How a serious toy collector realized life was about more than little plastic figurines
On a rainy, mid-winter afternoon, Shane Turgeon (Radio and Television ’02) and shop manager Cori Bagnall stay warm and dry inside, picking through a pile of tiny weapons. It’s a typical day here at Shades of Grey, a tattoo/vintage toy and collectibles shop on Whyte Avenue, Edmonton’s busy south-side shopping and entertainment district.
A needle buzzes as it bites into a back, mid-’90s Alice in Chains plays on the sound system. In the middle of the room, on a spotless brown laminate floor, several glass tower cases stand full of toys: Transformers, Masters of the Universe, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, GI Joe, even a Smurf village and a small herd of My Little Ponies.
The weapons, little plastic blasters for little plastic fists, arrived with a collection of dozens of Star Wars figurines that Turgeon bought to resell, some for a few bucks each, others for a few hundred, depending on condition and rarity. Some of the guns are reproductions, which Turgeon, who labels himself a toy – not to mention tattoo – snob, cannot abide.
There’s a clear cup of water on top of a glass counter and two napkins, one marked sink, the other swim. Real deals float; sinkers get chucked. Or you differentiate by the sound they make when dropped – a ting or a thud. “The thud is the real one,” says the 37-year-old store owner. Then he taps a tattooed finger to his forehead.
“Twenty-five years of useless knowledge,” he adds with a grin.
Turgeon seems to enjoy self-deprecation. The truth is, that knowledge is the bedrock of his professional life.
Turgeon owns and operates three businesses; he’s an internationally renowned vintage toy expert; he’s a founder of two of the city’s collectible and comic shows; and, most recently, he’s the author of The Force in the Flesh Vol. 2, a book of Star Wars-inspired tattoos released this spring that points to a broadening of his business horizons.
All that knowledge, it might be said, is also responsible for his near ruin, followed by an unexpected awakening to the true value of old plastic stuff.
"It was ultra-secretive"
For a long time toys were a big part of Turgeon’s life. At 13 years old – already a burgeoning action figure collector – he moved with his family to the Edmonton area from rural Saskatchewan.
“It was kind of a culture shock,” he says. “I grew up, literally, at the end of a dirt road.”
The city’s comic book stores helped ease the transition and deepened his interest in collecting, particularly Star Wars and GI Joe figures, for display, not play (he was a teenager, he points out, and supposed to be interested in “basketball and girls”).
“As I got older and more mature, my taste started refining and I realized I had expensive tastes.”
Turgeon’s interests turned to prototypes. “Anybody can have the action figure. Anybody can have the action figure still in the package if you try hard enough. Only one person can have the sculpt to that action figure. Only one person can have the original painting for the package for that action figure.”
During a trip with Turgeon to Indianapolis in 2005 for a Star Wars Celebration fan convention, long-time friend Curtis Comeau (Radio and Television ’01) got a glimpse of Turgeon’s cred among collectors. They managed an invite to a floor’s worth of hotel rooms rented by a collector looking to sell rare items.
“It was ultra-secretive,” says Comeau, who uses the back room of Shades of Grey for his photography business. “We’re talking $10,000, $20,000 pieces. They lay these toys out on beds. It’s like an arms deal. This is the level this guy was at.”
No longer was this the Turgeon with whom Comeau competed 20 years ago for the title of biggest and best Star Wars figure collection. While Comeau moved on, his friend had become a rarity in his own right as an international collectibles expert.
In 2002, Turgeon launched tattoosandtoys.com, a site devoted to the intersection of pop culture iconography and body modification (connecting him to the Celebration conventions, where he’s now part of tattoo programming).
He followed that the next year with the first Edmonton Collectible Toy and Comic Show. In 2005, he added authorship to his CV by co-writing The Official Price Guide to Star Wars Memorabilia, then went solo in 2007 by self-publishing the first installment of The Force in the Flesh, which nearly sold out of a print run of 2,100 copies.
He became Canada’s first toy collectibles appraiser in 2010, the same year he opened his Whyte Ave. shop (and the same year he finished a decade-long career in the TV industry, which ended as assistant director of programming at Super Channel).
Comeau describes his friend as a “pioneer” in his field. In the true sense of the word, Turgeon kept a near-obsessive focus on making the life he wanted. As can happen for pioneers, that life got very hard.
High point at a dark time
While 2012 marked the launch of the Edmonton Expo, the result of a merger of the Edmonton Collectible Toy and Comic Show and the group behind the Calgary Expo (Turgeon’s now general manager and co-founder of the local show), this high point came during a dark period of Turgeon’s life.
Business debts had mounted, forcing him to turn to his collection for financial salvation, liquidating valuable pieces to pay bills. At the same time, his marriage of 12 years ended in divorce. Depression, which Turgeon openly says he’s struggled with in life, took hold.
“Life kind of kicked my ass for a while,” he recalls. “But you don’t learn to enjoy the simple things until you get your ass kicked.”
During this time, Turgeon began to clarify his priorities, evaluating how he’d spent his time (and money) as a collector, thinking he’d spend more of it with family and friends if given a do-over.
“I realized there really doesn’t come any true happiness in the acquisition of things.”
Though he still takes pride in having one of Canada’s most comprehensive collections of GI Joe stuff, and notes that his shop probably has the best selection of vintage toys in town, Turgeon doesn’t actively collect anymore. Still, he chose to stay in the business of enabling other collectors. He makes no apology for that.
“You can’t shy away from using your expertise,” he says. As long as it doesn’t become obsessive, he adds, “This can be an amazingly rewarding hobby.”
That reward might be most obvious at the conventions. In 2014, Turgeon filled a void in the local collectibles community by creating the Edmonton Collector Con, an event he hopes to hold three times a year, inviting people to buy, sell, and reminisce.
“For me, it’s nostalgia,” says Brandon Best, a vendor at last year’s events. “It brings back memories of childhood,” temporarily displacing the difficulties of adulthood. “We need a bit of an escape. It’s nice sometimes to reflect on those easier times.”
And the conventions build community, he adds. “It gives people a chance to meet like-minded people and make friends in an area where traditionally a lot of people are known as loners and not having a lot of friends.”
Sometimes, such events strengthen existing bonds, as they do for Andrew Reid (Network Engineering Technology ’04), a process analyst with NAIT’s registrar’s office. He brings his three children – ages three, six and 11 – to the Collector Cons. Each of them leaves with a toy or two, dad included. They’ll play with them together, and Reid might display his finds alongside selections from his horde of more than 5,000 action figures.
“I like to see a collection of things that I love – being able to just enjoy it, or rearrange it. It brings peace and calm to me.”
Turgeon considers the Collector Con, “a good hang-out day” where everyone’s welcome. He sees the Expo, despite being roughly 100-fold bigger in terms of attendance, much the same way.
“One of my favourite moments was from the first Edmonton Expo.” Turgeon noticed a disabled woman in a wheelchair. “She was incredibly tiny, all crunched up, wearing a superhero outfit and cape because she could come there like everybody else and be her own superhero for the day. Everyone was stoked to see her doing it. That just puts a smile on my face. That’s what we do it for.”
So far, the Edmonton Collector Con hasn’t turned a significant profit. Turgeon’s other businesses aren’t making him rich, either, he notes. Still, he’s sustaining all of it. He competes with about half a dozen nearby tattoo shops, and vintage toys is a niche market.
“I would never open just a toy and comic book shop in a million years,” says Turgeon.
“Shane’s got a way of making difficult businesses succeed,” says Florida-based tattoo artist and entrepreneur Marc Draven, who got to know Turgeon from tattoosandtoys.com.
This April, at the Star Wars Celebration convention in Anaheim, Calif., he organized the tattoo pavilion where Turgeon launched The Force in the Flesh Vol. 2, featuring Draven and about 60 other artists. Draven likens its quality to a “hardbound museum.”
“Shane’s a motor,” says the artist and entrepreneur. “Whatever his final destination is, he’s going to reach it one way or another.”
The new book represents one way he might do that. At 300-plus pages, it’s roughly 30 per cent bigger than Vol. 1, and features artist bios he wrote himself.
It’s also the flagship publication of an imprint he created for it and future books he’d like to write, including one he’s calling 77 Things.
He describes it as a “self-growth” book, and it lays out his lessons from 2012, when sinking or swimming would have had a different, more profound meaning than simply setting the value of a few bits of plastic.
The project is also indicative of the person Comeau believes Turgeon has become: more outward looking, more interested in finding ways to create a sense of community.
“You can’t help people with where they’re going unless they know where you’ve been. Who’s going to listen to you if you’re just some [guy] who owns a toy and comic book shop and puts on comic book conventions?”
These days, figures come and go at Shades of Grey as part of its day-to-day business. Before he enters the collector’s world, he spends time in the natural one, walking the two dogs he says helped him through his depression: a mixed breed called Kneesa (named after an Ewok princess) and Kwinn (an “Eskimo” mercenary of GI Joe comics), a husky-shepherd cross.
“I’m happier than I’ve ever been,” says Turgeon.
Part of this stems from a new, more complete understanding of what happiness means. Once, he found this in scoring the rarest bits of pop culture he could find; now he experiences it in the subtlety of bringing people together.
Just as he has maintained his businesses, he’s found a way to preserve that perspective. At the end of each year, Turgeon reflects on the lessons that emerged from the positive and the negative. “My lesson for 2014 was that I already have all that I need.”