By Damia S. Causey
Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service
This story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, where you can find other stories reporting on fifteen city neighborhoods in Milwaukee. Visit milwaukeenns.org.
Entering The Toy Dimension is like stepping into a time capsule from the last 50 years.
Crates of carefully arranged comic books line the floor. Star Wars, Marvel and DC Comics action figures face one another, looking prepared to do battle. They’re all surrounded by floor-to-ceiling slat walls, painted canary yellow, reflecting the sunny disposition of the store’s owner, Henry Smith Jr.
The business is a museum of sorts and Smith, 62, the master curator. He will gladly educate you on the history of each figure or comic book displayed between the walls.
Smith has been in the collectibles business since 1998. However, it wasn’t his first dream. Born and raised in Milwaukee, he wanted to be a comic book artist. He fell in love with comics at age 9, after receiving his older cousin’s previously read comic books. At age 14, he started collecting seriously. At 16, he secured his first job and his first paycheck, all $36 dollars of which he spent on comic books. He continued to purchase comics with part of every weekly check thereafter.
He went to art school and served as an apprentice under a friend who worked for Marvel Comics. “Things didn’t work out,” Smith says, “but fortunately I ended up doing this, and actually I like doing this more.”
Although his initial dream faded, he ended up exactly where he was meant to be: a quaint little storefront at 5925 W. North Ave., adjacent to the Milwaukee/Wauwatosa border.
Even in this time of uncertainty with the pandemic, Smith’s business has been able to slay the dragon.
With all of the social restrictions and permanently shuttered businesses, he recognizes how lucky he is to be able to maintain through this unprecedented time.
“I’m selling a want. I’m not selling a need,” he says.
“People need bread; they need to put gas in their car. They don’t necessarily need a Hans Solo figure.”
After 22 years in the business, Smith has seen his share of lean times.
He’s had periods where business was so slow, he’d go almost a week without any sales. He’d make just enough by the weekend to cover the previous weeks’ bills.
In contrast, the pandemic has been surprisingly kind to him. His shop was closed for a month and he was laid off from his job at Renaissance Books — where he’s worked for 40 years — at the onset of the coronavirus. Smith has never relied on just one revenue stream. His employment at the bookstore-his other passion-has allowed him to own his own business.
Since the city has slowly reopened, though, business has been steady, and he’s had one of his best years in a long time.
“With this whole pandemic thing, people are going toward the fun stuff, because it gives them something to focus on,” he says, “to give them a release.”
The August death of “Black Panther” star Chadwick Boseman caused a run on the store’s “Black Panther” merchandise.
“His death really hit a lot of people. This guy had this thing (colon cancer) since 2016 and did all these films is beyond amazing. The character had been around since the ’60s and is one of Marvel’s early African American characters that didn’t get much attention until this film,” he said.
Smith has used the actor’s death to talk about cancer and the importance of yearly physicals with some of his customers.
“I can say from personal experience I had cancer some years ago. It was found in stage two. I went through chemo, radiation, the whole thing. Been cancer free now almost 10 years. No one should ever take their health lightly,” he said.
Smith’s recipe for success
Owning a small, niche business can be tricky, but working at other retail establishments gave Smith lots of hands-on training with how to run a successful business.
Smith’s advice for weathering the current business climate:
• Stay positive and knowledgeable about the latest trends in your business.
• Don’t put off debt payments until the last minute. He used his stimulus payment to support his business, and he said if another payment is approved, he will use the money for the same purpose.“It’s all about just making sure I stay a little ahead of the game. You don’t want to get caught where things go flatline. Because the landlord still needs to get paid, the We Energies needs to get paid.”
• Be involved in something you really enjoy and are knowledgeable about. To gain experience in his field, Smith worked at a comic book store, learning how to serve customers and about the craft before starting his own business.
• Have a niche. Many of Smith’s action figures are hard to come by. He often attends toy and hobbyist conventions in other states to land those hard-to-get collectables. Smith doesn’t sell his inventory online because he discovered his customers like to come in and see and touch the items. “That is what makes my store unique,” he said.
• Don’t start a business to get rich. Smith has different price points in his store. Although some items cost several hundreds of dollars, most of his action figures range from around $5 to $50.
“I don’t make a lot of money,” he says, “but I get to do something I like. I’m very fortunate.”
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