Digging for treasure behind Park Avenue

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In “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome,” Mel Gibson’s Max is stranded in a place called Bartertown. Despite a sign that reads, “Bartertown—Helping Build a Better Tomorrow,” the future doesn’t look bright in this post-apocalyptic trading post. It certainly isn’t bright for the prisoners shoveling filth in the town’s “Underworld” or for those fighting to the death in a caged arena called “Thunderdome.” In this “sleaze pit,” grizzled survivors of nuclear war trade the precious junk they have scavenged in a resource-scarce future.

Another Bartertown—far safer, but also brimming with the stuff of recent human history—awaits adventurers on Rochester’s Park Avenue.

Michael Balch

Michael Balch, the owner of Bartertown Collectibles—at 151 Park Ave. (actually up a driveway behind Park)—named the store after the town in “Beyond Thunderdome.”A fan of the Mad Max films, he jokes, “I am Master Blaster!” (Master and Blaster being the two-person team, the brains and brawn, who rule Bartertown’s Underworld). Like in the movie, visitors can barter at the Park Avenue location.

“People bring stuff in,” Balch says, “trade, work deals on whatever they’re purchasing.”

Bartertown specializes in toys, comics, concert T-shirts, records, and other pop-culture collectibles—especially 1980s-vintage ones. This focus stems from Balch’s own interests as a kid growing up in Webster. 

Exploring the space, you’ll hike through a narrow canyon lined by Transformers and action figures, approach a shrine to “Star Wars,” gaze up at a glittering curtain of punk and metal concert T-shirts, spy several Millennium Falcons—one promising “Electronic lights and authentic movie sounds!”—enter a corner haunted by horror-movie monsters, navigate a maze of comic books, pass a mountain of black leather jackets and hills of 8-track tapes, and finally face a wall of lunch boxes—The Smurfs, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Knight Rider among them. 

Customers taking this journey may struggle to find certain toys traditionally popular with girls. When asked about the lack of Barbies and My Little Ponies, Balch answers, “I have My Little Ponies, and I have Care Bears. But they’re in my garage because I haven’t got room for them.” So, it’s a good idea to ask if you don’t see your long-lost toys on display. They may be offsite or hiding in plain sight. A bin full of “Ghostbusters” toys is hard to notice on the floor, and a stand with Mad Magazine editions may elude people distracted by the 2-foot-tall Han Solo standing in front of it.

Along with vintage items, Balch stocks new toys like Funko Pops and Marvel, DC, and Star Wars action figures (including female heroes like Wonder Woman and Rey). He admires innovations in some of the new toys—“the sculpting on the figures, the articulation, you know they just look so much better than what we had when we were kids. … The vintage Star Wars figures and stuff like that … they’re great and they’re classic and we love them all, but … seeing some of the new stuff is really cool.”

Old and new objects—from different makers, owners, and storylines—blend in strange and amusing ways at Bartertown. G.I. Joes and Avengers, Terminators and droids, Ninja Turtles and Glamour Gals can meet, share stories, and do as they please after Balch heads home for the night.

When asked about his system for arranging things, Balch laughs and says, “There is no system. The system is that there is no system.” 

But he admits it is somewhat organized.

“The stuff that’s more organized is the stuff that’s been here the longest,” Balch says. “And then everything else just kind of gets stacked up around it for right now.” 

Limited space is an issue, and Balch is considering relocating so that he can make his inventory easier to navigate:

“There’s just so many things that are just buried here, people come in and they can’t find. I want to be able to display things nicer,” he says.

This would be a second move for Bartertown, which opened at a smaller space on Monroe Avenue in 2013. Though Balch gets help from friends, his Bartertown is—unlike Master Blaster’s—a one-person operation, which makes it difficult to keep things in order. 

But searching is part of the fun at Bartertown, and Balch encourages customers to enjoy the process. Fans of “The Goonies” will appreciate his treasure-hunt metaphor for the store: “It’s great for some people who love to come in and dig through stuff and they find treasures all the time. Other people come in, they’re like, ‘Oh my god, I’ve got to get out of this place.’” 

He advises patience: “Sometimes it might take a while, but it’s worth the digging. That’s what I tell everybody.” 

The toys we treasure—whether for monetary, aesthetic, or sentimental reasons—change over time. Though 1980s toys are certainly experiencing a renaissance.

“It’s up and down all the time. Right now, Masters of the Universe, He-Man stuff has become really popular again,” Balch says. “It’s all pop culture, you know, it all depends.” 

The Netflix show “The Toys That Made Us”—which includes episodes on He-Man, Star Wars, and Legos, among others—has heightened people’s interest. 

“There’s a huge community online now, on Facebook, doing the live sales,” Balch says.

The community includes Balch himself, who sells through the store’s Facebook page and eBay.

“The Toys That Made Us” reflects a broader attraction to 1980s pop culture (and fantasy) that is visible, for example, in the reappearance of Star Wars, Mad Max and Ghostbusters and in original series like Netflix’s “Stranger Things.” Pixar Animation Studios’ Toy Story films, meanwhile, have shaped our nostalgia for toys by personifying them and poignantly depicting their abandonment as kids grow up. These and other Pixar movies have underlined how the objects we play with become physical junk, stacked into neat piles by WALL-E the robot, or mental junk that lies in heaps in an adolescent’s mind in “Inside Out.” Whether tossed out by parents eager to de-clutter or just forgotten, toys are in an existential fix. Bartertown Collectibles offers them sanctuary.

It also offers humans the chance to dust off their memories and relate to old toys in new ways. In “Beyond Thunderdome,” objects of play acquire a weighty significance. Max is rescued at one point by a group of kids who have survived and even thrived on their own. While ably supplying and defending themselves, they feed their imaginations with a treasured toy—a View-Master. The reel of images in the viewer—junk of the recent past—fills them with noble ideas and promises a better tomorrow.  

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