talks to John at Tortoys
VINTAGE DIECAST and COLLECTORS' TOYS
John, itís David at Retrosellers.com
Hi David. Thank you for ringing.
Thatís alright. Iím assuming the Christmas rush has
started for you?
Yes, weíre busy, busy, busy.
Iíll crack on with the questions then. What's you background
and how did Tortoys come about?
My background Ė Iím 53Ö
The same as me.
... I have trouble remembering my own age...
The same as me!
... I say that so you get an idea of where Iím coming from
in my interest for old toys. When I was a little kid I used
to play a lot with Matchbox toys and used to collect them
avidly. I had a huge collection which I got rid of
Itís a common tale isnít it? Itís a shame they all got
Particularly the boxes that collectors value very much. But
my background more recently is in sales. I was actually
sales and marketing manager for a computer company for 25
years or so. I was with a number of companies Ė one called
Channel Business Systems, who got taken over and who were a
small software house that used to supply EPOS and Retail
Stock Control Systems and thereís a bit of a relevance to
what I do now. We also latterly supplied things like
web-based sales programmes so I have a background in stock
management and small business accounting and web design.
Oh! Thatís all very handy.
Yes, it works rather nicely.
I have a theory that sometimes all of these things end up
coming together and give you a platform to do something new
and suddenly it all makes sense.
So, I hated the job, liked the money (Digger laughs) and
used it to learn a lot about what I wanted to do in the
future. And I always had an ambition to have my own business
on some level. And since 2006 I threw that career away
because I hated it and had paid my mortgage off and Iím
now, believe it or not, a Youth Justice Worker with the
Youth Offending Team in Somerset.
Which is completely different, but along with the
interest in old toys and computers and things, Iíve also
done quite a lot of work over the years with young people.
Iíve been with the Scout Movement for fifteen years Ė
Iím a Group Scout Leader, so thatís another angle Iím
coming from. Most of my workís with young people nowadays
and Iím a director of the YMCA in Bridgwater as well.
Iím just wondering when you get any spare time to breathe?
And Tortoys is getting bigger and bigger, is it?
Yes, it doubled its turnover last year, from microscopic to
twice microscopic Ė if I gave up my day job and gave up
all my time to that it would be a lot bigger very suddenly.
Iím only limited by the number of hours in the day. Having
the time to take photographs of the stock to be brutally
Obviously once youíve got the photographs up on the site
then people want them?
Thatís right, yes, and Iíve got a lot of stuff waiting
to be photographed and thatís my glass ceiling at the
moment. Hours in the day to do things and, of course, Iím
rubbish at delegating so I canít get anybody else to do
it. But there you are.
Thatís my struggle too. I could do twice as well but
thereís only me and thereís only so many hours in the
day. Nobody else is going to do it.
Fate might take a hand in the new financial year and
I might be a victim of the local authority cuts so Iíll
suddenly find myself doing this full-time.
In a way I hope that happens (John laughs) because Iíve
spoken to so many people who have left a job they donít
really like and gone into what they love full-time and
itís really worked for them. Theyíve made that jump for
one reason or another and itís always worked.
My cunning plan is that if I can do a phased retirement, as
long as I can see the screen and type on the keyboard, I can
carry on running this business until I drop.
I hope you can. Do you wear glasses now?
Oh yes, Iím leaning closer and closer in order to read
things. When looking at CDs I go by the colour of the spine
now, reading them is right out! (Digger laughs)
I call myself the Pinball Wizard. I can tell what things are
by touch and smell rather than seeing them these days.
My arms arenít long enough to read generally if I
havenít got my glasses. I can see things in the distance.
On the bright side, 150 years ago weíd be dead John.
So do children today appreciate die cast toys or as these
mainly for the older children among us?
I think they donít appreciate them. Children these days
donít buy that sort of thing. They donít buy toys really
- toys tend to be sold to parents who buy them for young
children. Once you get to seven or eight you start spending
your money on fashion and music and entertainment. Thatís
where the young peopleís spend goes and thatís why toy
shops all over the land are closing. Toy shop branches and
all the rest of it disappearing overnight.
I can remember the thrill of going to the local toy shop Ė
my favourites were a fort, a garage and a farm with all the
animals and buildings. I loved those toys and played with
them all the time.
You do occasionally get young people who are interested but
itís because their parents are interested and involve them
with it. Theyíre looking at it almost from an academic
point of view, a collectorís point of view rather than for
playing with them.
Like the sorts of precocious kids you might see on the
Junior Antiques Roadshow?
Thatís right yes. So I had a hunch that these things might
be valuable in years to come and I did keep a few when I was
a bit older, the ones that I had.
So how are you sourcing these items? You said you have more
than you can photograph so where are they coming from?
Iím in the lucky position that people contact me. Yes,
they see the website and they say ďIíve got one of those
in the atticĒ and they dig them out. And itís usually
because theyíd like them to go to a good home and theyíd
like a bit of money. I hadnít anticipated this and I
thought Iíd be out and about trying to buy items, but
itís very interesting that frankly I donít need to and
it all comes to me. Occasionally I buy something on eBay if
itís particularly juicy. Itís because people of my sort
of age just remember what theyíve got and itís usually
at this time of year leading up to Christmas and they start
buying for their own kids or grandchildren. They start
thinking ďOh, toys arenít what they used to be. I
remember when I hadÖ Oh, Iíve got that upstairs.Ē And
thatís the sort of thought process.
Are these items turning up in a good condition?
It varies a lot. One of my points of difference, because
there are one or two other people doing similar things on
The Internet, is that I donít just sell the pristine
You obviously specify that theyíre not Ďmintí.
The pristine ones cost the earth Ė they fetch very large
amounts of money and people do specialise in them. There are
some very wealthy collectors around the world. I tend to,
and my aim is, to help recapture peopleís childhood and
get the toys back and I think if theyíre a little bit played
with that adds to their charm. Thatís where Iím coming
from and think
the pre-loved is my kind of strap line.
Itís like when you buy a new car or something and youíre
actually relieved when it gets a bump or a scratch or twoÖ
Yes, and then you donít have to go through the pain of
seeing it get damaged.
Yes, that awful feeling when you first scratch something
that was new and you feel bad for a day or two.
Itís a good niche to be in because I can sell some quite
bashed up toys at a very low cost to people who would like
to recapture the memories of their youth.
You are the Reggie Perrin of vintage toys.
Yes, well I do sell some nice items as well! I
have quite a good condition grading system and show
photographs of the items from at least four angles. We
donít get returns.
Thatís good. That would be uncomfortable if people had
thought that something was described wrongly.
Yes. Our descriptions are always very accurate.
What are the best things about what you do?
The best things are the feedback really. Very often people
do feedback via email and say they are delighted with it or
the person they bought it for is absolutely delighted. They
just mention that they used to have one of those and their
spouse will go out and buy it at Christmas for them and
theyíre generally delighted.
Weíre all big kids, arenít we?
Yes. I tend to package things really well too and respond to
people quickly and lots of positive stuff. The bits I like
are when it hits the right button with the person whoís
buying it. And we get a lot of repeat business as well Ė
30 Ė 40% is repeat.
Thatís why. Because you are bothering to pack properly and
communication is so important to the person at the other
A lot of stuff gets sold on eBay and thatís a really
difficult territory Ė thereís a lot of goodies and some
baddies out there and I think people are quite relieved
because, thereís quite a rejection of that now. So to find
a site like mine because people have had bad experiences
with auction sites generally. They like to find ordinary
honest people like me.
There are some left!
Thereís a few of us. Because I work with the Youth
Offending Team I begin to think there arenít very many.
I can see that, but my experience is that people are
generally very honourable on The Net and in life.
As in life, you get people ranting on chat rooms and being
obnoxious or even deceitful but most people are honest and
For my sort of target market, the sort of people who buy
toys are not fraudsters.
Money laundering is not an issue!
(Laughs) Some bloke from Nigeria who is offering you £2
million for a toy?
Well, I have had enquiries from Nigeria Ė ďCan we come
over and see all your toys?Ē But I tactfully ignored them.
There is a retired guy who runs a website where he teases
and scams the scammers by stringing them along. It is very
funny. It was funny to see the scammerís responses getting
more and more frustrated then annoyed as he kept asking
questions and making pointless observations to them.
I have a book written by the same guy, a Scottish fellow and
itís very funny. I do a lot of business overseas actually, and
Iíve got a shipment over to New Delhi right now.
So who in New Delhi is buying British vintage die cast toys?
Well, itís a chap who used to play with them when he was a
No, itís an Indian name.
Maybe the Matchboxes and Corgis did end up going out to the
old Empire in the old days?
Some did and it was British India then. And I do send a lot
out to Australia, New Zealand, north America and Canada. They
often are people whoíve emigrated.
Thank God for The Internet is all I can say.
Itís fantastic. As is the postal system, which isnít as
bad as everybody seems to think it is. The vast majority I
send using the postal service Ė I use couriers very
Why is retro and nostalgia so popular?
I think every generation thinks that things arenít as good
as they used to be and it was better in the old days. You
can go back over the centuries and every generation has
thought that. Children behave worse than they used to and
the winters were warmer and the summers not as rainy.
Yes, when people talk about how great the spirit of the
nation was in the war I have to remind them that
nevertheless we were getting the wotsits bombed out of us by
the Germans and there was rationing, the black market and
Yes, thereís a great deal that was really horrible indeed.
People are just more in touch with their feelings then with
the horrible nature of it all. We say modern life is rubbish
but thatís mainly because we donít understand it and
itís overtaken us because the buttons on the bloody
telephone, or whatever it is, are so confusing. Iím
turning into my father.
Good for you. Iím glad to hear it John.
Itís perfectly normal isnít it?
My girlfriend moans because I moan about stuff, but I
explain that itís my way of getting it out of my system.
Itís perfectly natural.
Yes, I think the love of the past is about getting in touch
with the good old days that we think were good and old!
The future of the business, John, sounds as though a lot
depends on what happens next year. But itís going to grow
and that is just a question of how quickly I suppose?
Yes, it is. If I devoted all my time to it then it could
expand about five or six times.
Go on. Do it!
I will ultimately, but at the moment itís pocket money on
top of my salary and it tops it up rather nicely. It could
grow rather quickly I think because the demand is certainly
And do you think the supply will always be there?
Thatís a question, isnít it? Because Iím very much
aware that the generations will move on and the people who
are currently buying these things will fade away in one way
or another. And Iím not sure that the generation behind
them will have the same level of interest. I am consciously
moving my stock range, which used to stop at 1970, Iím now
thinking of bringing in some stuff from the 1980s and
perhaps bringing in some character merchandising like
Thunderbirds and James Bond and all that sort of stuff. I
think those are the things that people are going to collect
in the next few decades.
And that the youngsters will be aware of as being valuable
Things like Action Man Ė I donít know if you remember
that but thatís a whole new ball game.
I used to buy a cheaper version of Action Man when I was
GI Joe, you probably had.
The moulding wasnít as good, he didnít have moving parts
as good as Action Man Ė and even the uniforms were cheaper
at 5 shillings as opposed to ten. We used to abuse those
things Ė drop them out of windows and submerge them in
Yes. So, thereís a very big collectorsí market for
those. And I started out my business with die cast toys and
cars mainly and I felt that I was missing out on half the
market because I was doing nothing for the ladies. So I
started doing the Floral Garden range. Thatís been
extremely popular and Iíve got a huge pile of that waiting
to go out. Itís very labour intensive Ė assembling and
Are you going to do Sindy and Barbie as well?
Well, thereís two things I donít do. One is trains,
because I never had much in the way of trains when I was a
kid and the other thing is Sindy and Barbie Ė if I was to
find a business partner or two with a special interest in
those two thatís an area where I could grow.
Well, best of luck with the future and thanks for letting us know all about Tortoys, John.
It was a pleasure. Thanks David.