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Always the season 

Toy buffs stalk collectible stuff 24-7-365

Chistmas year-round? Wahoo! Like Yukon Cornelius in search of lost gold, they scour retail shelves throughout the year for the latest and the hard-to-find toys. These are amateur and professional collectors. Or, as one anonymous Toys R Us clerk lovingly calls them, "maniacs."

"Some come in every day we're open," the clerk says. "They have a certain figure or toy they're looking for."

Collectors are easy to spot, he says. Typically, they make a beeline to a certain product line, such as G.I. Joe or Barbie. With machine-like precision, they scope out the previous night's shipment, buy the new arrivals and promptly leave.

Atlantan Chris Ferrell, 23, admits to visiting "at least one store a week" in search of his favorite toys, which include Hasbro's Star Wars line. Ferrell also says he knows a Hot Wheels collector who lives down the street from a Wal-Mart. "He goes there every night to be there when the pallets are unloaded," he says.

Why all this trouble? Blame it on "short pack figs."

In other words, figures in short supply. Each toy in a given product line may be produced in different quantities, often based on projections of what toys will be popular this year. With action figures, for example, female characters can be rare because manufacturers assume their target audience -- young boys -- will be reluctant to buy a girl doll. (But just try to buy a Speed Racer "Trixie" for less than $50 on eBay.)

Often times, these rare toys don't even make it from the shipping case to the shelves. Store employees often set aside items for themselves, friends or the right kind of customer.

"Show them $10 or $20, and you'll get what you're looking for," asserts an anonymous source in the collectibles trade, who makes it sound like a drug deal. "Just wander around a toy aisle for a while and chances are you'll get approached by an employee ... these are the people who can hook you up."

But Ferrell he's never bribed a store employee to get that coveted figure. Most clerks hold items for him gratis. "Though I have thought about asking what kind of beer they drink, so I can get them six packs," jokes the part-time barback.

Is this scarcity of product an elaborate marketing ploy or mere oversight? A little of both, says Roger Davis, manager of Titan Games and Comics in Tucker. "Mattel and Hasbro generally ignore the adult market," while other companies use short pack figs to create a buzz around the product, he says.

According to Davis, the ranks of adult toy buyers has increased since the mid-'90s because of two factors: new Star Wars products that sparked interest in ever-nostalgic Gen X'ers; and comic book artist Todd McFarlane, who started a toy company to market products based on his best-selling "Spawn" comic.

"Barbie and G.I. Joe collecting existed before, but the boom started with McFarlane ... he's been a driving force," Davis says. McFarlane, who raised industry production standards with finely detailed figures, also tapped the teen-to-adult market with edgier licensed properties such as Norman Bates (yep, from Psycho), Ozzy Osbourne and even -- shut your mouth -- Shaft (which, by the way, may be the next hot collectible due to an overall dearth of African-American action figures).

Other companies have followed McFarlane's lead with toy treatments of other Gen X icons like H.R. Puffenstuff and characters from the children's book Where the Wild Things Are. And lest those with more refined tastes feel left out, pro wrestling figures are among the top sellers.

"It's something a lot of people [in the industry] don't want to talk about," Davis says wryly.

And what do these grown-ups do with the toys after they find them? To preserve value, a toy must remain in its original, unopened package. However, some collectors can't resist the temptation.

"Some of them you just have to open," says Ferrell, who buys doubles of many items. The would-be collectibles he bespoils by opening are displayed in different themes or scenes, such as the famous Cantina sequence from the original Star Wars movie.

Ferrell, who sculpts plastics by trade, says the collectors he encounters are from various backgrounds, including "guys with families and a number of blue-collar workers."

While Robert Gray, an attorney-accountant with Price Waterhouse Cooper, denies being a "serious" collector, he says, "I'm running out of room!" Gray doesn't fit the label of serious because he opens the toys and only buys one of each from selected lines like "Batman," "Tomb Raider" and, of course, Star Wars.

"I go to toy stores every week," Gray says. "Most of the time I get stuff as it comes out, but some, I get from online retailers or eBay."

According to Gray, his wife is OK with his hobby, but he quickly adds: "She says I can't buy any more stuff."

The collectors, at least the amateur ones, agree the pursuit of toys harkens back to Christmases past. This is best illustrated by this season's hot toy for collectors: figures from the classic Christmas television special, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." You know, the one with Yukon Cornelius?

Writer Chuck Moore would like to inform everyone - especially his wife - that the toys littering his home office are not dolls. They're action figures.

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