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Paul Wilson: Truck through window can't kill Kool Stuff

Running a store on King East takes courage, especially after a runaway truck removes the front end of your business. But the proprietor of Kool Stuff Toys and Collectibles is not in retreat mode.
Kool Stuff still lives on King Street East, but three red, white and blue steel posts now defend the display window from runaway trucks. (Paul Wilson/CBC)

People say to Jeff Smith, "You should move to the Mountain." They tell him there’s more money up there. Less crime. Better air.

He’s never even thought about it, not even after what happened one Monday morning last year.

Smith runs a store called Kool Stuff, on King East not far from Sherman. The place is jammed with toys and collectibles. You can buy a Howdy Doody lunch pail from the '60s here, asking price $95. Or Howdy himself, for $75.

And there’s everything that came after. Star Trek, Star Wars, Batman, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And the Viewmaster projector, in original shrink wrap, in amazing 2D. (If I’m not mistaken, I think this very dispatch is in 2D.)

Smith was a child and youth worker for 20 years. Fourteen years ago, he started playing with toys for a living.

Nearly met his maker

But on Mar. 28, 2011, in an action-comics moment, Smith nearly met his maker…and we’re not talking Mattel.

It was about 11 a.m. Smith had been at the front, then moved to the middle of the store to go through his morning emails.

Bam! Pow! Crash! A full-size GMC Sierra came plowing right through the display window. It carried on across the store and slammed into the far wall.

The guy at the wheel then threw the vehicle into reverse. He was burning rubber but getting nowhere. He emerged, an 84-year-old man with diabetes who had forgotten to take his medication that morning. He was OK and so was Smith.

There was an itty-bitty brief in the paper at the time. We wanted to see how the toy man has fared since.

Stock had to be junked

Turns out he was closed some five months. The building sustained nearly $100,000 in damage. Walls, windows, staircase, all had to be redone. And about a third of the Kool Stuff stock — and that’s a lot — had to be junked.

Smith went out and bought some steel pipes. He had them filled with cement and set in the sidewalk in front of the display window. When you’ve got four lanes of one-way traffic charging past, best to run a good defence.

Jeff Smith and vintage friend Howdy Doody aren't going anywhere. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

But there was never any talk of heading for another part of town. "I’m not snobby," Smith says. "A lot of nice people live down this way." This is where he and wife Betty — B.J. the Clown — Simmonds continue to raise six kids.

As for the store, people still seek him out. You can't  find a genuine Bat Cave from the '90s just any old place.

Why have a store?

But does there even need to be a Kool Stuff store? Couldn’t Smith just sell on the web, and stop worrying about shoplifters, hydro bills, trucks coming through the window?

"My website says online sales," Smith says. "It’s not true. There’s so much stuff in here. It would be a daunting thing to try."

For one thing, he hates the paperwork. Beyond that, where’s the fun in online sales?

"People come in here and see something they had years ago. You can hear the excitement in their voices. This place is a time machine."

Paul.Wilson@cbc.ca | @PaulWilsonCBC

Read more CBC Hamilton by Paul Wilson.