Wednesday, May 24, 2006

toybot studios Store Spotlight: Sierra Toy Soldier Company!!!


It's funny how a chain of events is created. Several weeks ago, I sat down with my freshly brewed cup of black coffee to settle in with the Sunday Edition of the San Francisco Chronicle. I've got this guilty pleasure of reading the San Francisco Magazine and it's sibling "Parade". As I was flipping through the ads and coupons , I noticed a very interesting picture of a toy soldier with an article titled: "Toy soldiers, plastic cowboys, Barbie dolls -- what could be more simple and innocent?" by Kenneth Baker. I was fascinated by the toy photography. It was mesmerizing. It was an article about David Levinthal. I didn't know anything about Mr. Levinthal but I wanted to learn more. I did some research which led me to write this toybot studios Spotlight on David Levinthal. Mr. Levinthal led me to discover toy soldiers. Ironically, a "new" toy genre to me that has been around for hundreds and hundreds of years. Sure, I had toy soldiers when I was a kid. They were the ubiqitous green plastic variety. Interestingly, I was always fascinated with the details. I wanted my toy soldiers to have tiny guns that fit in their hands, but could then be put away in tiny holsters. I obsessed over accessories and weapons. It was to the point that I now remember (as i'm writing this post), that I used to cut off the little helmets and rifles from the plastic toy soldiers so I could have these accessories. I also now remember one of my favorite toy soldiers was purchased for me on a trip to San Francisco (again, ironically) and it was a plastic knight on a horse. What was so cool about it and what I really loved was the fact that he came off the horse and you could take his little lance and shield off his hands.

As i'm doing research on Mr. Levinthal and writing a post about him and his photography, I went on a mission to find metal toy samurai. WWII and Civil War figures are cool and all that, but I'm into Samurai and I know highly detailed metal samurai figures exist. This research leads me to write another post about The East of India Company which is based in Hong Kong and specializes in Asian toy soldiers and specifically samurai. After writing this post, I was all set to throw down some serious cash on these tiny little guys as they are not inexpensive at all. Most quality toy soldiers are made out of pewter and then hand painted with amazing detail. I had pretty much even decided what set of samurai I was going to purchase. During the research on The East of India Company, I came across a local retail store here in the Bay Area called Sierra Toy Soldier Company which actually has probably the best online presence of all the online toy soldier store fronts I visited. It's functionality is a direct result of the site's simple design. Not more than a clicks to get to exactly where I want to go. Note to other online retailers: If your online business sucks, maybe it's because your site design sucks and pictures of your wares are buried 5 clicks down. Anyhooo, since Sierra is not too far away I decided to pay a visit to the store to check out some figures, take some pictures and do a store spotlight!


Sierra Toy Soldier Company
Michael and Myszka Hall
"The finest toy soldiers from the heart of Northern California"

Los Gatos Village Square
15466 Los Gatos Blvd, #108
Los Gatos, CA 95032

Toll Free: (866) 869-7653
Phone: (408) 358-3910
Fax: (408) 358-3966


Sierra Toy Soldier Company is owned by husband and wife duet Michael and Myszka Hall. Warm, gregarious folks that seem to be enjoying what they do. Michael is an ex-software sales executive from Silicon Valley who retired five years ago to turn his beloved toy soldier hobby into a real business. Interestingly, the business started out being online only and as it grew, they opened up a retail store two years ago - not the other way around. Their business comes from all over the world and they carry many different lines from many different manufacturers across all price ranges from $5 plastic figures to $900 pieces of art. Yes, that's nine hundred dollars, but we will get here a bit later.

As I walked into the store, I soon realized what a niche store it is. It's not a toy store at all. It's really only dedicated to toy soldiers. I think this is great. Specialization and focus are key in this internet economy. As I browsed around making a few laps around the store, it's larger than I expected. It's walls a lined with glass cases to display the more expensive figures. These kinds of collectible toy soldiers are pretty small. Only around 2.5 inches tall, they are smaller than a Kubrick for example. The scale is 1/32. They are made of pewter as I explained earlier and surprisingly heavy. They do have smaller scale, but the detail is not as good. They can't get much bigger due to space contraints. These are figures that are meant to be displayed in battle formations. A decent battle scene would have a few dozen toy soldiers. With that many figures, you can't have them be too big. The sculpting and painting are very detailed and are really miniture works of art. As I passed by the case with the samurai figures, I noted their location because I was going to be back to decide which set to purchase.













Since I didn't know anything about the toy soldier genre, I asked Michael to introduce me to the hobby.

Q: What kind of people collect toy soldiers?
A: All kinds of people of all ages for all over the world. This hobby is definitely more popular in Europe and also more popular on the East Coast. Collecting toy soldiers has been around for hundreds of years. Many famous leaders such as George Bush Sr. and Winston Churchill collected and displayed these figures.


Q: What is the attraction of collecting toy soldiers?
A: Anyone that is interested in history are usually good collectors. Toy soldiers allow history to come alive from out of 2D text books to 3D dioramas. In fact, parents will often bring their children here because they have a school project involving history. Maybe it's a diorama re-creating a famous battle scene. It's fun for the kids because they are in-fact toys, but they also get to learn more about the battle they are re-creating. Hopefully this leads them to ask more questions like "Why are they fighting this battle or war? What happened after the war? How did the war start or stop?" I really like to think of our store as more of a History Store than a toy store.


Q: What time period is most popular?
A: World War II, Civil War, Napoleonic Wars and the Romans are very popular. You have to realize that these figures are historically accurate and therefore there is a great deal of variety in the figures. Just taking WWII for example, there are the allies and the Axis: US, French, Brits, Russians, Germans, Italians, Japanese, etc. Then take all the different military divisions and units within these divisions for each country - all the different uniforms, weapons, insignias, flags, everything! History really makes for the best collecting! Another example are the crusades. Everyone thinks there was one crusade. No...there were actually eleven crusades over two centuries! You could spend your entire life collecting toy soldiers for just one war let alone a specific time period such as the Napoleonic Wars.


Q: So how big do some of these collections get?
A: We have one customer who has been collecting for 40-50 years and has amassed around 15,000 Civil War toy soldiers and has them displayed in battle formations with all the environmental details on large tables in a dedicated room.



Q: What's next to come out in the world of toy soldiers?
A: We already have toy soldiers from modern combat including Iraq. East of India recently released Greek soldiers as well which are popular. There are countless time periods, wars and battles that have yet to be depicted by toy soldiers. History is a good place to look for more material!

In a very interesting departure from Military themes, East of India has created the extremely popular and successful "Streets of Hong Kong" Series depicting colorful and daily life in Hong Kong during what looks like the late 1800's or early 1900's. Each little set is a tiny vignette of what life might have been like in asia a hundred years ago. Each figure seems to tell it's own story of what life was like. I'm very impressed with this series not only for the vibrant colors, interesting sculpting, but for the fact that East of India took a chance to do something different other than military themes and focus on what one might consider mundane life. What I think this does is open up all kinds of possibilities for other time periods and countries. It's 1/32 scale history, not just military history. What about "Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley During the 60's?"















Then a funny thing happened, on the other side of the store, with an almost halo effect, a set of knights captured my eye. They were amazing. I couldn't believe the detail in the sculpting but especially...especially the paint. They are the most incredibly painted toys I have ever seen in my life. I was transfixed and I knew my wallet was in trouble. I glanced at a price tag which read: $395! gasp! I asked Mike what these figure were and where did they come from??? "Ahhhhhh, the Russians!" Mike smiled with pride as he explained that these figures are made in Russia by Grenada Studios.




"They are the Rolls Royce of toy soldiers! The best of the best!!" Unfortunately for my wallet, i'm cursed with exceptionally good taste. Grenada Studios produces what could be the finest toy soldiers in the world. To call them toys is a joke. They really and truly are works of art. The mounted knights especially so. Each horse comes with meticulously painted blankets, the knights bear capes, shields and flags with incredible, almost impossible details and rich, vibrant colors. I have never seen anything like these in my life! As I went in for a closer look, Myszka came over to help me out. On one knight, his cape which is less than 1.5 inches tall and 1 inch wide with folds actually looked like patterned velvet! Amazing! She then showed me his helmet which is already detailed enough, but then flipped the face guard up to reveal the knights amazing face with graying beard. To give you an idea of the scale, his entire head including helmet is no bigger than a pencil eraser. His face is about the size of a baby's pinky nail! As I was about to faint, she pulled his teeny, tiny crossbow off his horse which had a braided tiny rope that secured it to the saddle! Mike says it takes weeks of work to complete one of these figures and it definitely shows. I was hooked and as I walked back over to the Samurai figures, I knew what the end result was already going to be. Every other figure including the East of India Samurai figures which I was planning to purchase, just pale in comparison to the Russian Knights made by Grenada Studios. Stay tuned for more pictures from Grenada Studios as well as a special gallery of the Polish Knight made by Grenada Studios that I picked up! I'm also going to include a bit of history about the battle that this specific knight was engaged in.

The Great Duke's of West Last Battle: Death of Charles The Bold at the Battle of Nancy, 1477

From Sierra Toy Soldier Company:

"The cold winter of 1476 saw Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy and his small army laying siege to the city of Nancy, capital of Lorraine. Charles hopes that Nancy would quickly surrender were fruitless, as the siege dragged on through the brutally cold winter of 1476. But despite the freezing temperatures, his army's deteriorating condition, and the danger of Rene appearing with a relieving army, Charles refused to lift the siege. Meanwhile, Rene, Duke of Lorraine had gathered an allied army of some 10-12,000 men from Lorraine as well as 10,000 Confederation Swiss mercenaries. They reached Nancy on January 5, 1477, where they were joined by Charles ally, the Compte de Campabasso. Charles drew up his small army (probably only 4,000-5,000 men). The battle was a complete rout. The Burgundians, outnumbered 4-1, in poor physical condition, and attacked on two sides, disintegrated. Three days later the body of Charles the Bold was recovered from the ruins of his broken army, bringing a final and decisive end to his dreams of Burgundian glory."






It's this little set above that will set you back $900. I think it's worth it, don't you?

As I started to mention at the beginning of this post, this all began with a cup of coffee and the Sunday paper. Now I have the itch to not only begin collecting toy knights from the medieval ages, i've already started with the "Rolls Royce" of toy soldiers, Grenada Studios. I'm already planning on my next purchase to give my Polish Knight someone to Joust with!

Thanks Mike and Myszka for a wonderful visit and for helping me to start my new toy collection!!

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