As parents, grandparents and great-grandparents make a purchase at this Country Club Plaza toy store, they only need look overhead to travel back to their own childhoods.
Dozens of lunch boxes featuring mostly 1950s to 1980s television shows and movies are displayed on racks that zigzag overhead. “The Flintstones,” “Family Affair” and “The Flying Nun.” Trigger, “Flipper” and the Road Runner. G.I. Joe, “Pete’s Dragon,” Dudley Do-Right and Bullwinkle and Rocky. “The Mickey Mouse Club,” Mr. Merlin and Mr. T, Superman (No chains can hold him), “Star Trek” and “Star Wars.”
“It’s been great fun for the store but it’s really only been for the store that we did it,” said John Middelkamp, owner of the Zoom toy store at 300 Ward Parkway.
But the store is closing in mid-January, with remaining items now discounted 75 percent, and the lunch box collection has to go, too.
“People ask me ‘What’s your favorite box?’ It’s always the newest find of the hardest box to find,” he said.
Before the days of computers, before the days of eBay and other online auction sites, lunch box collectors like Middelkamp had to scour flea markets, antiques malls and estate sales, occasionally going through dealers.
He spent years searching for Home Town Airport featuring small planes flying over a hangar, mechanics at work on the ground. Middelkamp said the lunch box was “too generic and wasn’t cool to carry” when it came out in 1960 so not many were made. One of the Home Town Airport lunch boxes, also with a thermos, is now listed for sale on eBay for $1,600.
But Middelkamp calls one the Holy Grail of lunch box collecting, the first one known to feature graphics. The 1935 “lunch kit” with Mickey Mouse, Horace Horsecollar, Clarabelle Cow and other Disney characters could be worth as much as $2,000, according to some sources.
“My wife saw it at a flea market in Columbia many, many years ago. ‘Is this the Mickey you have talked about?’ ” he said. “I couldn’t believe that it was actually there. It was banged up. They had no idea what they had but they knew they had something so they wanted $150. At that time there were only three known to exist. It was really a find.”
On one of the Gunsmoke lunch boxes ‘marshal’ was misspelled, making it an instant collectible, Middelkamp said. eBay has the circa 1959 Matt Dillon U.S. Marshall lunch box (also known as the double L box in collecting circles) for sale for $280.48.
“I enjoy them all, I enjoy the graphics on them,” he said.
He’s already sold a couple of lunch boxes, ones that won’t be hard to replace like a “Star Wars” lunch box (there were a “bazillion” sold, he said). Scott Genter of Kansas City spent about $50 for the keepsake of his childhood.
“It’s exactly like I remember. That’s pretty amazing,” Genter said. “I don’t think I ever would have ever seen it again. It’s one of those things that somehow get discarded or given away and you regret it when you get older and appreciate those things a little more.”
But now that some groups want to see the collection remain intact, so Middelkamp is not selling any more for now, although he is jotting down requests.
“I’m interested in seeing where the collection goes. There has been interest in a museum-like display locally,” he said. “It would be a shame if people couldn’t readily see them.”