Live like a celebrity in Palm Springs, California. It's an oasis tucked between mountains and known for its midcentury architecture, a throwback to the days of old Hollywood when Carey Grant and Elvis Presley reigned supreme. Join me for this 3-part travel series as we hike the Mojave Desert, explore a local toy show, comb countless thrift stores, and venture eight thousand feet into the sky onto a snowy mountain top.
Hiking the deserts of California is wonderful. The land is covered with unique plant life that cannot be found anywhere else on Earth. But you know what it doesn't have? Toys. The desert doesn't have toys. I'm sure you already knew that. But, toy hunting is something I try to wedge into all my travel excursions. Outdoor hiking and desert curiosities had stunted my quest, but the time for toys had finally arrived. I wanted the best. Best options, best selection, best use of time. Going for the best meant going the distance. That distance was about 90 miles outside of Palm Springs to Frank & Son in Anaheim. Frank & Son is a collectible show with a focus on toys, with nauseating-long vendors' aisles sprawled throughout a Foot Clan-like warehouse. It's a collectors dream that occurs every Wednesday & Saturday. Even if hoarding old junk isn't your thing, the culture and lifeblood of Frank & Son is still a fascinating experience.
As an east coast kid, how did I find out about this haven? Back in 2012, I was traveling California and popped into an Anaheim comic shop. While I was perusing vintage TMNT toys, the store clerk and I got to talking. He was an Anaheim native and a super cool guy. We spent a good 30 minutes talking about everything from toy cleaning methods to the pitfalls of California pizza. Before we parted ways, he left me with one travel tip - Frank & Son. He described the toy mecca with such mystic grandeur, the place sounded like a collector's dream. I took his advice and went to the show that very day. It was amazing. Years later on a family vacation, I went again - pulling my parents along for the ride. They loved it too. Now in 2017, it was the third visit.
The drive was quick. We arrived early and easily got a parking spot, which is a victory in itself. The show goes from 4-9pm and finding a space becomes increasingly difficult. Last time we parked half a mile away! This parking spot up front and close to the entrance was a good omen. The toy gods were smiling down on us today. Collectors, nerds, families, and local riff raff buzzed around the entrance waiting for the doors to open. The ratio of males to females was not good. When dudes overrun a place, I'm always slightly embarrassed to be a part of it. But, there were a handful of lovely women and girls in the bunch, making me feel better that I suggested this toy-hunting excursion to Jessica.
A loud clank quieted all the people waiting. A large garage door entrance slid up, and the show was officially open! It was uneventful. No one ran. No one cheered. Everyone slowly marched inside with little fanfare. During my past visits to Frank & Son, the place was bustling from the moment I arrived. Maybe it was the winter months, but the show was much more quiet this time. Lots of the vendors remained closed, even as the night went on. Luckily, I could still shove my camera lens through their gated enclosures for a few fun photos.
Plenty of merchants were open though. Let the quest begin! There is a method to my toy-hunting madness. I have a process for events like Frank & Son. I slowly comb the the show floor, noting the junk that catches my eye. Unless there's a crazy deal, I wait to buy anything. A handsfree exploration without being weighed down with multiple bags is much more enjoyable for me. I tackled the expansive sprawl of Frank & Son with this same method.
Every stall at the show is so inviting. Even if the merchandise inside is mediocre, there's a feeling of discovery inside every booth. I often found myself looking at items that normally mean nothing to me. Everything from bootleg Lego, vintage Godzilla, and brands that have never been a blip on my radar, were suddenly my everything. This is the power of Frank & Son. It consumes you.
In the first few minutes, I came face to face with a set of the original figures from the 80s. Like most vintage items in Frank & Son, they were overpriced and already in my collection. But to the seller's credit, the figures were extremely clean. Usually these older toys have suffered years of abuse and don't look so hot. Sometimes they're even so gross, you feel the need to wash your hands after just looking at them. But, these dudes were different. Their colors were vibrant, no dust caked on, and they didn't look sticky. A sad list of positive attributes, but toy collecting is not always glamorous.
One vendor had a few gems crammed inside a locked display case. The toys looked underwhelming when shoved inside the showcase and piled on top of each other. Unless you had strong TMNT knowledge, many of the items inside would go unnoticed. But, I'm no noobie. Everything this dude had was familiar to me. He had the classics, like a batch of the Movie Star figures and two Turtles from the Trolls line. Although I had a lot of these, there were a few treasures not in my collection. I've been dying to scoop up Farmer Mike (equipped with a tractor!) for ages - it even ranked 6th on my Top 10 Holy Grails list. Deep inside the display, I spotted an unopened Mona Lisa figure tucked away. These should have been instant purchases. I wanted these to be instant purchases. But the seller's prices were bonkers. $175 for Farmer Mike, $80 for Mona Lisa - over 3 times the usual amount these pieces sell for. He wasn't willing to budge either - no deals, no discounts. Alas, my cowabunga crops continue to go unharvested.
I was bummed, but determined to make a purchase at Frank & Son. In no time at all, I stumbled across another item - a classic TMNT sweater! Things like this are ultra goofy, a novelty item that doesn't interest most collectors. But, the silly stuff is my favorite. A knit sweater like this is the cream of the crop, especially with its black bandana-wearing Turtles. It was most likely a child size and released around 1990, but hard to confirm either when being stuffed inside a baggie like a corpse. The ugly piece of wardrobe was destine for The Sewer Den...until I found out the price. How much would you pay? The seller was asking $100 and wouldn't negotiate - totally not worth it for a gimmicky collection piece. Frank & Son was killing me!
Time for a breather. We stepped outside to escape the sad defeats I was suffering. If there's one thing to lift your spirits, it's food from a truck. Parked outside the main entrance of the show is a dilapidated hunk of metal that shovels food on a disposable plate in exchange for small amounts of money. Comfort food for cheap prices. The food truck looks like it hasn't moved since the first time I've visited Frank & Son five years ago. They have everything from chili cheese fries to noodle soup. From what I've been told, it's a staple of the event. Attendees love taking a break and chowing down on the greasy grub.
The hot dogs are their signature item. Attendees at the show hold them in very high regard, pushing them into a legendary status. Even my dad still regrets not eating one the time I brought him to the show. With a wide variety of dogs and a slew of DIY toppings, there's a lot of room for culinary creativity. I've always come to Frank & Son with a full stomach, but didn't make that same mistake again! This was the day to end that trend. I proudly ordered a jalapeños cheddar cheese sausage dog and smothered it in toppings - ketchup, mustard, relish, chopped onion & more jalapeños. It was a beautiful disaster. Delicious, tasty, and gone in sixty seconds. It was so worth the wait. Jess couldn't say the same thing about here steamed veggies and rice with sauce. Just a mediocre meal for her, but iconic for me.
Refueled on hot dog triumph and endless jalapeños, I was convinced there was newfound luck on my side. I charged back onto the showroom floor with renewed energy. A few new vendors had unlocked their gated entrances since taking a snack break, opening up new possibilities. One particular seller was a king of vintage goods. His royal area was like a castle compared to the other vendors, a throne of toys that crawled from the floor and reached to the ceiling. I was engulfed by walls of bagged, carded, and boxed toys. It was a mesmerizing display, a toy museum that made time stand still.
I rummaged through everything. And this guy really did have everything. The toy lines on display were infinite. Eventually I found a section dedicated to TMNT. I shuffled through all the options with hopeful enthusiasm. There was a solid collection of both open and unopened figures. I plucked a couple favorites off the shelf. Most of them were middle ground - figures I didn't have, but weren't at the top of my list either. I approached the vendor, trying to strike up a deal. Unfortunately, the plague of high prices was once again making me ill. Any attempts to negotiate fell on deaf ears. Did anyone at Frank & Sons actually want to sell their items? I put the overpriced items back on the shelf and just enjoyed the dizzying toy scenery. I had no problem just looking at the menu without ordering.
"Always look up." That's been one of my Mom's credos for ages. I took her saying to heart and scanned the shelves that were stacked high, beyond the reach of any normal human. Lots of dusty treasures occupied those towering shelves. Right before my neck started to ache, I noticed something. Perched at the top of the highest shelf was a line of giant Turtles. These aren't your basic figures. These dudes are massive, measuring about thirteen inches tall. They've become a hot commodity as TMNT's popularity has resurged. The seller had an impressive collection of both the cartoon and the Movie Star versions. I kept squinting, trying to decipher if this visual was real or a hallucination. The giant Movie Star figures are one of my top Holy Grails. Could I maybe at least purchase one here at Frank & Son? My fingers were crossed for Raphael.
I finally called the seller over, and he confirmed that this was no illusion. Being a Holy Grail, I eagerly wanted to make this purchase. These dudes aren't cheap, but I was prepared to take the financial hit. But of course, the Frank & Son curse struck again. More toys, more problems. The seller would only sell the giant figures as a set, not individually. My heart was broken. There was no way I could haul these giant boxes on an airplane back to the east coast. Shipping them would be a big expense and chore. I saluted the Move Star figures, one of my Holy Grails, and said goodbye.
I never did buy anything at Frank & Son. There were more offers, more high prices, but no purchases. The show had been a sweet spot for deals in the past when I had visited, but over time many of the vintage shops had been replaced with vendors selling new merchandise. The remaining sellers with classic collections have raised their prices to absurd levels (it's not good when eBay is the cheap option). That said, the show is still a lot of fun. My recommendation would be to visit Frank & Son with the expectation of a museum-like experience with no intent to make a purchase. That way if you come home with something, it will be an unexpected surprise that adds to the magic of the experience. We exited through the big garage door, leaving the show behind and taking one last whiff of those delicious dogs. It's all worth it for those dogs.
California was making my quest for toys difficult. Suffering a major defeat at Frank & Sons, I squirmed into the hotel bed with a bag of Salsa Verde Doritos. I nibbled the salty snack, recounting where I went wrong in my search. Did I need to alter my strategy? Each chip tasted better and better, but they provided no answers. I hoped the green bag would grant me luck in discovering a TMNT treasure. Green bag means green discoveries, right? I chanted this lame mantra in my head and eventually finished the entire bag. It wasn't my proudest moment, but it sure was tasty!
The journey concludes! Palm Springs PART 3 explores countless thrift stores and climbs an eight thousand foot mountain.