When you step inside Hollywood Heroes in Westwood, N.J., you can literally smell the nostalgia (for those of you who are unfamiliar, nostalgia smells similar to dust-covered cardboard and childhood memories—but like, in a good way). In the collectible toy shop, bright lights beam down on glass cases displaying superhero relics with more than 40 years under their utility belts, making these toys anything but child’s play.
Owner of the shop and star of the Travel Channel series Toy Hunter, Jordan Hembrough is an expert in the art of toy collecting, with more than 25 years of professional experience dealing toys. However, toys were always an integral part of Hembrough’s life. From schoolyard selling, Hembrough entered the big-time after college, when he secured a job as a buyer for StarLog, a chain of science-fiction-focused retail stores. Despite a lack of business background, Hembrough eventually went on to launch his own company, Hollywood Heroes. “I had the passion, and I think sometimes passion will drive you more than a business plan,” he says.
Though Hollywood Heroes has been in business for more than a decade, everything shifted for Hembrough three years ago when a casting agent contacted him looking for a host for a new reality TV show on toy collecting. Hembrough ventured to New York City to meet with Sharp Entertainment, the production house behind Toy Hunter, as well as popular reality TV series Man Vs. Food and Extreme Couponing. “I had the meeting on Tuesday, by Thursday I had a signed contract, and by the next week we were in development—it was that quick,” says Hembrough.
On Toy Hunter, Hembrough and his team travel the world in search of vintage toys. From the U.S. to Mexico, Hembrough looks for the best return-on-investments possible, but he says he has a special place in his heart for one property in particular. “I’m a Star Wars geek—and it’s actually my Achilles heel, because people have caught on and they are offering me stuff at higher prices now,” he laughs.
But, evaluating the worth of a toy is a lot more complicated than just considering his passion for any particular franchise. Though he can typically rely on the knowledge of the business he’s acquired over 25 years, Hembrough also has a team of experts he can turn to for advice when deciding a toy’s value. Additionally, when time permits, one of his go-to tools is eBay. “eBay really is the world’s marketplace right now and you have to go to completed auctions and see what was sold and what they were sold for, and that’s how you judge it—and dealers would usually hate that,” he says.
In the world of collectible toys—as one could imagine—the older, the better. New collectible toy lines are produced every year, but very few of them hold any real value. Instead, Hembrough is after vintage toys. “The older stuff is more valuable, because right now, everyone is making this shit to be a collectible and everyone is buying it, so the idea that ‘we never knew back then’ still holds true,” he explains. Even limited-edition collectibles, such as Comic-Con exclusives, are sometimes overproduced and don’t hold as much value as they once did. However, Hembrough does think that a few companies cranking out new, high-end collectibles will have success. “There are a couple of companies, like Sideshow Collectibles, that only make a collectible at a limited number, hold it to that number, and don’t keep reproducing all the time,” he says. Hot Toys, a division of Sideshow, released a 1/6 replica of Batman based on the 1966 TV series, which is currently valued at more than $200.
Before Hembrough can appraise the value of any toy, he has to find it. While he says 85 percent of what he finds comes from people reaching out through his website and on social media, fan events such as New York Comic-Con and Chicago-based C2E2 are important for making connections as well. People come from all over to discuss what collectibles they have, what they are looking for, and what they are trying to sell—all perfect for the Toy Hunter. While social media, email, and eBay are important tools, the fan events allow in-person contact, which Hembrough says is invaluable. “Sitting down with someone over a meal or over a drink at a bar is just so important because you can’t get that over Facebook or over a telephone,” he explains.
It’s no secret that the toy world is a small one, and the majority of what Hembrough finds comes from former toy industry employees. “You have all these people who work in the toy industry, either designers or sales reps, and they have all of this crap that they’ve accumulated and they are looking for an outlet—and we provide that outlet,” he explains. Kenner Toys, a Cincinnati-based toy manufacturer, was sold to Hasbro in 2000. Hembrough made the journey to Cincinnati twice a month, capitalizing off of Kenner’s ex-employees with an overflow of product. “I was planning to buy an apartment out there,” he explains, “All of these people were left holding all of these prototypes and toys, and when they saw the money was coming in, it took off because of word of mouth. From Kenner, it grew to Mattel, to Galoob, and to Mego—everyone knows everyone in this industry,” says Hembrough.
Since Toy Hunter premiered three seasons ago, Hembrough has developed an exciting fanbase, including thousands of Twitter followers. “It’s all still very, very surreal,” he says, “I am very approachable, when people call me a celebrity I tell them they got the wrong guy.” While he says he prefers to refer to his fans as “friends,” what means the most to Hembrough is the kids who love Toy Hunter. “When we started the show, our demographic was guys ages 18 to 54, and all of a sudden we are skewing toward kids and females. It just goes to show you the universal love of toys and the memories in general,” he explains.
Though he does have his favorite properties, Hembrough is always on the prowl for new trends in the industry. “I think as time goes on, and as companies reintroduce brands or franchises, whether it be [those based on] books or movies, I think the older brands are coming back to the forefront,” he says. Film franchises such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and RoboCop were rebooted this year, sparking a surge in the sales of vintage toys. “In a sense, the newer stuff pushes the old stuff to the forefront a little more and increases the value,” says Hembrough. With even films based on classic franchises set for release in coming years, such as Star Wars, the Toy Hunter expects this trend to continue to grow.
Some properties are always hot, but there are also some collectibles that Hembrough stays away from entirely. Fad toys from the ’80s and ’90s that people believe are hot and valuable are actually virtually worthless. “I never buy Cabbage Patch Kids,” he says, “They are just all over the place, and they haven’t retained their value.” Similarly, Ty’s Beanie Babies were all the rage in the ’90s, flooding hobby and specialty shops, but due to overproduction and a lack of demand, the fad quickly died and the once-valuable plush buddies are now worth less than their original retail price. Tiger Electronic’s Furby was another hot seller in the ‘90s. With a retail value of just $35, Hembrough was selling Furbies at a whopping $400 a piece—including one to actress Demi Moore. Now, however, Hembrough says the original Furbies are worth a mere $50. The brief popularity of these toys was due in large part to under-manufacturing, but because the fads were fleeting, the toys did not retain their value. “Sometimes, you have to under-manufacture, but then again, how do you make a profit?” Hembrough questions.
While deals for the fourth season of Toy Hunter are still in the works, Hembrough shows no signs of slowing down in the world of collectibles and pop culture. With his Hollywood Heroes storefront that welcomes hundreds of visitors every weekend, an exciting social media fanbase, and an unmatched passion for finding toys that are of unicorn status, Hembrough’s hunt is far from over.
See Jordan in action: