By Jonathan Alexandratos
Writer Anais Nin said, “We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.” As toy collectors, we know this to be true. We know that there are those special toys in which we see not just an object, but a deeply felt truth about ourselves. Sometimes, it’s the way a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Donatello action figure tells us about the happiness a child felt when their father surprised them with the toy after coming home from a business trip. Other times, it’s a story of security wrapped up in a plush polar bear that shared a bed with a kid frightened by the dark. When these objects, these stories, get lost in the ever-ebbing tides of time, independent toy sellers are in the unique position to return to us pieces of ourselves.
Many collectors can instantly picture a shop, “their” shop, upon the suggestion of such sacred spaces. The shop I picture is 239 Play. While technically in New York City, this place is nothing like the Times Square bustle or the downtown crowds that tourists may conjure. It’s located on City Island, a microscopic dot floating off the coast of Orchard Beach in the Bronx. On an average day, it is almost indistinguishable from the quaint, cozy New England isles further north. Were there to be a crime, don’t imagine the detectives of Law & Order swarming the place. It’s more Jessica Fletcher’s speed. But of course, it’s perfectly safe.
239 Play is run by Dan Treiber and Reina Mia Brill, a husband-and-wife team who bought the building in 2016 and have been growing New York City’s quirkiest toy store ever since. Now, in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic, I wanted to do something to call attention to my favorite toy store, a store that has shown me more of myself than any mirror. Therefore, I asked Dan if he’d be up for an interview. I thought that, while the story of 239 Play is specific, we’d unearth some universal but often unspoken caveats about the business of mom-and-pop toy selling. As it turned out, we did that and more. Below is a transcript of that interview, with select moments cleaned up from the original audio.
Q: Pretend this is a Marvel movie. 239 Play is the superhero. What is its origin story?
A: I bought my childhood home from my dad. As a joke, I started a business called dAN’s Parents’ House, selling stuff at the Brooklyn Flea Market. That was the most successful joke that I’ve ever been a part of. We did that for eight years. Born and raised on City Island, [I knew that] there was an 1860s building on City Island Avenue that I always sort of passively had my eye on. It was the former Trader John building. He was a nautical junkman, beloved and “behated,” depending on who you talked to. He passed away, and then this building was going to be knocked down to put up condos. So my wife and I bought the building and we’ve been rehabbing it for 3-4 years, and we’re now in Year 4 of 239 Play. The long-term goal is to not go back to the Brooklyn Flea, even though it’s been wonderful to us. We’re interested in staking claim in our own community.
Q: What is the process of rehabbing a building to become a toy shop?
A: The building from, ballpark, 1860 to 1910, was Springer’s Market, which was a meat market. Then 1910-1960, it was a propeller shop. Then 1960-2016 it was Trader John’s. We bought it full of nautical junk. Even though Trader John’s was beloved by us, there was no gold in here. It was full of three-legged tables and VCRs with a sandwich in them; whatever it was, it was real junk. I was protective at the beginning of the sanctity of what we had, but four years in we realized that anything in here that’s nautical is not up to par because somebody would have bought it by now. It was a lot of getting rid of old stuff and bringing in new stuff, and curating. We’ve streamlined over time. There’s still going to be a little bit of chaos, but it’s gotten organized so that those who want to shop can find things, and for people who want to dig, there’s always stuff to dig.
Q: What insight into the business of toy selling can you offer from your experience being on the receiving side of the cash register?
A: As a collector, you get the joy in finding things. I have the privilege of getting joy from putting things in people’s hands. I’ve been doing this long enough that I don’t need any of this stuff, because remarkably it’s all replaceable. No matter how excited you get over that object you have, there’s a pile of them somewhere. So I get the joy of finding the pile so I can get as many of those out to commonfolk as possible. For me, it’s about getting it back out into the world. I get to sell joy to people, and for me that’s a gift.
Q: Any great toy pick-ups stand out in your mind?
A: The great Staten Island Haul, as I like to call it, was remarkable. I bought it as volume, and it turned out to be quality and volume. It had 50-some-odd complete Lego sets. There was the quintessential ’80s He-Man, Star Wars, Real Ghostbusters, and the rest. But what I didn’t know was that all the He-Man figures had weapons and all the Ninja Turtles had all the parts. It was a win because I got to pull all that from a Staten Island house where it had sat for 30 years and now it gets to make my store look wonderful and people get to take them home. I did find a Satan Cross in that collection, which is the rarest of the M.U.S.C.L.E. men, and I never held one before. We did find a yellow spaceman 1960s PEZ dispenser at the bottom of a box once, so that was pretty cool.
Q: How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your work as an independent toy seller, and the work of other, similar shops?
A: Something crazy like 40% of all small businesses are going to go under. So, as a New York City thing, it’s a tragedy. For me, because I am in a privileged situation and I own my building, it doesn’t put the damper on me that it puts on other people because I’m not throwing away money just to stay afloat. What it has done, as a positive: people are looking for joy wherever they can find it, so, as a joy-dealer, it’s a necessity right now because people need to feel sane, people need to feel connected, and those are things toys bring people.
What’s been helpful for me is the outpouring of love for sustainable small business that I get to benefit from, and I don’t take that for granted. People are trekking out to City Island to hand me their hard-earned money, and I will always have a spot in my heart for that, because people have been really good to us. AOC [Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, who represents the district that 239 Play is in] has been really good to us. I couldn’t pay for that. The hope is that I can stick around long enough so that I can do that for other people. I’m eternally grateful.
Q: Can you tell us more about your work as a community activist?
A: I always looked at my store as a community space. Pre-COVID, we would do parties, some robot shows, a couple of Halloween shows, and I always believed that it would be a real space for community, and it was mildly successful. Then, COVID happened, and we partnered with the South Bronx Mutual Aid and we put the community fridge outside of [our store]. We have a little side yard that has become this distribution hub for the food that we may need for the community fridge. We’ve been trying to help people get food.
The combination of this has been great, because in the summer I can focus on selling toys, and in the winter I can focus on taking care of my community. And, not to be redundant, but I don’t take that for granted either, that I can use what I have to benefit my community. There could be more of those spaces, and there should be more of those spaces, and we can all take care of each other. It’s a beautiful, beautiful community.
Q: What’s next for 239 Play?
A: More South Bronx Mutual Aid work. I would like to have some indoor dedicated space for them. I’d like to have it set up so things can be donated and go out. I’d like to have some art and workshop spaces and classes, and that kind of thing. I’d love to do toy design stuff, and recycling of old figures, a la [friend of the store] Sucklord, because I come from a background of art, so I think there’s endless projects that people can be working on. I want to just get to the point where we make enough where we’re comfortable, so we can focus on everything else. I want to employ more people. I want to put City Island on the map as a place where people can come and get cool stuff and do cool stuff, and I have the privilege to work on that.
The beauty of City Island is that there’s one way in and one way out, so you don’t pass through City Island. You come here on purpose. So that makes it an intentional space. I believe that, because it’s an intentional space, that gives us the luxury of doing things that are intentional, as opposed to being on a main road – you get to make more money there, but it means people aren’t doing that on purpose. Whereas anyone who comes here, comes here on purpose, and it means that they care. And I care that they care.
239 Play and dAN’s Parents’ House can be found on Instagram @dansparentshouse. For New Yorkers and visitors, 239 Play is open from 11am-7pm on weekends, and on weekdays by appointment. Masks required. Non-local orders can be placed via dansparentshouse.com to be shipped to you.