Peter discusses the history of the shop, celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2020, in weekly articles
In 2009, we left the joint use with The Tin Soldier and moved, by ourselves, upmarket to the beautiful Queen Victoria Building, a late 19th. Century building, completely restored to its original condition. This is the largest boutique shopping centre and covers a complete block in the retail centre of the Sydney central business district. Our fit-out was completely done by a top carpenter/joiner and has stood the test of time, as no modifications have ever been requested, by the building owner, in the 11 years we have been there.
Immediately we opened, Sven De Braekeleir joined me as Store Manager, subsequently a director and shareholder. We have continued, to this day, as a team. While I am in isolation with the Corona Virus, the shop has temporarily closed and Sven has taken the stock to his home and is operating the business online. He and Leigh are in the process of completely updating our website and enhancing our social media presence and, in fact, when the shop opens again, I am worried that I might not have a job.
From the day the doors opened on our new shop, sales increased markedly. We were receiving overseas and interstate collectors as well as numerous “walk-in” customers. This enabled us to expand other maker’s ranges in stock and at the same time, regretfully, drop others, including Britains due to their inability to deliver. First Legion burst on the scene with a large bang with us, but with their continuing price increases, coupled with the substantial drop in the value of the Australian dollar (from 95 cents to 60 cents to the U.S. dollar), the product price-value relationship ceased to exist – a great pity.
Collectors Showcase, who I first saw in Chicago, was doing very well for us, with quality and price, particularly Napoleonic and ACW. Their first Roman release was a huge hit ( we have a large number of the legal profession, who studied Rome and Roman law, as customers), but, sadly, the quality of their second release was poor, and most customers deserted the range.
I must mention the mercurial Richard Conte. I was at Chicago the day that he released his range in a basement showroom. It was exciting and we joined the other dealers in purchasing a wide part of his products. We continued to do well with sales until all that was left were images of numerous products which were never produced.
Then, again, in Chicago, Rick Wang presented his “shock and awe” releases of Figarti. Some of his products were gigantic. We sold a heap of his German rail gun and, to a lesser extent, his E-boat. We were doing very well with his product and had become his Oceania distributor, when the paint peeling appeared, which was the beginning of the end of another manufacturer with great potential.
We were very fortunate to open the new shop at the same time as King and Country released their first series of the Australian Light Horse charge. This has been the most enduring and best-selling range that we have ever had. WW2 continues to be a major seller and Andy Neilson has the knack of, just when you are questioning whether he has run out of ideas, coming up with a new best seller.
We have always looked forward to Andy’s annual visit, together with the dinner for Andy and our customers. The very first one was held in the officer’s mess at Victoria Barracks, the original early 19th century block of buildings that are, even today, an operating military barracks, and the birthplace of the Australian Lighthorse . The officers mess is full of tradition with original cedar tables, old paintings and artifacts. It smells of old leather and polish. A toast to the Queen and the formal passing round the table of port are part of the enjoyment. The only thing missing was a cigar for everyone, but this was made up for with Andy’s address and the lively Q and A that followed. We were able to have a few dinners at Victoria Barracks until security was tightened on all defence facilities and we had to look elsewhere. We had one dinner at Randwick Barracks, a more modern building and then and the following years in a special meeting room near the shop. Each one of these dinners has a special camaraderie and the number attending is continuingly increasing.
King and Country takes back from these dinners a considerable amount of customer feedback, as well as the dealer’s input and keeps Andy, in his worldwide travels, with a finger on the pulse. This reflects in his continuing ability to introduce new and exciting products.
We have invited other manufacturers to visit, so that we can also introduce them to our customers. John Jenkins was going to come one year but had to cancel because of a health scare. Others, mainly because of the long airline flight, have not responded.
Today’s post will cover the period 2003-2007
We are now firmly in the era of King and Country first, Britains a fair way behind and then a large gap to the rest of the manufacturers.
WW2 was the main seller, with the tanks and AFV’s being the most sought after. The introduction of the Berlin 38 series also had an immediate volume impact and notwithstanding the somewhat contentious nature of Nazism, continues, to this day, to be a customer favourite. All the ranges we were able to stock in rather limited space, were enthusiastically received. This has always been assisted by the regular receipt from King and Country of coloured leaflets and literature specifically relating to the products.
Britains no long had a distributor in Australia and our country was being serviced from England, although now owned in the United States. This was providing us with uneven supply and was not helping their sales in Australia. We still had, from our earlier days, a significant number of customers whose collections were based on Britains 54mm. ranges. This could not easily be integrated with the 60mm. action figures that King and Country produces. This meant that Britains, with poor supply to Australia lost a large number of customers. It should be noted that Australia with a population, today, of only 25 million people, are, I believe, the largest per-capita collectors of toy soldiers, or military miniatures in the world.
We have always tried to introduce new manufacturers who met our quality and delivery requirements. At this time, we were exploring the painted miniatures from St. Petersburg in Russia. We commenced with Grenada Studios and before long they became a feature of our ranges. Gary Wells, who owned the Tin Soldier, and myself went on our European odyssey. Firstly to the London Toy and Hobby Show, where Britains were exhibiting, then on to the huge Nuremburg toy and Hobby exhibit – the showground overlooks the old parade ground that the Nazis used for their great rallies and standing there you could almost hear the music. Even then, it made the hair stand up on your neck. Our friend, Andy Neilson, was also exhibiting King and Country.
From there we went on to St. Petersburg. Alex, my contact there, let us have a studio apartment in outer St. Petersburg right near St. Peter’s magnificent summer palace. I have purposely only used first names of people we met as most of their surnames are unspellable.
We visited Grenada, Sineus, Studio Niena, Rogachov, all hidden away in nondescript high rise apartments and then Russian Vityav (Arsenyev) who had a showroom on Nevsky Prospect, the main street. Anastasia, the manager, who spoke perfect English looked after us and we placed a number of orders there – they were recognised as the finest studio in Russia. Anastasia was very important for us, as not only being the manager of the studio, also became the manager for Tatiana, who was then the master painter for Arsenyev and went out on her own (did I hear conflict of interest ?). Through Anastasia, initially for 3 years (until she decided to import fashion from Milan, Italy) then direct with Tatiana we have been buying her beautifully painted models for around 15 years, and, in dollar terms, they are today, our third highest seller.
Also, during this period, East of India came on the scene and particularly with their Samurai series, became popular. Unfortunately, in a relatively short period, Ken Jervoise-Clark tired of toy soldiers and went back to his original occupation of Merchant Banker. He did, however, assist me in getting manufactured, our first and only toy soldier range, The Warrior Irish. I believed that the market was ready for a race of people, rather than particular battles. We sold out of the Irish in The American Civil War, French and Spanish Napoleonic. Today, our website still has the other sets available in small numbers now. We only produced 12 of a projected 50 sets we had researched. Wrong decision!
This was a major period in the history of Peter Nathan Toy Soldiers.
In 1999, we moved into the Sydney CBD to join the Tin Soldier, in the Mid City centre, only for one year the last period of their lease as the centre was going to be completely renovated.
The shop was directly opposite Hobbyco, the largest hobby shop in Sydney. They gave me a great welcome as, unbeknown to me, they were stocking Imperial of New Zealand, with David Cowie of Imperial having thought we were well out of Sydney and this would not be competing. Hobbyco filled their front window with stock of Imperial, all at 20% off. Big surprise, we continued to sell Imperial at regular price and they sold very little. A week later they took their stock out of the window. This has had a lasting effect as Mike Wall, the owner, and myself have become good friends. Even during the period when Hobbyco became Britains Australian distributor, for a couple of years, their staff, even today, have directed people asking about toy soldiers, to our shop.
In 2000, we moved to a new location, in a large basement shop in York Street, about a block behind the main retail district. We were there until we moved to the Queen Victoria Building, as our stand alone business, in late 2009. Commencing then, our business took a large leap forward in sales, as we were then attracting the large pool of city workers, as well as a number of Tin Soldier war gaming customers, also begin buying toy soldiers.
In January, 2000 in conjunction with Bob Hume a Brisbane barrister, collector and maker of toy soldiers, we opened a Peter Nathan Toy Soldiers shop in Brisbane. This was located inside Napoleon’s Bookshop, then owned by Tony White, now deceased. After six months, I realised that the market was not big enough, then, in Brisbane, and I pulled out, amicably with Bob who continued the shop by himself.
Late 2001 became a pivotal moment in the business’s history. I visited the Chicago Toy Soldier Show and was completely blown away. Walking from room to room with my jaw dropping. Then I walked into a room with fantastic dioramas and a gentleman sitting there, who I introduced myself to. Yes, Andy Neilson and King and Country. Over an hour later I left the room, having placed, for me, a large order as well as becoming a registered dealer for King and Country. In a matter of months, King and Country became my major seller and next year, which will be the 20th year of dealership, it still is Number 1. Andy is a most charismatic man, with a passion for his wee toys and I have visited him and Gordon many times in Hong Kong. This year, if the Corona virus allows, he will visit us for his 12th annual dinner. Over the years this visit has included Helen Mok and Gordon Neilson, both wonderful people.
In 2002 our sales increased because of the arrival of King and Country and our customer base also broadened. The market for old Britains sets was buoyant and we were buying collections, as often as possible, including 3 separate estates over 3 months of lead Farm and Zoo, including pre-war, nearly half of which were in their original boxes. I had brought back from Chicago a number of boxed Britains sets from the 1950’s. New Britains were still being imported direct, as there was no longer a distributor, and had a good following. Frontline sales were declining as King and Country took over the leading role.
I hope you are enjoying this story and I will continue next Friday.
Today, after last week I covered the early period where toy soldiers were a part of a larger hobby and collectable shop, I started Peter Nathan Toy Soldiers as a dedicated toy soldier shop. The first period:
This time span has been selected as it was when I was located at the Antique Centre in Woollahra, a suburb of Sydney.
The shop was opened with mainly new and old (1930-1960’s) Britains. I had been fortunate to buy, a few days before opening, a large collection of old Britains boxed sets of soldiers, trucks and artillery pieces. This was augmented with all the Australian makers and their ranges.
It was not long before I added Imperial Productions of New Zealand with their distinctive styling and high gloss painting. The Town and Around series, with their Victorian period children and adults playing, were almost like pieces of fine china and became favourites with my male customers at Christmas as gifts to their wives. The overall range of Imperial was extensive, covering Napoleonic, Crimean, Zulu, Sudan and other periods. David Cowie in New Zealand is still producing in small numbers specifically for collectors.
My first entry into the world of other than gloss, stylised figures, was with Frontline Figures out of Hong Kong, with their semi-gloss part-stylised and part- action figures. Gerard Prime and his sculpting partner, Howard Swales (now deceased) were of great assistance to me and over the years I visited them on occasions in Hong Kong. They, with Britain’s, became a staple part of my range.
Frontline Figures continued to increase in the share of my business, particularly as Britains, where the family had sold the business, continued to pass through different ownerships, first Britains Petite, then an American mining company and so on. Obviously, they lost some drive as they were no longer a separate company.
To broaden the ranges available, I introduced plastic toy soldiers. This was part an attempt to introduce more younger people either as collectors, or to use the figures in their school projects as a cheaper alternative. For the collectors there were Britains Deetail, old and new, Cherilea, Charbens and Lone Star were among the old and Classic Toy Soldiers, Barzso, Call to Arms, Timpo/Toyway, Armies in Plastic were among the new. This remained a small part of my business.
At the latter end of this period, I came across HM of Great Britain. Peter Kingsland, in my opinion, was one of the best sculptors of figures. His North-west Frontier sets with the mountain artillery batteries on donkeys and action sets were exceptional and my customers thought so as well. He sadly, did not last long in business as he ran out of money due to spending it all on sculpts and none on marketing. Even today, my older customers snap up these sets if they come back on the secondary market.
Business was slow in expanding in the late 1990’s and I was beginning to concern as to whether I could keep going. The next bit may seem incredulous, but I am sure a number of entrepreneurs have experienced it. My subconscious works well at night when I am asleep, and I had been trying to work out what to do, when one morning I woke up with the words “Tin Soldier”. This shop in the city of Sydney was the largest war games retailer (28mm. and smaller), most likely in Australia. I finally got in touch with the owner, Gary Wells, met him that day and one hour later on a handshake, agreed to open the shop, as a separate entity, in a relatively small space within his shop.
This leads to the continuation in next weeks musings
Because of my age, I am sitting here in splendid isolation and thought that, as it is the Company’s 25th. Anniversary of business, I would tell you something of the Company’s early history.
Back in 1986, two of us formed a partnership to open a shop “Collectors Paradise”, firstly in Cremorne, moving later to Chatswood. We specialised in Matchbox model cars, but shortly after we opened, because of my abiding interest in old English toys- the Meccano company (which included Dinky, Hornby as well as Meccano and went bankrupt in 1970), the original Mettoy (Corgi) and Britains, then still owned by the family. Britains had a distributor in Sydney and we purchased virtually the whole range stock in the shop, augmented by purchases of collections of old Britains, dating back to the 1940’s and 50’s.
This became a significant amount of our business and every Thursday night we had a gathering in our shop of collectors.. This included Derek Brown (D.B.Figurines) and we commenced selling his sets in the shop. Then followed Brigadier figures, then based in Wagga Wagga, Pearce Miniatures from Melbourne, C.P. Miniatures (Chris Johnson who had recently arrived in Sydney. Sadly, Derek Brown, Chris Johnson and Ricky Pearce are now deceased.
The group formed the Sydney Toy Soldier Collectors Club, which was going swimmingly until they decided to elect a committee, which blew out to about 8 office bearers, including a “Bandmaster” (he decided what music was to be played at functions). The straw that broke the camel’s back was when they appointed a purchasing manager for group buying. Of course being a shop where our customers were 80% of the membership and introduced by us. I withdrew my support and the club imploded. Even though it has been tried, over the years, to form a collector group, it has never happened again.
The business was trading nicely until late 1994, when Matchbox was taken over by Mattel, then the largest toy maker in the world. Immediately they started flooding the market with Model A and T commercial vehicles with different companies logos( Matchbox had always restricted this to 3 a year) , Of course, the collector market collapsed and our business where we selling 360 of each new model, dropped, virtually overnight,to 36. I spent the next 2 months travelling around N.S.W. selling to toy shops and wholesalers, cars in mixed lots This was successful, as they had never handled the product due to Matchbox only selling to designated “Collectable Centres” (ours covered the north side of Sydney.
In mid-1995, Peter Nathan Toy Soldiers was formed and I opened for business at the Woollahra Antique Centre.