Thursday, February 28, 2008

Second Childhood

On Bleecker Street, there was a deep and narrow shop filled with collectible vintage toys. I remember entire armies of cast-iron men pouring over miniature war-torn hillsides, tin dirigibles and airplanes with spinning propellers, painted hobby horses, carousels, model trains. It was a wonder. But when I walked by yesterday it all was gone, a FOR RENT sign on the front.

In the window I saw the pale, boyish face of Van Dexter, the man who presided over the shop for the past 39 years. I waved to him and he invited me inside. In his late 80s, Mr. Dexter may be hard of hearing, but his skin is smooth, almost translucent, and his eyes are sharp. He stood in the ruins of his once-packed shop, now stripped bare, all the toys taken by a single buyer. He is putting his beloved carousel horses up for auction. "I hate to see them go, most of all," he told me. He won't open another shop, though, and hopes to get back into acting.

He gave me a souvenir pen that doesn't write unless "you lick it or light the end with a match." He licked the ballpoint to demonstrate and handed me a card. On it, I noted the scandalous rent increase that has pushed him out of his neighborhood: It's going from $7,000 a month to $15,000. When he first moved in, back in 1969, he was paying $150.


  1. i really loved that shop and will miss it and Mr. Dexter.

    *fingers crossed for another Pinkberry!*

  2. as a resident of the west village, i've always made monthly visits to second childhood and was proud of its existence in a neighborhood becoming ever more devoid of charm and character. I am deeply depressed that it's gone!! what's the village without a toystore?

  3. Nice piece! I’m the person who took the FLICKR set. I knew the closing was happening, thus I went down and bought some stuff and took some pictures since despite the place being around for nearly 40-years there isn’t much in the way of photo documentation of this great place.

    To also add some perspective, I discovered the place in the 1970s when he sold Japanese toys right alongside the antique toys. He really loved them as well, and he was a great seller because he didn’t gouge kids with some increased “import” price; his prices were fair and affordable if you could save up your allowance.

    I always walked past and went inside when I had the time. Grover Van Dexter was always friendly and was the only man in his 80s I knew who could talk about vintage Microman figures and Transformers. But I was always afraid that I’d pass by and the place was closed without warning. When I passed by a few weeks ago I saw a ”Show Cases For Sale!” sign and knew something was up. Happily when I went inside he was still there—and not ill or worse—and he and his assistants explained the rent & health scenario.

    While I was there, I reminisced with Van about the Japanese toy she sold in the 1970s and lo & behold he actually still had 3 mint-in-box Japanese toys that he held onto from the 1970s and he sold all three to me directly. These are quite possibly the most special things I own now because I literally remember seeing these in his great display cases back when I was a 9-/10-year-old kid and the same person in the same store sold them to me as an adult.

    Oh, and FWIW he plays a lawyer in an episode of Car 54 that somewhat ironically has this plot. “Toody and Muldoon have to evict a sweet old lady from her apartment building to make room for the new approach to the George Washington bridge.” And he’s a lawyer working with the city to try and get her out!

  4. Oh, the title of that Car 54 episode is: “I Won’t Go”

  5. And Molly Picon (famous actress of Yiddish film and theater) played the stubborn lady who would not move.

  6. My heart sank last night as well (March 23rd) when I walked past the For Rent sign in this this lovely shop window. I make vintage charm bracelets & frequently stopped in here to chat with Mr. Dexter & purchase (at his great, reasonable prices) goofy charms & miniatures. What a lovely man. The NYC I love & cherish is vanishing...not sure what to do about this...

  7. uWell written moving piece. Well done Jeremiah....

  8. One of my favorite stores to just go in and browse. A little fire breathing Godzilla I got about 30 years ago still works;-) What a treat to see the Flicker set on this place after adding something to your Vanishing NYC Flicker pool.

  9. an interesting blog....good idea you had.

  10. I'm trying to locate where Van Dexter lived in Greenwich Village as he rented out a room to Steve McQueen!!

    Clue - it was around the corner from Whelan's Drug store (Sixth Avenue and W8Street)

    Hope someone can help..

    Don -

  11. I grew up on Grove st between Bedford and Bleecker. I used to frequent that shop as a kid and it was wonderous at that age. Second Childhood used to be the only place to get Godzilla and Mega Godzilla die cast figures with launching parts. It was also one of the few places outside of Japan that had "Battle of the Planets" figures. I'll miss it, my old neighborhood is disappearing beneath plastic, oppressive rent and a gaggle of people who move in and in a matter of days feel it's their neighborhood and those of us who were born and raised there don't count

  12. Dear Bill,
    Did you ever meet Steve McQueen around the Village?
    If so, do you know where he lived in the Village?
    Also, do you know where Van Dexter lived before he opened his Toy shop?

    Hope you or anyone can help me please...


  13. I LOVED that shop. Van was great. He ALWAYS had a story about a celebrity toy collector that I had just missed. The last time I was in Bruce Willis (a toy train collector)had just been by. I stopped by every time I was in New York. I remember that I was in NYC for weekend and was headed down Bleecker... about 50 ft away, in my periphery I could see that the windows were bare. When I got in front of the place, I was filled with a sense of dread... the same dread that I feel every time one of my favorite NYC haunts is gone. Alphaville, The Last Wound Up, Alice's Underground, Mood Indigo... The list goes on and on. I think of Van often. I try to catch a glimpse of him in the movie "The Eyes of Laura Mars." I will keep looking for him. He was a swell guy. I hope that he is well.


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