Lifestyle

Tiny Troops Come Marching

A U.S. Army Ranger captain from 1944 keeps watch over a full line of Elite Brigade action figures standing at varied levels of attention on a shelf at Cotswold Collectables. - Cynthia Woolbright
A U.S. Army Ranger captain from 1944 keeps watch over a full line of Elite Brigade action figures standing at varied levels of attention on a shelf at Cotswold Collectables.
— image credit: Cynthia Woolbright

All day, Tina Windeler is surrounded by a few good men. Quite a few good men.

The only problem is they’re all 12 inches tall and made of plastic. Some are unable to flex their joints and some require the pull of a string before they can talk. OK, maybe that part is not so bad.

Windeler is co-owner of Cotswold Collectibles, a Freeland-based toy company that is one of a handful of mail-order distributors of 12-inch, G.I. Joe-style action figures in the world.

Windeler used to be a children’s social worker. The business’ co-owner, Dick Whittick, was a stock broker. Neither ever thought they’d be telling people they’re in the G.I. Joe business.

“I’m still working with children, it’s just that they’ve all grown up,” Windeler said.

Though it’s not apparent driving by the Main Street building housing Cotswold Collectibles, there’s an inside waiting for action. For anyone who has seen one of the “Toy Story” movies, the little soldiers’ footsteps can almost be heard marching in cadence.

Whittick jokes that morning clean-up can sometimes be a big job.

“We come in and there’s been big battles and the place is in shambles,” he said.

There’s quite a bit of humor in this aspect of the toy business. At Cotswold Collectibles, the question “Can you give me a hand?” has a literal meaning, as employees customize the figures with different heads, period military costumes, weaponry and other accessories.

This week, operations manager Grant Perkins was busy at his desk, unfazed by the fact that he was surrounded by piles of naked plastic figures. Perkins, an Everett resident who has been with the company for 11 years, said his friends still don’t understand his profession.

“Most people can’t quite understand it,” he said.

Hasbro launched the “real American hero” G.I. Joe action figure in 1964. In its first two decades on the market, G.I. Joe and the other figures in the growing Hasbro collection were a favorite among children. But as the toy line nears it 40th anniversary — which will be celebrated with a special edition G.I. Joe — it is adult collectors who may have played with one of the original Joes who are spending big money on the toys now.

The action figure’s success, said Whittick and Windeler, was its “playability.” That has not changed. But now, Cotswold customers who are mainly men who grew up in the 1960s, are using the adult disposable income to either buy again or buy for the first time the toy that fascinated so many young boys.

“It’s Barbie for guys,” Whittick said.

But don’t make the mistake of calling G.I. Joe a doll. He is a piece of action figure history.

“Kids nowadays don’t know the history and the significance of G.I. Joe and how it came to be,” said Cotswold employee Bambi Meehan. “The collectors are old enough to have been a kid when they first came out and now they’re reliving their childhood.”

Cotswold customers are so thankful that they can buy G.I. Joe figures from the business that they have been known to send childhood photos of themselves unwrapping their first G.I. Joes on Christmas mornings past.

“There’s such a huge nostalgic feeling they bring,” Whittick said. “It really was a worthy toy. You could go in the back yard and play in the dirt with it, throw it off the roof and have it parachute down — it let you use your imagination.”

Some collectors view the figures as future investments, while others are “kit bashers” who combine sets, accessorize out of time period and create elaborate dioramas.

It has become a profitable craze to follow. Cotswold Collectibles grew out of a Seattle-based antique business Whittick and Windeler started in the early 1980s to imported and sell British furniture and collectibles. Whittick, who was born in Britain and was a sergeant in the U.S. Marines, began filling the drawers of these antiques with British military artifacts and uniforms before shipping them back to the U.S.

The trade soon grew to include collectibles, toy planes, tiny lead toy soldiers, and British Royalty commemoratives. Next thing they knew, customers who knew they made trips to England wanted Action Man — the British shelf name for the American G.I. Joe. Soon after, they went full time into collecting and selling of original G.I. Joes and other military action figures.

By 1987, Windeler said Cotswold was buying and selling only what it could find at national conventions and other places where collectors sold their toys. That supply was not large enough to feed a high customer demand.

“We had more customers than goods,” she said.

That’s when they began to create their own action figures. They began with replacement parts — hands and feet to be exact — to replace those chewed by children, the family dog, or that had seen one too many days in the dirt. At the time, said Windeler, there were plenty of uniforms to go around, just not enough good, complete figure bodies.

Later, Cotswold expanded the G.I. Joe line’s range of three different heads to 20, minus the trademark scar of the original figure. G.I. Joe was originally sold as an individual figure. Hasbro then sold “kits” to outfit Joe with more ammo, weapons, equipment, and even changes in rank.

By 1989 Cotswold had a warehouse find of G.I. Joe parts — belts, helmets, guns and lots of other hard-to-find action figure accessories, and created their first sales list later that year. The company has sold its own line of figures, called the Elite Brigade, since 1991, the year Hasbro’s patent on the figure design expired.

Whittick and Windeler brought their business to Whidbey Island in 1992. They ran it out of their home, and even drained the indoor swimming pool to use it to store all of their warehouse stock.

Now, in their Freeland building, Cotswold’s staff of about 10 pick, collect, pack, catalog and ship about 1,200 orders per month. These can range from the single items of action figures to boots, or big dollar orders of multiple action figures, accessories, and even the elusive “ongoing order.”

“We have some collectors that want a certain era or type of figure and we just ship one to them anytime it comes in,” Windeler said.

Bambi Meehan, who has been a Cotswold employee for six years, works in “just about every department” even though she’s actually the company’s financial manager. While she enjoys helping her clients, she admits doesn’t have the adolescent bond they do to the figures. While those customers remember G.I. Joe from playing with him in the dirt, Meehan has more of an admiration due to recent war movies such as “Saving Private Ryan” and “Pearl Harbor.”

“I find myself becoming a history buff because of this job,” she said.

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