A Big Talk with Big Fun

Big Fun Columbus aims to bring nostalgic joy to the people of Columbus, and their owner Jason Williams has no shortage of that to spare.

By: Brody Howell

Entrepreneurs of Columbus Editorial Staff

For Jason Williams, it’s always time to have fun 

Follow Big Fun Columbus on Socials: Facebook | Instagram 

Why don’t you tell me a bit about Big Fun. What’s it all about?

We buy toys from the 60s to current, pretty much every day. So it’s about 75% of the shop. In that capacity the shop’s always changing, always rearranging. It’s almost like a collapsing ant hill of stuff. The other 25% of the shop is composed of novelties, gags, high end figures, a lot of stuff that you’re not going to find in big box stores.

 How’d you get the idea for that? What made you want to do novelties, gags and vintage toys?

Well, I guess that story, that beginning is with my former partner Steve Presser. He started Big Fun in Cleveland Heights in the early 90s. He and I were partnered at the shop in Columbus in the beginning, my wife and I bought him out about eight years ago. He was inspired to open up Big Fun by a place called Uncle Fun in Chicago.

So you said it started up in Cleveland Heights. Were you part of the expansion down to Columbus?

Yeah, so I guess the story is I used to work up there. I was a customer in the mid 90s through the late 90s. I lived in Cleveland for sixteen years. I worked at the Cleveland Heights Big Fun for ten, and I was on my way to becoming a high school English teacher.

Then the recession happened and Cleveland laid off 10 to 15% of the teaching workforce. So then I decided to open up my own shop, and in 2007 I started buying toys on the side.

I was selling stuff on my own down by Ashtabula County. I had enough inventory and enough cash to do my first shop, which was Spaceman Floyd’s. I had that for three years and then I mean, it’s a long story. I essentially had my heart broken by my childhood comic shop, which was about a mile north of where I was in Madison Village. He had kept about $1,500 of stolen comics that had been taken from my shop.

I knew he had them, the cops knew he had them, and he didn’t give them back. That tore me apart. So I ended up selling the shop to an old high school friend, and then the day after I sold the shop, I started looking for another place. And then a buddy of mine, who I bought toys from here in Delaware County, recommended I look into the Short North.

Big Fun Columbus, as seen from North High

So I felt I needed a little bit of help. I ended up talking to my old boss and we partnered up to do this in 2013. Then my wife and I bought him out about eight years ago now. So it’s me and my wife that run the current shop.

You mentioned that you were in Cleveland for 16 years. What made you want to make the move to Columbus?

Well, like I mentioned, my friend Jeff Nist and a couple other customers of my first shop had mentioned, because I was doing kids art shows at Spaceman Floyd’s, and then I had met a buddy of mine who was an artist named Bob King.

I had his first show at my shop up there. Madison Village was canceling their Old Fashioned Days. Kids had gotten the idea that I was going to propose an alternative festival, which I did, which was going to be art focused.

The business leaders out there were a funeral home director and a brewery owner, and they basically just gave me a, “thanks but no thanks.” Kind of like, what is it, swiping on Grindr? They “swiped left” on my idea.

And so I learned about Short North’s Gallery Hop, and I thought, well, this is what I was doing and something that I was planning on doing on a larger scale. So then Steve and I and Trinity and Steve’s wife came down here, canvassing the area, and we got our current spot. We were the 24th party to look at the spot next to the Short North Tavern. We looked at it on a Monday, and we got it that Thursday.

As someone not from Columbus originally, what would you show a first time visitor to sell them on the city?

Our buddies own Route 68 toys in Xenia, and they had done this toy map, which it ain’t complete. I think Ohio has 45 vintage toy shops in it, and they have maybe 35 ( listed on the map), but it gives you an Ohio toy trail map of different shops. I’ve kind of flirted with the idea of doing a map for cool places in the city, places that we recommend because we get a lot of visitors coming through from the convention center.

Mikey’s Late Night Slice, of course, is a staple. Dirty Franks is a staple. 16 Bit. Billy Ireland, the comic strip museum is brilliant. That’s the only comic strip museum in the nation as far as I know.

Columbus Museum of Art is lovely. I’m a nerd, I’ll admit it. I recommend Laughing Ogre to people. Warp Zone is a video game shop in Hilliard. Those guys are good. The Book Loft.

Wild Cat, Olivera’s got a great shop there. My buddies Joe and Jerry run and own Flower Child, and then my buddy April owns Little Light Collective in Clintonville.

So there’re a lot of great places in Columbus.

If that’s what you would do as a tour of Columbus, what would you do as a tour of Big Fun? Where would you point your new customers?

I think the word is out about Columbus no longer being a secret cool place. We’re getting a lot of travelers coming through and a lot of people moving here. It happens several times a week where somebody new comes in, especially people that may not have shops like ours in their home state or their home city.

Ohio has the most. We’re loaded to the gills with vintage toy shops. But we’ll ask questions, like, “well, what sort of stuff are you into?” and usually there are a couple of prompts like, “well, I grew up with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” And we got a case and some carded figures and we’ll give them, you know, the nickel tour.

Usually it’s that, like, someone saying, “oh man, I remember G.I. Joes. You guys have this, that.” So we have as many sections as the space allows.

Typically there’ll be something that resonates with them and, you know, we’ll find it. We usually have at least some examples of things that people are excited about.

Big Fun employee Ian holds up a Star Trek branded Disk Holder

What’s your favorite thing in the shop?

For toys, I guess it changes a little bit. I grew up with this toy line called Megos, which came out in the mid-70s. I am a big Star Trek fan. I love those toys from the mid-70s of Star Trek Megos, the Planet of the Apes. I had 80s G.I. Joes. Those are my favorites.

One weirdo one is an adjacent competing toy line called Tom Land Toys, which are eight inch figures. They had some licenses for, like, The Fly and Morlocks from Time Machine. I really adore those crazy weird toys.

I’ve been getting some strange Planet of the Apes stuff. I bought a Ben Cooper costume of Lisa from Planet of the Apes 4. I think it’s three or four, when they’re having a Planet of the Apes revolution, and she’s the one that’s cutting the hair of a human, and the human yells at her, “no, Lisa! No!” and she grabs the scissors, like she’s going to kill her later. They made a kid’s costume of that. What the hell do I need that for?

But, I completely adore those costumes because I have fond memories of going into… I don’t know if you all had Hills Department Stores down here, but Hills in Northeast Ohio was magnetic. They had coin operated rides outside, and then they had a concession stand inside right when you get in. Big giant pretzels and slushy machines, popcorn, and you just smell that stuff immediately. And then you go inside and they had a pretty significant toy selection. And I remember going in there one Halloween and they just had rows of Ben Cooper costumes and you could just… I’ll never lose that sense of vinyl smell from my memory.

Is there anything you strive to keep in stock? Are there any items you like to keep as a talking point, even if they don’t sell?

Well, I’ve ended up selling most of those things that I swore I wouldn’t sell.

A giant Homer Simpson or video game systems like Space Invaders or Commando that we had shoved up front. Space is at a premium in the place now, so almost everything’s for sale. In fact, I think everything is for sale now.

But to do what we’re doing, to have a vintage toy shop, I feel there are certain bullet point requirements that every place should have, which would be, you know, G.I. Joes, the 60s G.I. Joes are the first action figures, so I feel it’s a necessity to have those. Pretty much any 80s toy line, Transformers, He-Man, Strawberry Shortcake, Care Bears, (Teenage Mutant Ninja) Turtles, wrestling figures, we have a lot of My Little Ponies.

But in this industry, as with in life, things advance. My generation, you know, we’re not going to be buying as much over the next ten years, so it’s going to be a lot of 20 to 30 year olds, and they’re going to be buying a lot of anime stuff, Dragon Ball Z and Power Rangers and things like that. So you start carrying more of that stuff and some other things get filtered out. But that’s just the nature of it, you know?

Set phasers to FUN

Have you already started to notice your demographic changing? 

My manager, Mike, he does all the new merchandise, and he started carrying more anime stuff. We got an anime case in the back and those items sell pretty well. The toys I was just talking about, Megos, we have a small case of them up front. They sell, but you know, if it was a restaurant, I don’t know what sort of slow-selling menu option it would be, you know, like some kind of specialty pickle. Like fried pickles, you know? It’s going to take a special person to get one of those. I say that loving Mego, but those guys are my generation and older and for the most part. They either have what they want or they’re saving money up for retirement.

Was there ever a moment where you realized your business was successful?

I guess it’s a gradual thing. Certain little bullet points hit us. Like, for instance, we had, I don’t know if you’ve heard of the band Twenty One Pilots.

They filmed their Choker video in our shop. This was two years ago or so. I didn’t know who they were. I, at the time, was listening to 1940s Texas swing, Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys. I had heard of the band but I never listened to them, and I didn’t know what a big deal they were, but they wanted to film a video at our place. And God bless them. Their fans are faithful and dedicated and nice and nerdy and considerate. They’ve paid a lot of bills by coming in. We have a shirt that Josh is wearing in the video.

That was one turning point, and then that flowed into yesterday. I discovered on Google images that there’s a company, a real shit-bird company that does awful racist shirts, and they have our shirt listed with the Big Fun Twenty One Pilots logo on their site. And I was thinking, we’re being bootlegged, you know?

But I guess that’s a sign of success somewhat, is that if you start being bootlegged or people start ripping you off, you know you’re something right, I guess.

What’s the number one piece of advice you’d give to someone wanting to start a business?

So I feel this way about people opening businesses, anybody that does any business. It takes a lot of balls. It takes a lot of courage. It takes a lot of bravery for some person to throw their hat into the small business ring and say, “I think I can do it,” because if you analyze all of the details, and you really thoroughly think about what you’re going to do, you’ll be terrified and not do it.

There’s a lot of shit that’s going to pop up that you’re not going to anticipate. You can’t anticipate everything. It’s a lot of hard work and people may not be prepared for the amount of hard work that it’s going to take, or the amount of stress. I mean, you’re going to think about quitting. I think about quitting all the time. My wife is always pulling me back from that ledge.

So yeah, don’t think about it too much and do it, you know. Don’t borrow money. Don’t get investors. Save up your cash. Be prepared to bust your ass and don’t listen to naysayers.

You mentioned having feelings of doubt. What do you do to overcome those feelings? 

Well on paper it seems pretty easy, right? It seems like an alright gig to own a toy shop. But there are a lot of unforeseen problems that come along with having a shop in a big city.

My wife is a good ear, and we both have a good therapist. That helps to be able to vent ideas and frustrations to a good therapist who can give you advice and recommendations to work through these problems. I think everybody, maybe at least every American, should get a good therapist, that goes a long way.

I talk to my workers too, vent on them. There’s all sorts of stressful shit that happens in the shop. But yeah, wife, therapist, workers, and then I watercolor.

I’ve got a show scheduled for December with Open Door Gallery, and that’s the place I’d also recommend to travelers. It’s my favorite gallery in the city since the Vanderelli Room closed down. Open Door in Grandview Heights, and they do great work for developmentally disabled adults.

Trinity and I were there a few months ago and talked to Claire and bought some paintings, and I had this goal of doing all 79 episodes of the original Star Trek in watercolors. Claire had said, “well, where are you going to try to show those?” I said, “I’ll bug somebody in a year,” and she said, “do you want to show them here?” So now I have to take it seriously. I’m at, like, number 32 of paintings, so I think I can do it. But, you know, each night I do a little bit and watch the episodes and think about them and do some art.

Jason and his wife, Trinity

What would you say is the most challenging part of your business?

External factors primarily. At different times, aggressive panhandlers, aggressive homeless folks, folks that have addiction problems and mental health issues. I learned that Columbus used to have some mental health facilities and no longer has them. I wish they had them again. There’s a lot of people that need help and don’t have a structure where they can receive that help. That is something that I would like to see addressed because those of us running small businesses in Columbus, especially downtown, have probably had multiple experiences, some negative experiences, with mentally ill homeless folks. I’d like to see those folks get some help that they need.

That’s the most challenging part, I think. You get some thieves coming in once in a while. There are all sorts of people that float through. I don’t want to name them because that would give them publicity, but there’s this real bigoted shit-bird who’s on the Anti-Defamation League website. He’s messed with us for a little while. No longer, though, I got trespassing charges against him.

You’re running a toy shop. You don’t expect to be messed with by fascists. All those little things, it’s almost like a TV show where there’s something a little bit more stressful, something less stressful going on every week.

What about the flip side of that? Are there people that can make your day by coming in?

Oh yeah. The negatives are the minority of the minority of experiences. Those shine a little bit more brightly because they’re uncommon. It’s a little bit of gas in the water well I feel. The majority of the experiences are greatly positive.

Like I said earlier, with visitors to this city who may not have a version of our shop in their city or their state, if they haven’t thought about those toys for 30 or 40 years since they last saw them, that’s a pretty magical moment to see. You get little kids come running in. If kids are running to your shop, that’s a great sign of success. Kids running in and they’re just shocked by it. Those feelings and those memories are going to resonate with those kids, and with the adults, for decades.

There’s an echo effect that shops like ours are creating with people, which is memories and feelings, and trying to recapture those moments, and they do capture them in those little amber moments. That’s as special and as good as it gets.

There’s a good eclectic group of nerds here. I underestimated the nerdiness of Columbus. As a Clevelander, it’s all about Cleveland, you know?

Coming down here, man, it’s a different story. People are friendly and there’s so much going on. And I like all the customers that come through and we have a good steady base of regulars and new people coming in all the time too.

You know you’re doing something if nerds are in a Target toy aisle and they’re talking to each other and they’re recommending our shop to somebody else.

I think it’s fair to say you have a very successful business, but what do you think makes most businesses fail?

It’s tough to tell. I mean, some shops that I was buddies with that opened up in the Short North had closed during COVID. That’s a tough damn time for people to navigate a business through, and there’re probably tens of thousands of shops that failed during COVID. Would they have survived outside of a pandemic? Probably. Some things you can’t predict. During normal times, I don’t know.

Location makes a big difference. I was in between Cleveland and Erie in a small village, and it was primarily some stuff on eBay that kept me afloat out there. There are shops like that where the population density is smaller and people don’t have as much money to spend on hobbies, stuff like ours, or records or books or whatever, so they have to do most of their business online.

Adaptability. I think you really have to be flexible and you can’t anticipate everything that’s coming your way. But, you know, you have to have some money saved up just in case things go awry. I’m not… What are those people called, preppers? I’m not a prepper, but I like to have money in the bank, you know, for good toy buys and also for if there’s something that happens. Like this roof leak that we had, gosh, that was seven years ago that we had a roof leak, and that shut us down for a couple days. Various things like that happen. Thankfully it ain’t a regular thing.

I guess it just depends on the circumstances or people. They may underestimate the amount of work that it takes too, because it’s a lot of damn work to do a business.

Eric, Bobby, and Mike all help make Big Fun the exciting place it is

Do you feel like the pandemic had much of an effect on your business?

There’s a real surprising side effect of the pandemic, I feel. There are certain toy lines, and I’m not an expert on the price fluctuations in every toy line, but I can cite a few.

Hasbro did the small wrestling figures in the 90s. Pre-COVID, I bought a nice collection of those. Post-COVID, those prices were triple. Even quadruple on some vintage Star Wars figures and GI Joes. It’s at the point where if prices become too exorbitant for one collectible, which I would cite, prices on some Star Wars figures, people tend to migrate to another collectible, which would maybe be GI Joe or He-Man. But then the prices of those would start ratcheting up.

It’s been a weird positive side effect for us because I feel during shutdown, people were trying to find things that helped them relax. They wanted quiet moments of tranquility that they may have had, of enjoyment of life, and toys, and those memories that they tend to bring along with them. But I think it affected, in a good way, record shops and comic shops and book shops and video game shops and all hobby-oriented places, board game shops, you know, where people would have those associations, those memory associations. You get stressed out, you want to try to find something that reminds you of a moment of peace.

Are there any tools that you feel have really benefited your business?

Well, I think everybody says social media. They are good tools, but we don’t rely on them entirely. We sparsely do any posts now. Word of mouth, I think, is still the best advertisement.

We’ve got a lot of good Google reviews. We are almost at 900 Google reviews. We pay fairly for the toys that people bring in, and folks tend to tell others. Somebody had brought in some Power Rangers the other day and said that he found out about us through a buddy of his who had sold us toys and said that we treated him fairly. There is kind of a grape vine. If you get worked into that as the conversational first Google hit, then I think you are doing okay. I feel that maybe that is the area that we have reached.

Is there anything you’re working on now that you feel excited about for the future of your business?

There is always something going on. We bought a warehouse. I own a building downtown which is a little bit larger than the shop, and it’s completely packed. The store is completely packed. Some of the choices that I’ve to make in business I’m usually forced into through necessity. The idea of a second store has been lurking in the background. Sometimes it moves forward to the foreground and I start looking for a crew.

I know where I want to be, and then we get busy. A big toy buy or something comes through, and then those thoughts recede into the background. It feels like that idea of a second store is now, you know, like the worm in Wrath of Kahn. It’s the worm in Chekhov’s ear. That’s the idea of a second store. It’s burrowing through my brain.

I do want to add another case to the shop. I want to add some slat board. We are trying to get a garage built on our property and construction prices are too expensive now. I think we just have to get more creative about space in the warehouse. But it’s tough to get a good crew. Everybody that I have working for me, I really adore and they’re good people. It’s taken me 11 years, so it will take a bit to accumulate a good crew for a second place.

Do you feel like you have an end goal for your business?

I guess we do. I’m 50, my wife is going to be 50 in September. Most of the guys that I have working for me are in their late 50s or late 40s through mid 50s, with a handful of guys that are late 30s and the youngest is 27. I want to make sure that all these middle agers that stick it out with us cross the threshold for retirement.

I don’t know. I just envision maybe delivering for Meals on Wheels in retirement. Water coloring. I’d like to learn how to weld. I don’t know. If we do a second store, that keeps us committed for a little bit longer. Ten, fifteen years from now, I’ll still be motivated to do what I am doing, but…

I like watercolor and Star Trek characters. I might try to watercolor all the Twilight Zone episodes or some shit. I don’t know. That’s a real vague answer.

Steve at Bi Fun gives the shop a huge thumbs up!

Are there any entrepreneurs you admire?

I admire a lot of local people. I am going to use this as an opportunity to plug some local places.

Joe Valenti, who owns Flower Child and his manager, Jerry, are incredible. They helped us set up the shop. Have you been to Flower Child and its new location off of 5th? They tore out portions of the second floor. Those guys are work horses.

I like Gib at Laughing Ogre, he’s a buddy. They have great customer service there, they honestly do. A wide collection of comics, and they are always doing something fun. They’re always doing community outreach, and if my place had the space, I would like to do that too. If we were forced to move out of the Short North, I would want to be next to him in Clintonville. There are a lot of other good places.

I’m buddies with Jason Biundo at Mikey’s, he’s a co-owner there. Mikey’s are always doing creative, fun things. There are a lot of people doing a lot of creative things around the city.

Open Door Gallery is great.

I like Chef Ramsay because he is a little bit of an asshole, but he compliments people. He’s there to help, like those traveling wayward heroes, like Caine from Kung Fu. People like that.

AJ at the Vanderelli room, before she was forced out of that spot, she was busting ass and doing all sorts of wonderful things there. I would put her on that list, too. There are a lot of artists that I admire in the city that are just hustling and really doing some great things. It’s looking at these people and seeing what they do and appreciating it. Knowing that there are a lot of steps before you see that finished moment. 

What does it mean to you to be an entrepreneur? 

I don’t view myself as that. I get mistaken for being a homeless person in the Short North. People often ask me if I want some coffee. I guess I am an entrepreneur, though. I am a businessman.

I don’t know. I have been working toward the goal of having a shop since 2007, so I guess this is a culmination of years worth of hard work. But it’s ongoing and it doesn’t end.

I’m just doing what I am genetically predisposed to do. I come from a family of hoarders, so if I wasn’t doing this, I would have 35 little dogs, probably be on my fifth wife. So this keeps me married, employed and bringing some enjoyment to people.