(Written by Mark H. Avery)
In this series, I have been sharing my own personal story in the LEGO hobby, including slowly building up a collection of sets from the 1970s to the 1990s, and constructing a LEGO city. If you like, you can read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, and Part 8 by clicking on the links. In the last article, I shared my experiences shopping directly from LEGO. Today, I will talk about some of my non-company LEGO shopping.
SHOPPING FOR LEGO AT RETAILERS
There’s a term that’s sometimes used. A “bottom feeder” is “someone who profits from things cast off or left over by others”. That term can describe some of my LEGO shopping. Whenever I go shopping, the hunt is on for LEGO. If there is a toy, variety, department, or junk store that sold LEGO, I have to check it out. And, I remember many of these shopping adventures quite well. For example, years ago, I was returning from a conference in Boston and stopping to stretch my legs at a mall with what was basically a Christmas store. And, they had a large LEGO Insectoids set at a terrific bargain. I couldn’t visualize how to incorporate LEGO Insectoids into my city, and had no real interest in this discontinued LEGO theme, but I got it anyway. So, there are three unopened LEGO Insectoids sets buried in my storage closet. I wonder if they’re worth anything, but I rarely bother to check old LEGO set prices.
On a trip heading north from Lakewood, NJ, there was a closeout store on Route 9. I think I bought ten little #6236 LEGO Islanders King Kehuka sets (most lost in the fire I talked about in Part 3 of this series). In the year 2000, the #7151 LEGO Star Wars Sith Infiltrator was on sale somewhere for $10. I purchased four, even though I had no interest in Star Wars. I opened one and ended up using it for parts. The others are still boxed (I hope) in my closet. No interest in LEGO Rock Raiders – an old LEGO mining series – but the #4930 LEGO Rock Raiders minifigures were on sale, and I must have purchased three or four. A now defunct department store chain called Bradley’s was the source of a couple of train sets and cars. Two Guys in downtown Newark was a regular stop when I worked in that city for seven years. A couple of the #760 LEGO London Bus sets, early police cars, and other small sets came from there. A basement junk store on Nassau Street in the city was another source.
Another closeout store in the mid-1970’s carried the large LEGO Homemaker sets as closeouts (I never saw or knew of the smaller sets – probably not sold in the U.S.). I purchased the #268 LEGO Homemaker Family Room, and several #269 LEGO Homemaker Kitchen, and #261 LEGO Homemaker Bathroom sets. (I should have purchased a dozen of each, but who had the foresight or money.) At one time, I had a huge two-story dollhouse displayed in my living room window, built from basic bricks and those Homemaker room sets. The people were the original LEGO maxi-figures. At a different point, I had a four-foot tall LEGO man in that same window. The kids named him Irving after a friendly young neighbor who lived across the street. We later discovered that the neighbor’s name was actually Irvin.
SHOPPING FOR LEGO CLOSER TO HOME
Here in Brooklyn, a general house wares store down by Avenue N and Ralph Avenue was going out of business. I still have from there several LEGO Paradisa sets (including the #6405 LEGO Paradisa Sunset Stables, and #6419 LEGO Parasida Rolling Acres Ranch). If only I had the space to set up a complete horse ranch! Another such store, City of Bargains, on Avenue U and Coney Island Avenue was also a source. Reds sold toys for years – they often had old inventory that I purchased. (That’s something I miss today; stores that had very slow inventory turnover.) When they closed their branch location, and later, when they dropped their toy line, I took advantage. The #6950 LEGO Classic Space Mobile Rocket Transport from 1982 was one of those bargains. I purchased five, even though the boxes were not in great shape. There was a toy store named Greenstein’s in Boro Park that I frequented because they had a wide selection of LEGO. When they closed, I purchased several items (not enough) at an action. Included were ten promotional packs of fire chief, police car, and delivery van, and ten space triple packs of shuttlecraft, rocket sled, and surface transport. (My nephew eventually married Greenstein’s granddaughter – it’s a small world.)
In walking distance from us was a store called Variety. Its basement included a large toy department. It was the source of much of my early LEGO layout. There are still two sealed #4030 LEGO Cargo Carrier sets in my inventory. I had an uncle who loved auctions. He came back once with the #6395 LEGO Town Victory Lap Raceway, still in the storage closet. A different variety/toy store in the area had a fire. They temporarily reopened to sell their water-damaged inventory. The LEGO Harry Potter bus and the yellow #4554 LEGO Metro Station were among my finds. The Kiddie City chain had a store on 34th Street in Manhattan. When they closed, I got several off-brand mini-vehicles and about ten #7852 LEGO Trains point/turnout grey train track sets that no one else seemed to want. Zany Brainy was a chain that had mail-order LEGO. As they went broke, I bought several sets that, with coupons, cost almost nothing. That was the point when LEGO was selling really juvenile town sets (1988-89) and seemed to have lots of excess inventory.
Thrift shops had occasional bargains. I’d look for them on my summer vacations. A Goodwill store in Michigan yielded a bag of old LEGO for $2. At another store, a smaller bag was $5. One Goodwill had a new LEGO set that had been opened and had half the set shoplifted. I tried negotiating the price, but was told no one in the building was authorized to negotiate. A thrift store I sometimes visit had a model team set for a few bucks, so I bought it. Haven’t built it yet, but it looks complete with an added boat hull as a bonus. But a mine sweeper set I purchased from the same store much later had lots of missing pieces.
SHOPPING FOR LEGO AT GARAGE SALES
Garage sales are a continuing source for LEGO. Years ago, I purchased the space monorail (no box) for $10-$20 dollars at a garage sale. A different year and garage sale (same neighborhood) yielded a large green airplane and a #21007 LEGO Architecture Rockefeller Center set (both missing just a few pieces). And there were also hundreds of small plates (many in odd shapes) that must have come from various LEGO Star Wars sets. I’m not sure what to do with some of them. A couple of years ago, I purchased a used bucket of LEGO. I thought I was ripped off until I found several old pirate mini-figures at the bottom, which more than covered the $5 that I paid. Then there are LEGO buckets where many/most of the bricks turn out to be Mega Bloks or worse (the real rip-offs I won’t discuss).
At a garage sale in New Jersey, a woman tried to sell me knock-off LEGO figures. She assured me that they were as good as LEGO. I wasn’t buying, but a few weeks later I decided to order two sets of knockoff figures from China through the Internet. It took four to six weeks to arrive. Each figure was packed in a separate little cellophane bag, which I thought was good, but came in more parts than LEGO figures. I gave a few to grandsons, but one reported that his broke right away. The rest are still packed away in the closet.
At garage sales, I took to asking for LEGO, even if it wasn’t on display. Some just laughed and said their kids were still playing with it. A few offered some DUPLO. One kid said he had, but his mother said no (I’m not sure if she was punishing him or me). One young man brought out a built cycle shop from a LEGO City set. I took it for $5. One woman in New Jersey brought out an entire tub of LEGO that she wanted to sell to me for $300. It might have been worth it, but I wasn’t ready to spend so much. I ended up buying some minifigures, some train tracks, and assorted pieces for $30. Another time, a woman at a community garage sale laughed and said before the sale started, guys were driving though the neighborhood yelling for LEGO and video games. Oh, well…
SHOPPING FOR LEGO AT TRAIN & TOY SHOWS
Train and toy show vendors has been another source of LEGO for me. There’s a guy I’ve been in touch with at the Greenberg Edison, NJ train show for several years. As far as I understand, this is how he runs his business: he buys the LEGO Collectible Minifigures in bulk, opens up the packs, puts them in little baggies, and sells them for whatever the market will bear. He might be buying other loose minifigures in bulk as well. A different vendor at the same show told me he buys wholesale from someone in New Jersey, while still another told me he buys minifigures from Germany. I assume both are referring to BrickLink.com stores. Most of their customers (at train shows) are buying for their kids or grandkids and don’t really know LEGO prices.
The first guy I told you about also picks up LEGO at garage sales, and is known well enough at flea markets for people to bring him the sets and collections their kids have outgrown. He pulls out all the minifigures and adds them to his sales bin. He packages the rest of the pieces into big plastic bags and quickly sells them at $8 a bag, or two for $15. Assorted vehicles (usually with some missing pieces) get their own bags. In addition, he has a bin of very big pieces, baseplates, and road plates that are typically $3 apiece. Specialized pieces (i.e. fences, trees, etc.) might also merit their own bags.
I’m a regular customer at this shop. I typically buy road and baseplates from him, in full, half, and quarter size. I also recently (2018) purchased from him a bag of greenery for $10, and three boat hulls at $2 apiece. There was also a small shopping bag that seemed to have parts for a recent fire station, without trucks and minifigures. It turned out a lot more was missing than I thought, but I was able to build the two truck stalls with lift-up doors and a little building between them. And now I have “Ira’s Trucks: Sales & Service” waiting to go on my city layout. A very creative model? Certainly not. But a quick and realistic one. The extra pieces, including eight 1x2x3 windows that I always need will end up being sorted eventually. I also have three or four trucks (at $5 apiece) waiting for me to figure out what set they are from, find the instructions online, and hopefully be able to restore them to full condition using my own spare parts or substituting similar parts. When I’ll do this, or where I’ll put the stuff after it’s built is anybody’s guess.
One time, a hobby train dealer had a banana carton filled with plastic bags of LEGO. His price per bag seemed reasonable, but not great. I figured I’d scout out the show, see what was there and come back to buy two or three bags. When I found him again, no LEGO! One person had purchased the entire box. At a different show, another vendor had a small bag marked $40. I offered $10, which was quickly accepted (I should have said $5) and bought three police motorcycles, two swordfish, two alligators, and two small dinosaurs.
On a different occasion, a toy seller had a couple of bags of LEGO including some minifigures. This seemed to make the bags a bargain so I bought them, carried them home, and dumped their content on a tray. Every minifigure was missing at least one hand, some were missing arms, and even legs. I guess I could stick them in my LEGO hospital, or put one or two in the new LEGO wheelchairs. One time, someone was selling a large bag of assorted baseplates and road plates. I was hesitating when another customer came along. The vendor gave me first choice, but it was all or nothing. I ended up with about a dozen 10×10 baseplates and road plates for about $35.
This past December (2018), a vendor I had been in e-mail contact with, had a huge stock of a 900-piece Wal-Mart exclusive set at $40. It bothered me to no end. I told him so because it was on sale that week at Wal-Mart for $20. His response was that they were hard to get and Wal-Mart would likely cancel my online order if I purchase ten boxes. I believed him. I was on my way to Hershey, PA for a conference, so I stopped in two different Wal-Mart stores and between them bought 10 boxes. Two weeks later, my online order also arrived. So I now had 20 boxes! Five I broke down for parts right away. A few went to grandchildren, the rest are still stacked in a corner. (I have the same complaint about these sets that I would think most townies have; nowhere near enough windows, and too many unrealistic colors.)
As indicated before, many train hobby fans (and maybe others) buy LEGO for kids/grandkids and don’t know or even care about price. The same vendor I mentioned above had many other older sets at current online prices. I stay away from these. But he also had small baggies of selected pieces with marked, but negotiable, prices. I left over $100 at his table. As I said; the thrill of the chase!
OTHER LEGO SHOPPING ADVENTURES
I discovered early on that (at that time) the European line of LEGO was different and more expensive than the American line. My mother paid a visit to Switzerland and brought back a couple of small town sets. Someone else brought me a #7777 LEGO Train Ideas Book from Europe (still a prized possession). I also spoke to someone in Enfield (LEGO’s HQ in the U.S.), and they sent me a photocopy of a German LEGO catalog. I found out there was a Danish store (I believe it’s called Magnusson) that would ship LEGO to me in New York. I placed an order (or two) from there.
Years ago, LEGO introduced a theme called LEGO Znap. I had no interest in the sets, but when the product line failed and stores were offering them 80% off retail, I couldn’t resist. I especially liked the ones with motors, like the #3571 LEGO Znap Blackmobile, and #3552 LEGO Znap Hover Sub. I have a big tub of those pieces somewhere in the house. At one point, I used the curved pieces from these sets to build a big Ferris wheel. I had trouble keeping it standing upright, but maybe one day I’ll try again.
When Shell gas stations in the U.S. started offering small LEGO sets as promotions, I became a Shell customer. Lots of these small sets spread around my LEGO town, with many brown rafts used as spare parts. (I just built a small Western fort out of the log pieces. I figure it will fit into my amusement part or even city as a building relic.) You can’t have too many cars, and the police car easily transforms into a civilian vehicle. The gas station, car wash, store, and tanker all have spots in town. Besides these, several bigger and many smaller Shell sets are packed away in storage.
In recent years, I’ve been looking for small sets to give as holiday presents to young great nephews. I think the LEGO City starter sets are good deals with four minifigures for $10. And it’s even better when I can get them for $7. I have no great interest in LEGO BrickHeadz at $10, but when they’re on clearance for $6, I think they are worth getting and giving away as great little presents. They are also great sources for some really interesting pieces, especially SNOTs (Studs-Not-On-Top) bricks. I’ve hooked at least a few grandkids to LEGO with them.
Even with all of these different sources, I would guess that most of my current collection still comes from Toys’R’Us, Target, and directly from the LEGO company. Bottom line, LEGO shopping can be a real adventure. I hope you enjoyed this story. More shopping adventures will be the subject of my next article. Your comments, questions, and feedback are always welcome. Also welcome are tips about great LEGO bargains and ideas for new city creations. Thanks for reading!
I hope you enjoyed this story. More shopping adventures will be the subject of my next article. Your comments, questions, and feedback are always welcome. Also welcome are tips about great LEGO bargains and ideas for new city creations. Thanks for reading!
Mark H. Avery is a LEGO Town/City builder and collector for over 30 years. This article is part of a series that traces his personal LEGO experiences and offer his personal insights on LEGO related issues. All opinions are his own.
And you might also like to check out the following related posts:
- My LEGO City: A Personal Story – Part 1
- My LEGO City: A Personal Story – Part 2
- My LEGO City: A Personal Story – Part 3
- My LEGO City: A Personal Story – Part 4
- My LEGO City: A Personal Story – Part 5
- My LEGO City: A Personal Story – Part 6
- My LEGO City: A Personal Story – Part 7
- My LEGO City: A Personal Story – Part 8