It’s hard to keep up with Steve Presser. The 60-year-old owner of Big Fun weaves in and out of the aisles at the Cleveland Heights toy store. Wearing a psychedelic paisley shirt and bright blue felt pants, he’s a Waldo moving through a colorful world of whirligigs, magician’s tricks and vintage toys.
Part Pee-wee Herman and part Willy Wonka, he stops briefly at the front counter to straighten boxes of candy cigarettes among a buffet of Red Hots, Lemonheads and white and purple bags of Big League Chew.
Presser then races past a 7-foot-tall case crammed with hundreds of World Wrestling Federation action figures. There’s a shirtless Hulk Hogan with bloodied kneecaps and the Undertaker raising his fist over a barrage of white-haired Nature Boy Ric Flairs.
Around the corner, he passes a 7 1/2-foot-long USS FLAGG Aircraft Carrier — a 1985 G.I. Joe play set overrun with more than 50 military men, a rogue Tyrannosaurus rex and suspended fighter jets — before unlocking a glass case devoted entirely to Star Wars figurines, with a shelf full of Darth Vaders armed with tiny red lightsabers.
It’s as if all the joy and excitement of childhood has been crammed into a 3,400-square-foot Coventry Road storefront.
But after 27 years in business, it’s coming to an end. In early February, Presser announced on Facebook that Big Fun was closing May 1. When the doors open today at 11 a.m., everything is being sold at 50 percent off. All of it.
Before Presser gets to a bag of bagels and cream cheese for a quick bite, the phone rings. So he whirls around, past a wall of greeting cards and into his office, to place the caller on speaker.
“Big Fun!” he yells.
“I’m looking for a Superman,” says a middle-aged woman, her southern accent hopeful and high-pitched. “It’s a hard plastic, and he’s about 32 inches tall.”
Presser knows exactly what she’s talking about.
“Unfortunately, we do not have that one,” he says.
“Do you have any hard plastic Supermen?” she persists.
“Just very small, like 3 inches,” he says, shrugging his shoulders.
The phone has been ringing almost continually since the announcement. The Facebook post, which received nearly 2,300 shares and just as many likes overnight, created a shockwave of concerned customers and eager profiteers.
Some of them are already assembled outside on the Coventry Road sidewalk.
Nick Mayor, the first of the hundred or so people in line, drove through the night from Chicago and posted up outside with a portable heater at 8 a.m. The 32-year-old is co-owner of Bric-A-Brac Records & Collectibles, a punk-rock vintage toy store in the up-and-coming Avondale neighborhood.
Behind him, Sanford Clark, a 47-year-old father of two, is hoping to claim a Mego Star Trek USS Enterprise bridge with its four figurines. The South Euclid resident has had his eye on the 1975 play set for nearly four years. With the steep discount, Clark hopes to turn a profit by selling the $200 set at a sci-fi convention. But he also recognizes Big Fun as more than just a store.
“What would you pay to go back in time to a moment of pure joy and bliss?” Clark asks. “That’s what one of these toys is for the people who really want them.”
For the last five years, Clark and his wife have come to Big Fun for stocking stuffers at Christmastime. The shop has also been a place to bond with his 14-year-old son, Maxwell.
They came here to purchase their first pride flag when Maxwell announced he was gay two years ago. And after the two binge-watched episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Clark collected toys from the popular ’90s show for his son.
“What they’re doing is buying a trip back through their childhood,” Clark says.
Yet, this is the age of Amazon, iPhones and Xbox, in which online purchases arrive at your doorstep and friends populate your timeline. Amazon even opened a Seattle convenience store earlier this year that operates without a human cashier. Instead, customers grab what they want and are electronically charged for what they take out the door.
Big Fun is just the opposite — a stop-action store in a 4K video world.
“It’s the island of misfit toys,” Presser says.
With 15 minutes before the doors open, Presser stands poised at the center of his store underneath the original wooden paint-chipped sign from when he first opened across the street in 1991. When asked how he’s feeling, he takes a deep breath and balances his black-rimmed glasses on his bald head. Hands on his hips, he takes a moment to swivel and think.
“A good funeral — if there is such a thing — is where you laugh and you cry,” he says. “That’s what I’ll do today.”
It started with gravel.
At 3 years old, Presser would fill his pockets with pebbles and balance them in uniform rows on his windowsill. By age 5, he moved on to insects. He hunted for cocoons and chrysalises in early spring around Belvoir Elementary School in University Heights, and turned the space between his bedroom screen and storm windows into a nursery.
“The moths and butterflies would hatch and they were in their own little natural setting,” says Presser, excitedly. “I’d let them loose in my room and try to catch them.”
Presser’s fascination with things is a characteristic he thinks most collectors share. “We’re kind of quirky people,” he says.
His father, an Army veteran and owner of Ajax Cleaning Co., and his mother Beverly, a salesperson at Bonnie’s Goubaud clothing store, supported a creative environment in their Claver Road home.
Presser recalls the neighborhood as a bastion of Americana, where there were two or three kids in every house along the grid streets behind John Carroll University.
“We had the wonderful youth of playing games in the street, in the front yards, backyards, in the woods — wherever we could find it,” he says.
At night, they watched the quirky TV comedies of the 1960s — Mister Ed, The Munsters, The Addams Family and The Flying Nun. That kind of upbringing paved the way to important lessons about the value of family, community and creativity above all other things.
“My father taught me: Never be a bully, never accept anybody who is a bully,” says Presser, who extends the lesson into all aspects of life. “Bullies can be corporate businesses. My father really made it clear: Look out for the underdog.”
By the time he received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Michigan in 1980, Presser had started collecting comic books and baseball cards. He wore vintage suits purchased from the Nearly New Shop in Cleveland Heights.
Although he had hoped to pursue a graduate degree at the University of California, Berkeley, Presser returned to Cleveland after six months to be closer to family.
He got a job with the Parents Volunteer Association, an intermediate care facility for developmentally disabled adults. He also rekindled a flame with a former friend, Cleveland Heights artist Debbie Apple.
Always a bit mischievous, Presser was continually searching for the next shiny pebble or interesting cocoon.
“I had an unbelievable amount of energy,” he says. “I didn’t stop doing things.”
On a trip to visit Debbie’s friends in Chicago, the couple was encouraged to visit Goodies, a 700-square-foot toy store on the city’s North Side. When Presser walked in, he discovered an otherworldly but familiar place.
From floor-to-ceiling, in glass cases, on wooden shelves, in baskets and boxes, the shop was overrun with neon lights and carney toys, Wonder Woman figurines, Superman Pez dispensers, bobbleheads and plastic aliens.
“My whole body fired,” says Presser. “I was overwhelmed, because on the walls and on the shelves and in the cases were multiple toys I wished I had.”
Lightheaded, Presser sat on the ground with his head in his hands until the owner, former Shaker Heights resident Ted Frankel, asked if he was OK.
He was too OK, Presser replied. It was the most wonderful place he had ever seen.
The two men immediately struck up a friendship. Presser left that day with a bag full of items, including a small celluloid baby on the end of a stick, the kind a barker would wave at a carnival to draw in customers.
“It was like the first time I watched The Wizard of Oz on the big screen, and it went from black and white to color,” says Presser. “It was amazing.”