CLEARWATER — Everybody collects something. Some people collect military helmets, antique cameras, 1920s radios, tintype photos.
Others collect vintage toys like cast-iron Matchbox cars, Flintstones gear from the '60s, Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon rocket fighters. Wind-up toys of wood. Battery-operated ones of tin or plastic. Early Japanese robots. Prewar German dolls.
This is the idea behind an offbeat business in downtown Clearwater — the OpAmerica Toy and Bank Museum.
It has one foot in the physical world. It's an eBay drop-off store that helps people sell their stuff on the world's largest online auction site, in exchange for a commission.
It's the only one in north Pinellas County. Its nearest competitors are in St. Petersburg, Tampa and Pasco County. It operates out of a nondescript storefront at 205 S Myrtle Ave. in downtown Clearwater, which the owner chose based on the availability of cheap retail space.
It's not much to look at. But OpAmerica has a bigger presence in the digital world of eBay, where it maintains an online store for vintage toy collectors.
"We constantly get people coming in here to sell stuff," said manager Kevin Starkey. "We don't make money unless our customers make money."
They appraise an item and decide whether it's worth posting on eBay's online auction. If it is, they'll photograph it, set a minimum price and auction it off. They get a 20 to 40 percent cut, depending on a number of factors such as how long the item is posted for sale. The whole process usually takes about three weeks.
What kinds of things are they looking for?
"Old tintype and ambrotype photos, especially ones of soldiers or dogs. They bring crazy money," Starkey said. "Military gear. Anything military is pretty much a sure sell."
Sometimes there's a treasure to be found in the attic. Recently a woman brought in an old oscilloscope that had been owned by her late brother. It went for $2,375 on eBay.
But the store also turns some stuff down. They're not looking for baseball cards, coins or comic books. They don't have the expertise of shops that specialize in those things. They also don't deal with antique books or most old glassware.
There's a trove of toys in the warehouse where OpAmerica keeps its inventory of merchandise that's for sale on eBay. They range in price from museum-grade pieces all the way down to $1 auctions. They range in time from 1920s German dolls to Star Wars action figures.
"I'm an old toy collector. We go out looking for them," said the company's owner, Ken Byers of Clearwater. "Toys get fairly rare after a while. It's a nostalgia market.
"If you as a kid had a particular toy, and 25 years have passed and you say, 'I remember that toy, I'd love to see it again,' then you just go out and buy it. It rekindles that memory.''
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4160.