Steve Presser at Big Fun Steve Presser at Big Fun
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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.”

Presser may not be fully ready for Big Fun to end.

It’s three minutes after opening time on Friday for the big sell-off, and the doors are still locked. Two registers are primed to go, but there’s a problem with the Wi-Fi connection. Presser and his employees can’t get the second credit card reader to work. They’ll have to operate old school.

Three runners take their posts around the store armed with brown bags and sharpies to expedite the process once customers enter. 

Sheena, a short girl with blue hair, stands beside the wrestlers, clinging to a coffee cup. Ben, a full-time employee for nearly 15 years, leans over the front counter in a brightly colored Rasta cap. Gary Pearlman, better known as magician and Guinness World Record bubble maker Dr. U.R. Awesome, is perched near the entrance.

“We’ve got the whole Manson family here today,” he shouts, laughing.

Presser, after making his rounds, notices one of the workers is missing. He yells out from the back, “Where’s Allen?”

“He’s in the shitter,” Ben calls out casually without lifting his head.

“He’s in the shitter, wonderful,” mutters Presser, cracking a smile. “Guys, I’m going to open up!” On cue, the satellite radio begins to play Tammi Terrell’s perky 1966-rendition of “Two Can Have A Party” as Presser walks toward the door.

Who needs the noise of a party crowd?

Who needs the records turned up loud?

Presser unlocks the door and swings it open, arms outstretched in the 15-degree air.

“Welcome to Big Fun’s finale sale,” he yells. “Come on in!”

When we’re together, I’m like a feather floating in the air.

I don’t care where we’re going, as long as you are there.

Mayor, the first in line, leaves his portable heater in his car and grabs a small basket, heading toward the action figures in the back. Clark grabs a basket from behind him and veers right toward the wrestling figurines and the 1984 Voltron sets.

“Thank you, everybody!” shouts Presser, hugging customers, shaking each hand.

He holds the door open for four minutes until the last customer is in. He then weaves through the room like a bright blue lightning bolt amid a flury of slow-moving shoppers. 

They clamor for him: How much are the tin lunch boxes on the highest shelves? Will he change his mind about the Pee-wee Herman Schwinn bicycle replica suspended over the front counter with a not-for-sale sticker on it? What about the dust-covered Gonzo doll slumped over the Big Fun sign — is it for sale, too?

Nearby, Clark emerges from the back without the Star Trek play set. Someone bought it before him a few days before the final sale kicked off. Two years ago, he got his son into watching Star Trek: The Next Generation.

“You know,” he says, shrugging, eyes downcast. “It’s the end.”

You can feel the finality in the way customers stand in line for the next several hours, in the way they keep coming in the door with eyes wide, mouths agape. 

You can see it on the faces of older folks, arms outstretched over their heads reaching for the Hawk Weird-ohs 1960s caricature racers and the millennials gathered around the glass case filled with video game systems.

It shows in the face of a teenager, who asks Presser if he can come in and help him sort his collection of 1,000 G.I. Joe figures tucked away in the basement. Presser hands him his card. If he comes in next week, he can help out in exchange for a toy.

“Are you the video game guy?” someone calls out at Presser from the back of the crowd.

“What a joke,” he responds with a guttural laugh, now back at the center of the room. “Of all the people in the entire store, I know the least.”

But he gets behind the video game counter anyway, taking each customer as they come.

“My god,” says Presser, after a few minutes. “You’d think I was giving something away.”

Presser gave convention a try. 

After he and Debbie married, they moved into an apartment on Euclid Heights Boulevard. For seven years, he worked as a stockbroker, wearing a suit and tie to work every day. But while colleagues were enjoying elaborate midday lunches, Presser scoured the Sun Press for estate and garage sales. 

Twice a year, he and Debbie returned to Goodies and piled bags of vintage toy purchases into their car. Frankel’s store offered Presser the kind of joy and nostalgic release his corporate job couldn’t. 

The idea of opening his own shop had been turning like a Sit ’n Spin in his head for most of the 1980s. When he finally told Frankel about it, his mentor offered a list of distributors, vintage toy conventions and warehouses where Presser could grow his collection. 

“You were really out treasure hunting and trying to uncover fun, wild things,” says Frankel. “It was the thrill of finding something and finding things no one else wanted.”

Early on, Presser discovered Yankee Trader on High Street in Columbus. The 55,000-square-foot party and novelty shop held unimaginable treasures. Its five stories of retail and warehouse space were filled with Mickey Mantle pencil sets, John F. Kennedy Halloween masks, Batman cowls and so much more.

“You go on this journey, this archaeological dig, hoping to find your King Tut,” says Presser. “Sometimes you find some broken dishes and sometimes you find pottery.”

On one trip, Presser and Frankel found thousands of 1950s Davy Crockett windup watches behind a small dummy wall that had been erected after a freak storm tore through one of Yankee Trader’s windows.

From that one purchase, Presser made enough to sign a lease and renovate a  1,700-square-foot storefront on Coventry Road’s strip of independently owned small businesses. After testing a small pop-up shop on the corner and finalizing renovations on the new digs, he opened Big Fun April 1, 1991.

Presser carried a trove of toys and gag gifts, but all with a nod to Cleveland’s past. He purchased light fixtures from Higbee’s downtown, glass cases from Taddeo’s Jewelers in Little Italy, and card catalogs from the Cleveland Public Library to hold his cards, marbles and assorted wares. 

Even the floor was constructed from the abandoned maple lanes of Kinsman-Lee Bowling Alley in Shaker Heights. 

For Presser, it was less about the products and more about the experience. He created the kind of place he had always held dear — one that valued family, uplifted the community and broadened the creative mind.

“It’s just a trip in there,” says Debbie. “All of a sudden, whatever your problems are, they’re left out the door and you’re just in this wonderland.”

A photo from the grand opening still hangs above Presser’s desk. In the picture, he’s still got hair, albeit thinning, and wears a wide grin. He’s standing next to his father, who came out of retirement to run the manual register. They’re both wearing bright red shirts, pressed in the shop, with Big Fun splashed across their chests.

“We wanted to transform people’s lives just by walking through the door,” Presser says. “When they left, they felt better than when they walked in. It was helping the world one little piece at a time.”

Even now, Presser has a hard time pinpointing the beginning of the end. 

When asked, he won’t give specific sales or profit figures. He’s overwhelmingly optimistic, admittedly sometimes to a fault, and doesn’t like to talk about failure.

He says during the first few years Big Fun’s business was booming, with sales increasing 20 percent every year. But things started tapering off in the late 2000s. With increasing rent and decreasing store visits, the economics just didn’t work anymore.

“Initially it was big box stores that killed us, like Walmart,” he says. “Then it became this thing called the internet. And then it became what is now our biggest foe: Amazon.”

A store like Big Fun should succeed in a neighborhood such as Cleveland Heights’ Coventry Village, which thrives off its counterculture vibe and mom-and-pop shops. 

Yet Presser has seen foot traffic drastically decline, even in a neighborhood where 49 independently owned businesses exist within a quarter-mile radius.

The loss of Big Fun will have its own economic ripples as well. 

“I’ve seen things that never worked and things that worked great for awhile, but none of them ever had the draw that Steve and Big Fun has,” says Tommy Fello, who has owned Tommy’s Restaurant in the district for 47 years. “Unfortunately, I don’t know how you replace that draw.”

Outside of the holiday season, Big Fun has largely become a trip down memory lane, a spot only collectors frequent on a regular basis for resale opportunities — and even then, a plethora of competitors now exist online with a simple click of a button.

“You can have whatever you want, and it’s really kind of destroying the whole purpose and experience of the store,” says Debbie. “There’s no more hunt.”

On a macro-level, the toy industry as a whole has been in decline for years. FAO Inc., parent company to FAO Schwarz and Zany Brainy, filed for bankruptcy protection twice in 2003 before selling its flagship store on Fifth Avenue and other assets for $20 million. By 2009, the Fifth Avenue store, made famous by Tom Hanks’ Walking Piano scene in Big, had closed its doors.

And last year, Toys R Us — which once controlled 20 to 25 percent of the U.S. retail toy market — filed for bankruptcy, announcing the closure of 180 stores nationwide.

James Gilmore, a retail consultant and professor at Case Western Reserve University, says the decline is due to a structural shift in how we define the experience of fun. 

Exploration and adventure have been contained to the size of a screen. And yet, that same technology expands the experience to billions of people online worldwide in an instant. Taken together, it has weakened our sense of in-person entertainment. 

Just about everything Big Fun sells can now be found on Amazon and eBay. To survive, Presser would have to overhaul his business model.

“The fact is, the experience is what’s valued, and you could go in Big Fun and derive value without even purchasing a thing,” says Gilmore. “You need to find a way to commercialize that time, to charge explicitly for that time like paying a fee to go to Walt Disney World.”  

It means hosting birthday parties for a premium or charging visitors to view rare finds like they would for a museum exhibit. 

But that’s not Presser’s style. 

Even when he relocated to his current spot in 2005, Presser saw the opportunity as a chance to build on the world he was creating without imposing on his customers. 

He doubled the size of his store and hired graffiti artists to create a yellow brick road on the concrete floor and whimsical creatures on the ceiling tiles. 

He brought in a magician to entertain kids while their parents browsed. He started creating Cleveland-centric band T-shirts and put up a wall of political gag gifts.

“I started out as a toy store,” says Presser. “I had to evolve into what became a department store.”

When times were tough and bills needed to be paid, he sold items on eBay, however sparingly. “I could have just closed my store and done all eBay,” he says. “I would have made a lot more money.” 

But that’s not his way. “I like people, I like stores,” says Presser. “I like the interactions.” 

Presser is unafraid of taking risks. 

Although they’ve since closed, he’s opened other Big Fun stores in Lakewood and on Ohio State University’s campus (his business partner still runs a location in Columbus’ Short North neighborhood). Last May, after acquiring thousands of never-worn vintage clothing pieces from the ’50s to the ’80s, he opened a Coventry Road pop-up shop. It closed in February too. 

But of all the side quests Presser has undertaken, the most significant happened in 1996 when he purchased two vintage steel diner cars from New Jersey. 

He planned to bring them to Cleveland, renovate them and add to the Big Fun brand.

“My lifelong dream is to bring people together,” he says. “Diners were a place where people went to meet and talk, sit at the counter and shoot the breeze.”

But the project stalled before it could take off. The initial plans were put on hold for almost four years when a contractor refused to deliver one of the diner cars and demanded more money. According to several articles in The Plain Dealer, Presser and his wife had to use their home as collateral for bank loans and borrowed $625,000 from the city of Cleveland Heights to finish renovations.

By the time Dottie’s Diner opened on Lee Road in September 2002 with coin-operated mini-jukeboxes, handcrafted shakes and burgers, Presser was swimming in hype.

“We opened to great hoopla,” he says. “We had long lines. People loved it.”

But building the experience wasn’t enough. The project cost Presser $2 million.

“It’s one of the sad things in business,” says Presser. “You can be as busy as possible, but if you’re not making money, what good is it?”

One year later, Presser announced they’d have to shut down the diner just nine days before Christmas.

“The diners are sadly a rough point in my life, because I reached the highest highs and the lowest lows from it,” says Presser. “The diners sapped everything out of me.”

So the community rallied at Big Fun. Just 48 hours before Christmas Eve, an anonymous Cleveland Heights resident organized a flash mob and more than 200 people showed up on the sidewalk to empty the shelves of “every last pooping-pig-key chain, lunchbox, comic book, refrigerator magnet and tasteless novelty,” according to The Plain Dealer.

When Presser opened the doors at 11 a.m., it was like stepping into George Bailey’s shoes in It’s A Wonderful Life. For every sale, Presser rang a silver bell, giving away sheriff’s medals to everyone who stood in line. It marked the biggest selling day in Big Fun’s history and allowed him to pay the employees from the diner and set everything straight.

“I went to the top of the mountain,” says Presser. “It was one of the toughest climbs of all time. I put my flag at the top of the mountain and unfortunately, a wind gust blew me down the other side of the mountain and I got hurt.

“But,” he says, smiling, “I climbed the mountain and that in itself was successful.”

Presser has a lot left to give.

Entering his Payne Avenue warehouse is like descending into a forgotten tomb. The lights flicker on automatically like ancient torches as he walks past them, dimly lighting a small corridor of concrete steps. 

When he reaches the bottom, Presser opens a red door and pushes it open to a seemingly pitch-black void. For a moment, he disappears into the dark looking for the light switch. When it’s flipped, he chuckles and rubs the back of his bald head.

“This is room No. 1,” he says, surveying the land. “This is 30 years of my accumulation of stuff I bought specifically for the store I was going to create.”

He’s got Colonel Sanders coin banks, paper ice cream sandwich boxes from the 1950s, hip decals from the 1960s, green wax Mold-A-Rama elephants made from vintage coin-operated vacuum-sealed machines. 

A lone Terminator 2 T-1000 figure sits on top of a stack of boxes, twisted at the neck.

“There’s a ton of stuff in here that honestly doesn’t make sense,” says Presser, dazed.

He then walks past a menagerie of dust-covered board games and through a door into a 6,000-square-foot area of the basement where hundreds of boxes are piled high.

In one corner, balsa wood airplanes rest alongside tiny tin elephants riding bicycles. Boxes of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Hot Wheels parts, and He-Man dolls rest alongside boxes of plastic baby doll legs and thousands of miniature saucepans holding plastic over-easy eggs. 

The containers are intermittently interrupted by mannequins erupting from the rubble wearing T-shirts that read, “Greetings from Cleveland with a tower that’s terminal overlooking a lake that’s Erie.”

“This yo-yo came out of Warren, Ohio,” he says, picking it up and tossing it aside.

“I bought these in Barberton, Ohio,” he says, holding up a set of yellowed Twilight Zone mini-comic strips.

The inventory is so impressive it’s easy to overlook that Presser isn’t bragging — not really. He’s on a mission.

“I promised this young girl, who’s such a sweetheart, that I had this one book,” he says, hand on his chin. “But I don’t see it.”

She’s 16 years old and her father died last summer. She came into the store last week and asked if Presser had more of the Ren and Stimpy books she used to read with her father while he was still alive.

As Presser makes his rounds — past a box of vintage cleaning supplies, a solitary Davy Crocket watch on a shelf and a stack of Kristy McNichol posters from 1978 — he walks toward a slightly darker area of the basement where empty boxes that once held Ataris and Nintendos sit on shelves covered in dust. 

He pauses, swivels on his heels and turns around. There, second box down from the top, underneath a mannequin wearing a George W. Bush mask, he spots them — an entire box of Ren and Stimpy books.

Presser stomps his feet, shouting, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” You’d think he just found gold in his own catacombs.

That feeling — the excitement of discovery, the pure delight of giving someone a complete moment of unhinged joy — is what’s driving him to sell off everything from the warehouse. He’s even pushed back Big Fun’s closing date to early June to make it happen. 

If he’s successful, he’ll be unburdened by the past and ready for the next adventure.

He’s not ready to announce exactly what that is just yet. But he’s not fixed on retirement either. No matter what idea he conjures in his Technicolor brain, at least one element of Big Fun will live on. 

“I like making people feel happy,” he says, walking toward the exit.  

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