As one of the few remaining venerable “Old Portland” strongholds, Billy Galaxy’s namesake store has been selling vintage toys and collectables on West Burnside since 1995. However, with the COVID-19 pandemic severely light sabering his business in half, Galaxy and his staff have relied on their dedicated customer base and the mail order side of business to keep the store afloat.
Galaxy, of course, is not alone. Independent businesses all over Portland and around the world have been reeling from unprecedented societal upheaval, record unemployment and a devastated economy caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Just as shelter in place protocols were being implemented, Brian Volk-Weiss, (the mastermind behind the Netflix series The Toys That Made Us) has been working on a new documentary series highlighting how the pandemic instantaneously affected independent toy retailers. Volk-Weiss and his production company not only slated Billy Galaxy for the first episode of A Toy Store Near You, they also enlisted its proprietor to be one of the limited series’ executive producers.
Eleven met up with Billy Galaxy to get the scoop on this exciting new venture:
Eleven: How did this docu-series come about?
Billy Galaxy: Brian Volk-Weiss of The Nacelle Company actually called me while I was on the bus coming to work. In typical Brian fashion, he was like, “I got this idea for this thing.” It sounded like he just came up with it: “I need this footage by the end of the day!” We [Galaxy and employees, Luz Stader and Michael Cortes] started shooting I’d say, within three hours of that initial phone call. We got everything shot and uploaded by the next morning. Since then, the show has evolved, so there have been numerous, numerous reshoots.
The whole idea is what’s going on during quarantine. Most of the shops involved with the series are all self-filmed, mostly using iPhones.
I have to say that I was very impressed with the initial cuts of our footage that we got back from Nacelle showing where they were going with [the show]. Because, I couldn’t imagine what they were going to do with just some cell phone footage that all these toys shops are sending them. The actual footage does not look too different than what we sent, it’s just more a matter of what they have done with the footage in terms of editing, voiceovers and music.
11: How did Brian Volk-Weiss initially pitch this idea to you? It sounds like it’s gradually grown into something bigger from the time he initially approached you with this idea.
BG: He wanted to bring awareness to the toy shops he loves personally. I think he already loved toys, but he fell in love with toys even more after doing The Toys That Made Us. The initial pitch was, “Film yourself talking about your shop and your 10 favorite things in the shop.” It fairly quickly evolved into being about what’s going on during the whole COVID crisis and how everybody’s functioning—or not functioning—during that.
Kudos, by the way, to Brian for not only wanting to give attention to small businesses that might otherwise be ignored, but also creating projects like this to keep his staff working. Very early on—well before they were going to call the quarantine in California—he was already prepping the gear to be moved to people’s home offices.
11: How has COVID-19 impacted your business?
BG: I mean, obviously we do mail order, but that’s really only about half of our business. So, we really lost half of our business all at once.
11: Was the other half of that business walk-in clientele and exposure at conventions?
BG: Well, I didn’t even calculate the shows into that. I mean, we’ve also lost all of our show business. We don’t know what’s going on with the fall convention season, which has very large international conventions that we rely on for a decent percentage of our income.
11: How long have you known Brian Volk-Weiss?
BG: I probably met Brian about three years ago. He walked in the store one day and said, “I’m doing this series for Netflix,” and I’m like, “Cool.” You know? “You lookin’ for some toys?” (laughs) And then, once I realized that we had a mutual friend [documentary filmmaker Brian Stillman] that he was toy shopping for—I quickly realized who he’s talking about—we kind of hit it off immediately.
11: And you were on a season three episode of The Toys That Made Us about wrestling toys. Was that fun to shoot?
BG: Yeah! All that kind of stuff’s fun, but, you know, a bit time-consuming and stressful. But it’s all enjoyable, as well.
11: Is each episode of A Toy Store Near You going to concentrate on one store?
BG: That is the working theory right now. There are literally going to be 50 episodes about 50 different toy stores around the world. I’m also helping to produce additional episodes beyond my own episode. I’m working with various stores, in particular a lot of the international ones.
11: Will you be a credited producer on this show?
BG: I am an executive producer across the entire series.
11: What’s that job title entail?
BG: It’s a lot of work. I really feel for Rich Mayerik [an executive producer on the series], who’s dealing with a majority of the stores. I can’t imagine how many questions he’s fielding and problems he’s solving.
11: So, after this is all said and done—and life goes back to “normal”—do you think that executive producing additional television shows would be something that you’d want to do?
BG: I’ve always dabbled in a little bit of consulting with other TV series over the years, but this is a little bit more of a deep dive with the process from beginning to end. It does give me a newfound perspective and respect for people who do this professionally every day for their jobs. It’s taken as a misconception that there’s a lot of just sitting around in a fancy office doing nothing. These people work long, hard hours. There’s a lot of stress.
The TV show is essentially a part-time job in addition to my regular full-time job. When I wake up in the morning, I check emails from both people at Nacelle as well as the shops I’m working with. I often do phone calls with people while I’m riding the bus on the way home. Then lots more emails, texts, phone calls throughout the evening. Go to bed. Then I wake up and do it all over again.
11: Is volleying between what you do at the store on a daily basis and executive producing this series exhausting?
BG: Yeah. We’re still working our normal hours at the shop. It’s my intent to keep my employees working without cutting any hours from them at all.
11: How many employees do you have?
BG: Just two, but they’re important to me!
11: A Toy Store Near You premiers on Amazon Prime Vimeo, and YouTube on May 29th with additional online platforms to follow.