millennium Falcon replica suspended from the store’s ceiling.

“And they hadn’t even seen it! They’re so engrossed in just looking at all of the stuff,” she said.

The Interview 

Antique Trader (AT): You started in a booth in an antique mall in 1985. What happened next?

Kay Hofmann (KH): Our booth wasn’t toys at first. It was a little bit of everything. Somebody walked through the flea market one day with an original Barbie doll in the box. And it was one that my daughter had when she was younger. We thought, “Isn’t this gorgeous?” I think we bought it for $20 and sold it for $200. That convinced us. We just got interested in toys. I started finding lunch boxes, and everybody there started buying lunch boxes for us because they knew that we would buy them. We decided to buy a couple of glass cases. And when we started putting things in the glass cases. We didn’t like the glassware as much, so we started looking for toys.
AT: Did the business eventually get too big?

KH: Well, the booth filled up, and we did really well there. I think we were there for two, maybe three years. Then they closed the antique mall.

So we started looking around, and I found a building which was near there. We bought that building and opened up the store. We were there for eight years. Well my daughter moved out this way, and the shop got too small. She was walking around one day and saw this building. We have been here for 11 years.
AT: How have things been going?

KH: Well, eBay has hurt us a lot, of course, which I think has hurt everybody. And we do not do anything on eBay. We also go out to the Chicago Toy Show. We’d go out there to buy and sell things. We still look forward to that.

AT: What’s popular at your store?

KH: It changes every day, like Barbies. There are a few people who come in and look for Barbies, but Barbies aren’t what they used to be. And that doesn’t mean it won’t change next month or next year. Everybody is into the new Star Wars. But then there are still the people who want the old Star Wars. We’ve had people coming in looking for Pee-Wee Herman or Wizard of Oz. G.I. Joes and monsters are popular. He-Man has always been big, the old and the new. And the McDonald’s stuff is a big seller for us, too. And wrestlers, we have a lot of people coming in for wrestlers, anything from the old Hasbros to the Remco to the new ones. Mego figures are very big.
AT: It sounds like a lot of variety in your store.

KH: That’s what everybody usually says. There is nobody else around like us any more. One by one, my friends have closed their shops because they can’t make it, and they’re sitting at home looking at TV screens and the internet. I couldn’t do that!
AT: Is that why you don’t do eBay?

KH: Well, we did get a computer. This was four or five years ago. We set it up at my daughter’s house, and she went and took classes. I even took a class for a while. It made her nervous, and it made me nervous. It’s not an easy thing to do if you’re not knowledgeable about that type of thing. The computer broke down, and I think the last time somebody looked at it they said, “Oh you had better get a new one, it’s obsolete.” I said, “What? We spent $2,000 on this, and it’s obsolete!” If I’m looking at a screen, it had better be a very good movie.
AT: Do you think you’ll ever do business on the Internet?

KH: One day I think we will. We’ll have to have it to generate more business. It is sad to think about what eBay and the Internet has done to stores and shows. The toy shows are smaller than they used to be. People are disappointed in them sometimes. I think they’re still wonderful to go to and see things that you won’t see anyplace else. We have things in our shop that people probably have never seen that are absolutely beautiful. But it’s too bad that everybody is not going to see it because they don’t come here.
AT: How about buying toys and collectibles for your store?

KH: People come to us a lot. We get calls all day long. And there is always somebody who will be in the shop and say, “Oh, do you buy this kind of thing?” I say, “Sure, bring it in.” So we have a lot of people who bring things in.

AT: And that happens a lot today even with the Internet?

KH: Oh yeah. A lot of people say that they wouldn’t go on the Internet. Probably our biggest buy was from a man who collected Megos. His sons really liked those dolls. So every time he bought them one, he bought one for himself to put away. So he had every Mego that was put out. He just walked into the shop one day and told us that he had these. I think it took us three batches to buy them all. They were all in the box and absolutely beautiful.

The only mistake he made was he ran out of room, and when he bought the Planet of the Apes and Star Trek, he bought those carded because they didn’t come in the boxes. To make room, he cut away the card part. He only kept the bubble wrap.

Oh, and another thing. Do you know what the Marx Johnny West dolls are?
AT: Sure, those were the Western-style action figures from Marx.

KH: Well this man had a store display with, I think, maybe 20 Johnny West figures and six horses. This was the really large one, and it was absolutely Mint. We saw it and thought it was just wonderful. We ended up buying it, and we had no room for it. So I put it in my studio and covered it in plastic to make sure it stayed clean. I think we had it there for three years. And when we got this store, we brought it here. That really drew a lot of attention because it was so beautiful. I really didn’t want to sell it. I put a price on it and wasn’t going to change that price or come down for anybody. Well, somebody bought it, and I’ve missed it ever since.
AT: How often do you run into things like that?

KH: This last summer, somebody brought in this beautiful pressed-steel airplane from 1950. I didn’t know that much about it. I bought it only because I really liked the look of it, and it was in such good shape. We brought that to the Kane County Show, and we sold it right away.

Another thing that we did have was from a friend of ours who used to come in and buy little cars and Star Wars figures. He was this older man, and he was friend of Louis Marx. He had a display of all of the original prototype heads that were done for the Johnny West figures. After he died, his son brought in that display, and I bought it. At the time, I didn’t know that much about prototypes, and it was something that I should have kept.
Forever Young is located at 7701 W. Belmont Ave., Elmwood Park, Ill. For more information, call 708-452-7048.

Rick Kelsey is a freelance writer from Arlington, Texas.

Click here to discuss this story and more in the message boards.