Astoria Characters: The Big-Kid Toy Collectors

Right inside the front door, there’s a cutie-pie Strawberry Shortcake dollhouse displayed, like a rare jewel, in an acrylic case. It’s living next door to Skeletor’s creepy castle.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Phebe with her pal Hulk Hogan.

Down the aisle, there are a bunch of Barbies, Cabbage Patch Kids and action figures and G.I. Joes just waiting for the next kid, or as is more often the case, the next adult to cherish.

Look around – there’s a lot of playful stuff crammed into the floor-to-ceiling shelves at the Museum of Nostalgia. You’re bound to find something that takes you tripping down memory lane.

Pokémon. Star Wars. Transformers. Ghostbusters. Star Trek. Spider-Man. My Little Pony. Hello Kitty. Mickey Mouse. Pez. Masters of the Universe. Trolls. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
The Museum of Nostalgia is at 31-27 31st St.

And, it goes without saying, boundless numbers of board games and a plethora of puzzles.

“We don’t have very much here,” says Phebe Taylor, who along with her husband, Jeff Zappala, opened the toy store/museum in July. “We have a lot more at home.”

Phebe, a kewpie with corkscrew curls who’s clad in a Brave Starr T-Shirt and a black ballerina tutu-skirt, and Jeff, a mild-mannered man sporting a maroon and black Indianapolis Motor Speedway hoodie, spent their childhoods in different parts of the country and their allowances on different toys.

They met, storybook style, in New York City.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Jeff grew up playing with G.I. Joes.

As the oldest of three, Phebe, who was born and raised in Indianapolis, Indiana, learned to take care of her toys, and as an economic measure, to pass them down to her younger siblings. Her practical parents saved everything. (They still have an attic full of her toys!)

She loved LEGO, Steiff stuffed animals and Fisher Price Little People Playsets, and by the time she was working on her degree in drama at Carnegie Mellon University, she was collecting Beanie Babies.

“I’ve probably got 1,000 Beanie Babies tucked away in my house,” she says, adding that she kept buying more because once she had an enormous assemblage, “I had to uphold my reputation as a collector. They are everywhere, including stuffed inside the lunchboxes I collect.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
The shop/museum has a play area that features arcade games.

Jeff, who was raised in and was busting to get out of the tiny seaside town of Duxbury, Massachusetts, “collected little things here and there – but never as much as Phebe.”

He was partial to Transformers, Star Wars figures and G.I. Joes.

“I started collecting when I was in college,” he says. “I didn’t have any toys from my childhood because, being a boy, I destroyed them.”

After earning a degree in theater from Hunter College, Jeff stayed in New York City, which turned out to be perfect timing for the next significant phase of his toy-collecting life.

Phebe and Jeff met in 2006 while working in the ticket office of the Manhattan Theatre Club, where they were doing administrative tasks like filing.

 “I loved it,” Phebe says.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Jeff and Phebe in the museum section of their shop.

“It was boring,” Jeff says. “The only good thing was that I met Phebe and that I could listen to music.”

Although they left that job for other temp and part-time work to pay the bills while they were pursuing their performing careers, they kept in touch and began dating in 2010.

“When I saw Phebe’s collection, I was blown away,” Jeff says.

Their marriage, in 2015, was a meeting of the minds — and a merger of mega collections.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Phebe guesses the shop has tens of thousands of toys.

“We buy each other toys every year for holidays and birthdays,” Phebe says.

It wasn’t until Jeff’s cousin moved to Florida and asked them to sell his childhood toys that Jeff and Phebe starting thinking about taking things to the next level.

“His parents wanted to put the stuff out in the street,” Jeff says.

But, Phebe, adds, “we knew some of the items were valuable.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Relive your childhood at the Museum of Nostalgia.

For a while, the couple, who were featured in the reality TV show “Cash in the Attic” in 2021, had been toying with the idea of opening a toy store or a museum.

But they faced a huge dilemma: To raise money for their venture, they would have to sell their collection, but if they sold it, they wouldn’t have any stock for a store. The solution: a home equity loan.

Their Museum of Nostalgia, which is filled with tens of thousands of collectible toys from the 1930s to the present day – too many to count — is a shop and a museum.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Jeff began collecting his childhood toys in college.

One room houses a small part of their own collection, which ranges from a 1930s Shirley Temple doll and a metal Beatles serving tray to an Alf clock.

“I don’t really feel like this is a retail shop,” Phebe says. “I see myself as a historian.”

The Museum of Nostalgia, which keeps regular hours on weekends and has a shifting schedule during the week, has attracted customers from other boroughs, states and even countries who come to buy childhood toys for themselves and even their own children.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Phebe and Jeff are keeping their day jobs.

Phebe, who earns her living as a performer and as a New York City travel guide, and Jeff, who is a teacher in a public school, don’t have grand plans for the Museum of Nostalgia. At least not yet.

“I don’t know whether we’ll ever quit our day jobs,” she says.

“Our intention for 2024 is just to break even,” he adds.

But, they agree, they’re having a whole lot of fun playing with their latest toy.

Copyright 2023 by Nancy A. Ruhling