VISTA — The soldiers stood frozen in time — a Napoleon Bonaparte standing posed vaingloriously; a U.S. Cavalryman on his horse mid-charge; a World War I doughboy raising a rifle in preparation for war.
Craig McClain’s Vista home seems a veritable museum for the imagination, filled with old toy soldiers and other figures frozen in moments of history that have helped shape the world.
“It’s history,” McClain, the toy soldier collector and seller, said.
“Figures are made for every period of history you can imagine, from the ancient times until now,” he said.
And that’s what continues to be the draw for people interested in collecting the toy soldiers and other historical figures.
“For a lot of the people that collect the toys that they had as a child is pure nostalgia, it brings back your childhood memories,” McClain said. “But then when you get into the fine military miniatures it’s history — history takes over — your love of history.”
This weekend, McClain will put on the West Coaster Toy Soldier Show in Anaheim, the only toy soldier show on the West Coast. Now in its 27th year, the show is modeled after the Chicago Toy Soldier Show, which is entering its 36th year, down to the “room action trading,” — where the public is invited to go through the hotel rooms and meet and seek out the items they’re looking for.
Having originally started in the ‘80s with a small group of toy soldier collectors getting together in living rooms, Bob Fisher, a retired Marines captain, and Scott Morlan, a surfer in Newport Beach, got the idea of putting the show together.
They decided to call it the “West Coaster,” McClain explained, with its mascot featuring a toy soldier standing next to a surfboard, which came to be called the “surfing soldier.”
The show has since become the Comic-Con for toy soldier collectors, continually outgrowing venues until its present location at the Irvine Marriott.
“In the earlier times…there were a lot of older, professional business types — everybody from Malcolm Forbes down to the janitor from your school — that’s who collects. It’s everybody; anybody with a love of history,” McClain said.
McClain came to discover the toy soldier figures more than 25 years ago, when the former heavy construction worker suffered a spinal cord injury, which left him in a body cast and doctors telling him he’d be bed-ridden for life.
“For me, the toy soldiers were the difference between being told my life was over and having a life — that’s a pretty big difference,” McClain said.
He began painting toy soldier figures while in the body cast, painting at least 1,000 of them, which, he said, kept him from going insane.
A friend of his mentioned that he might be able to sell the figures. And on that prompting, he went to a show in San Francisco where he sold about $800 worth of the toy soldiers his first day.
In 2000, he bought and took over The Old Toy Soldier Home store in Vista. The brick and mortar store ended up closing, but McClain still runs the online store.
Almost every weekend he would go to a show, selling and showing his figures. That was all before eBay, which ultimately changed the dynamics, he said.
“After eBay, shows became less of a means to sell your figures,” he said. “It’s harder to get people to get out today, since the Internet, but people still like to get out and hold them in their hands and look at them. And that’s why the show’s still important.”
He calls the show an “international gathering” as people from all over the world, including France, Germany, Ireland, England, Hong Kong and will be attending.
This year, he’s expecting about a thousand people to turnout.
“When you see the stock markets go up and down, that can have an effect on collectors coming out, even through 9/11 and all the tragedies, and war and everything, we keep putting the show on and people keep coming,” McClain said.
In his 26 years of going to shows, McClain said he always expects to see something rare come up at the show.
McClain has a personal love for collecting composition figures, sawdust and glue figures that were made in the early 1900s up until the ‘60s.
Still, it isn’t necessarily age that can make a figure collectible.
Demand is a leading factor, McClain explained, adding that the rarity of the figure can also determine the cost.
“But a figure can still be a 100 years old and be worth only $20 to $50. The age doesn’t necessarily give it value,” McClain said. “It’s the quality of the figure and the demand for that figure.”
And what about a figure that he’s still hoping to find?
It’s actually a piece that he once owned, but was talked into selling.
“Now I regret it,” he said of selling it. The figure: an Indian chief on a walking horse, a squaw sitting on the horse with him and pulling a travoy behind them with all of their blankets on it.
“I sold one about five years ago and haven’t seen one in five years,” he said. “That piece is one I’m looking for.”