EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

November 10, 2012

Not child's play

Haverhill woman turns toy passion into money-maker

By Rosemary Ford rford@eagletribune.com
The Eagle-Tribune

---- — If you tune into the Travel Channel’s “Toy Hunter” show on Nov. 14 at 9 p.m., you might see a familiar face.

Haverhill’s Catherine Stollak — a page designer here at The Eagle-Tribune — showed off her impressive toy collection on the popular show hosted by Jordan Hembrough, a renowned toy dealer.

Of course her collection — about 20 years in the making — isn’t only for enjoyment these days. She, like many of those on the show, has been able to parlay her passion for toys into a profitable home business.

It all started with her love of Strawberry Shortcake — not the dessert, but the “person.”

Strawberry Shortcake is the name of a character that graced greeting cards in the 1970s. The character’s popularity inspired the making of a doll, later a series of dolls, and eventually a cartoon about Strawberry Shortcake and her fellow sweetly-named friends like Lemon Meringue and Blueberry Muffin.

As a child, Stollak simply liked to play with the scented dolls. When she got older, she began to collect all things Strawberry Shortcake — from figures and accessories to rare pieces of Strawberry Shortcake art. Currently, it all sits on shelves in her basement, which she has nicknamed “Strawberry Land.”

“When I get new pieces, I am down here right away,” Stollak said, smiling as she looked at her collection, surveying it with pride. “I am not down here a lot just ‘oohing’ and ‘aahing’ over it, though.”

Experts price her collection at $10,000. But the red-haired cherub-faced doll has a deeper meaning to Stollak than money.

“It’s a connection to childhood,” she said. “She is fun and sweet. There is an innocence about her that I really like.”

One of Stollak’s most valuable pieces is the unpainted prototype of a doll that never went into production, as well as the artwork that inspired it. About five years ago, Stollak paid about $250 for the prototype. For her it’s priceless — and by acquiring the original piece of art that inspired it, she increased its value significantly.

“But it all depends on the market,” she said.

As her passion grew for collecting, so did her research skills. She not only scoured the Internet and classified ads to buy items, but she researched their worth to make sure she was getting a good deal. For example she learned that a “loose toy” — meaning one outside of its original box, a toy that has been played with — may be valued at $5, but something kept in a box sells for between $20 and $50.

Needless to say, these days she keeps all “new” toys in their boxes.

Stollak became a savvy and well-versed collector, which led her to the business of “flipping” toys.

With her research skills and knowledge of the toy collecting market, she began to buy items that she thought she could resell at a profit, from toy lines she wouldn’t normally collect such as He-Man or Thundercats.

With her business, now called Timeless Toybox, booming, Stollak answered a casting call for the “Toy Hunter” show and was gratified that the producers found her collection interesting enough for a TV segment.

It was an enriching experience for the collector, who learned some new things about her prized possessions. Hembrough told her that her cherished artwork was done by a young woman who worked on the Strawberry Shortcake line in the 1980s. The artist told Hembrough she would never part with her artwork because it meant too much to her. After her death several years ago, her heir sold the artwork to a different dealer, and Stollak was able to acquire a few pieces before many knew they existed.

“He saw that I have it and love it, and that her legacy is being preserved,” Stollak said.

Stollak’s recent successes include buying a bin of “Polly Pockets” for $125 that she resold for $300 in a few weeks. She spends a great deal of time buying less expensive parts of things — like a Castle Grayskull from the He-Man toy line. While a Castle Grayskull may fetch $10 without all its parts, if she’s able to find the missing pieces, she may be able to turn around and sell it for more than $100.

But to make that sale, Stollak spends a great deal of time researching, cleaning and repairing toys — often sifting through the remnants of people’s childhoods.

This side business has allowed her and fiance Steve Brouillette to save money for their upcoming wedding. It’s become a blessing — even though their Haverhill home is packed to the rafters with toys waiting to be sold.

“In the economy today, everyone can use some extra money,” said Brouillette, while watching TV next to a Cabbage Patch kid. “And almost universally, she’s been able to double her money.”

Of course the couple also has fun trying out the toys — recently the two “tested” some Transformers in a mock-battle to make sure they worked properly.

For the record, they did.

To learn more about Catherine Stollak’s collection or to contact her about your own toys, visit Facebook.com/Timelesstoybox or email her at timelesstoybox@gmail.com