Geeks and fanatical collectors of designer vinyl figures have another reason to visit Second Friday in downtown Mesa tonight (or any other night), as the grand opening of Lulubell Toy Bodega takes place tonight.
The designer toy boutique, which relocated from Tucson's Fourth Avenue to Mesa's Main Street last month, is the latest dispensary of niche nerd culture to come to Mesa in the past year.
And while it isn't the only shop along Main Street to offer the collectible vinyl playthings, co-owner Amy Del Castillo says that Lulubell specializes in the sort of toys you won't find elsewhere in Arizona (or even the rest of the United States).
"We carry a lot more of the Kaiju monsters and toys by makers from Japan that are more obscure and rare. And often times we're the only company that carries them in the U.S. It's kind of what we're known for," Del Castillo says. "We have everything else too, like Kid Robot and the more cutesy gifts, but our focus is more on niche toys."
Specifically, she adds, the kind of sought-after custom rarities created in tiny batches by little-known and micro-sized toymakers in Japan. Like the rare Slender Man toys (creepy-looking dolls that reportedly contain human teeth) that are made by Tokyo-based boutique manufacturer Fuei Shokai and are "much more labor intensive" to make and typically come made in runs of around 20.
"A lot of the American companies might do a limited run of 200 or 500 [figures]," Del Castillo says, "Whereas the Japanese makers only do like five 50."
It's a figure that only hardcore vinyl collectors are aware of, and not the sort of thing you'd spy next to the Dunnys at Zia Record Exchange or other local retailers. That includes Red Hot Robot, the renowned designer toy boutique run by Valley vinyl guru Jason Kiningham.
"Jason's a good friend but we kind of both specialize in different areas," she says. "There's some overlap, like he carries some of the more popular American lines and some Japanese stuff as well, but we definitely delve more into it. I think we each have our own niche and try to support each other as much as possible."
Del Castillo says Kiningham has been referring collectors of ultra-rare Japanese imports to Lulubell (and vice-versa) since co-owner Luke Rook originally opened its original Tucson location in 2005.
Rook, a self-described "Toy Baron," first gained an affinity for both vinyl figures and Japanese-exclusive toys back while teaching English in Taiwain years prior, and began selling them at his shop and online. The 33-year-old, who currently resides in Tokyo and scours small festivals and conventions for choice figures to send to Del Castillo, eventually decided to move Lulubell to Phoenix earlier this year.
"We've been wanting to be in a little bit bigger market for awhile, but still loved Tucson," Del Castillo says. "We were originally were going to have shops in both cities, but it became a little difficult to afford it," Del Castillo says.
Thus, Lulubell was relocated to its new home in downtown Mesa, where it will also host month-long exhibitions of custom vinyl figures created by artists both national and local, as well as paintings and sculpture. For instance, Wisconsin-based sculptor Scott Wilkowski's "Skin Deep" show debuts tonight, featuring resin doppelgangers of popular vinyl toys like Munnys that include unique and custom-made skeletons.
Del Castillo is expecting a crowd of geeks at the shop's grand opening tonight to check out Lulubell's wares and view Wilkowski's work, especially given the usual foot traffic of a Second Friday.
But can such a highly focused niche sustain enough interest (and, more importantly, cash flow) outside of downtown Mesa's monthly art walk/nerdfest? It's not an unusual question, considering that nearby geek boutique Evermore Nevermore will be closing tonight due to a lack of business.
Lulubell Toy Bodega's grand opening and reception for Scott Wilkowski's "Skin Deep" takes place from 6-10 p.m. on Friday. Admission is free. Click here for more info.
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