Toy museum plays on Mexican industry's past

MEXICO CITY -- If Santa's workshop had a storage attic, Roberto Shimizu's Antique Toy Museum would be it.

MEXICO CITY -- If Santa's workshop had a storage attic, Roberto Shimizu's Antique Toy Museum would be it.

Puppets with painted faces slouch on a shelf. Handcrafted toy trucks stand parked in rows inside an old glass display case. Porcelain dolls, board games, figurines of comic superheroes and lucha libre wrestlers, train sets, kaleidoscopes and robots -- and many, many other toys -- make up the treasure trove.

Shimizu started squirreling away his favorite toys as a young boy, the son of Japanese immigrants to Mexico. He didn't stop until sometime in the 1970s, when he decided toys just weren't made like they used to be. Five years ago, he opened up the collection of more than 40,000 classic toys -- a selection of the roughly 1 million toys he said make up his personal collection -- and dubbed it the Antique Toy Museum of Mexico.

The collection is not based on one or even a series of typical collectors' obsessions. There is no theme, no focused collection of this or that series of superhero toy. Shimizu describes the collection as "spontaneous and natural." He said he never considered selling on eBay.

It has certain defining characteristics, however. Most of the pieces date to the years between the 1920s and 1970s. Many are Mexican-made, a testament to the one-time strength of the country's toy industry, which for many decades of the 20th century enjoyed government protection and support and today faces increased competition with China-made toys.

About 80 percent of Mexico's toy imports come from China today, according to Mexico's The Economist newspaper. China has garnered the lion's share of toy imports to Mexico despite tariffs totaling nearly 90 percent of the value of the merchandise; those tariffs fell to between 20 percent and 35 percent earlier this month.

Among the five large rooms of the three-floor museum is a sprawling exhibition of classic Barbie dolls in their pink boxes -- "You can tell it’s Mattel... It's swell!" -- and an exhibition of G.I. Joe action figures.

But much of what's on display is a celebration of Mexican artisanal toy production in wood and aluminum. Signs around the museum say: "Value the creativity of your country" and "Take care of your toys."

"I have so much fun remembering my era," said 90-year-old Ana Carlota Anaya while studying a showcase of Cantinflas, one of Mexico’s most famous comic actors. "Everything today is so modern, so changed. Before everything was made of wood. Imagine what I have seen in my life!"

The shelving and display cases have their own story, too, being vintage; many of them served an earlier life at the stationary and toy store Shimizu's parents owned when he was growing up. The toy museum is housed in a building around the corner from that store in a now-rundown area known as the "Doctors" neighborhood, notorious for crime.

Shimizu said he decided to organize his collection and create the museum as a matter of legacy.

"I wanted my three sons to fall in love with the collection," he said. "I didn't want it to become a yard sale. I think I succeeded."

Photo: Lauren Villagran

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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