MONROE, Ohio - Stephanie Manter is on a mission. A hunt, if you will. She's searching for toys - and a specific kind. Very rare and valuable. She wants some "Guardians of the Galaxy." Maybe some "Walking Dead." But above all she really wants to find the Dean character from the TV show "Supernatural."
"You just can't seem to get it anywhere," the 43-year-old says as she carries a couple of bags and looks through yet another collection.
Her husband, Mike, just gives her room, smiling and shaking his head. "We've looked at a lot of these today," he says.
The Manters have traveled three hours from their home in Fort Wayne, Indiana, to shop the stores and booths at Traders World Market in Monroe. With more than 800 inside vendor spaces, there's a lot to look at - and Stephanie is trying to find as many Pops as she can.
That would be Funko Pop! figures, known as "Pops" to collectors. You've probably seen them stacked in boxes, one on top of another, at stores like Wal-Mart, Barnes & Noble, Walgreens or Target. With more than 1,000 licenses, the Washington-based Funko company is churning out these troll-sized, big-headed, black-eyed figurines from movies like “Star Wars,” “Frozen” and “Deadpool,” to TV shows like “My Little Pony” and “Batman.” In most cases, they stand about 3.75 inches high, have a neutral pose and can represent everything from your favorite pop culture phenomenon to your favorite sports team.
Henry Cardenas, who sells collectibles at Traders World, started selling Pops about eight months ago, after primarily selling sports toys.
"I saw a lot of people walking around with them, and I thought there were a lot of different genres, so I started selling, too," he says. "People are really going crazy for the Guns N' Roses ones now."
Stephanie looks up and agrees. "Oh yeah," she says. She points at a box. "Can I see these ‘Star Wars’ Pops?" she asks.
Behind her, husband Mike can only laugh. "This is our wedding anniversary this weekend," he says. "It's been three great years."
‘Pop culture nerds’
Funko was founded in 1998 by toy enthusiast Mike Becker, who was interested in creating bobbleheads of old school characters like Count Chocula and Popeye. Unmotivated to expand the business, he sold it in 2005 to Brian Mariotti, a nightclub owner who also boasted serious collections of things like Pez dispensers. Mariotti then stepped up the Funko game by securing licenses with brands like Marvel comics, “Star Wars” and Disney.
Which led to 2010, when everything changed. That year, at the Comic-Con International Convention, Funko licensed DC comics - and more importantly, debuted the Pop figures.
"When we came up with that art style, we started to see the customer base change," says Mark Robben, director of marketing for Funko. "At first we were selling to decidedly hard-core collectors, but these figures made an appeal to a broader group of people."
They secured more licenses and started selling Pop figures in retail chain stores.
Now, Funko has more than 200 contracts to create more than 10,000 characters, Robben says. "That's what we do," he says. "In terms of determining what we want to sell, we have a lot of people with a lot of expertise in pop culture - pop culture nerds, like me - on the lookout for the next piece of content."
There are only a few brands - whether due to existing contracts or a hesitancy to license - that Funko has not partnered with, Robben says. Those include Nintendo and James Bond.
But aside from those holdouts, the company's idea of licensing as many brands as possible is working. They listen to customers, retailers and creators when searching for ideas of the next figures to produce.
While Robben declined to provide details of the private company's financial outlook, Mariotti previously told The Seattle Times that Funko expected to make $425 million in sales in 2016, up from $274 million in 2015, $107 million in 2014 and $40 million in 2013.
"We've had impressive growth, and we feel we're in a good space for the future," Robben says.
But people still wonder: Why do collectors find these items so irresistible?
Once you pop ...
Joseph Sparks is a 29-year-old father of four from Franklin. He started collecting about a year ago, he says, because he kept seeing the figures at local comic shops. He finally broke down and bought one. Now he has about 40, with favorites like Scooby-Doo and Bruce Lee.
"They're kinda like Lay's potato chips, or Pringles. Once you pop you can't stop!" he says. "A lot of the appeal has to do with Funko having so many licenses. You have things from ‘Power Rangers’ to ‘The Walking Dead’ to even sports teams."
But there's more to collecting than just acquiring pieces, he says.
"Much of the appeal for me and a lot of fellow collectors (is) the community," he says. "We have local groups and Facebook chats dedicated to helping each other find the desired piece. I have met many friends I would have never had through Funko Pops!, and it’s all walks of life. You have your jocks, your geeks, everything all cooperating together. Its like ‘The Breakfast Club.’ “
And collectors have their own language, too. There are "chase" figures, which are harder to find than regular ones. And many collectors would much rather find their figures "in the wild," or in a retail store, flea market or shop, rather than relying on eBay or a message board to buy or trade there. Collectors also need to watch out for employees at those retail stores - "scalpers" who like to buy valuable figures before the public has a chance to.
"Employees tend to want one for themselves," says Steven Cozad, a 37-year-old collector from Mount Healthy. "The people most collectors don't like are the dreaded 'flippers' who come to a store as soon as the doors are unlocked on the day that a Pop is being released, buy every single one in stock, then resell them at an instantly inflated price. When a coveted piece is being released, you've gotta beat the flippers to the store."
The next Beanie Babies? No way
Most use the Pop Price Guide to determine value for their collections. And Cozad joked that the Pops craze compares to Beanie Babies, the plush toys that collectors clamored for in the mid-90s. But many collectors balk at that comparison, even if it was in jest, saying their collectibles are worth much more and will last longer than Beanie Babies, which were a bust by the end of the 90s.
Matthew Lyttle discovered Pops in 2014 when he went shopping for Christmas presents for his family. He ended up finding something for everyone and decided he wanted to get into the Pops business, so the 27-year-old from Hamilton set up a booth at Traders World. He's pursuing a law enforcement career while selling Pops on the side.
Now he buys directly from Funko and sells from an online store called Popular Collectables.
"People love (Pops) so much because everybody has something to relate to. Beanie Babies were just a bunch of stuffed animals," he says. "If you didn't like stuffed animals, then it had no effect on you. Hatchimals were for kids that just wanted something cute. I had no care for (them). Pops are different in so many ways. They have hundreds of licenses backing them up. You could almost ask any single person what are the top five things they like and there will be a Pop for one of them."
One of his Storm Trooper exclusive figures sold for $2,000.
"It can be addicting to the collectors," he says. "People do spend a lot of money on the rare ones."
Expressing your fandom
Robben says Funko has several new releases coming out in the next few months that should get everyone excited: A "Stranger Things" set based on the blockbuster Netflix show. A "Westworld" set. A "Twin Peaks" set. A new Jimi Hendrix figure. A Joey Ramone and a Pee Wee Herman. Look for a “Reservoir Dogs” set and a "Parks and Recreation" set. And of course, more “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Star Wars” figures to coincide with the respective sequels.
The company is expected to expand into new areas, as well.
"We're going to do a lot more with apparel," Robben says. "We're going to do more with home goods you can use in your house - salt and pepper shakers, coffee mugs. We're still figuring out how to use our content in interesting ways."
Erica Wetzel-Fields doesn't have much room left in her house. The 46-year-old factory worker lives with her husband in a two-bedroom duplex just north of Dayton and has about 1,650 Pops at last count, she says.
"I used to collect Star Wars action figures when I was a kid in the 80s and then more so in the late 90s, so I guess collecting something is just in my blood," she says. "These Pops are just so cute, and they have so many different ones. I have a wide interest."
It's the collecting that brings us closer to the things we love, Robben says.
"You can express your fandom," he says. "People wear jerseys, depending on which team they like. And people can put a little collectible on their desk. People want to have a connection to the things they love. And then you can bond with other people who love the same thing.
"Long story short, the world has changed the way we view pop culture," he says. "It's made collectors out of us all."