LINCOLN PARK — Just a few days removed from taking home top honors at the Designer Toy Awards, 40-year-old Kirby Kerr was back at his Lincoln Park shop tidying displays of figurines that retail for as much as $6,500.
"I'm busy running the best toy store in the world," Kerr said. "I say that with as much humility as possible."
Kirby Kerr and his wife Whitney opened Rotofugi — a nod to their dog, Fugi — in 2004 as a sideline, but the business has become a world leader in the designer toy industry.
Artists from around the world routinely host events and display their work in the shop's gallery at 2780 N. Lincoln Avenue, and votes by fans at the Designer Toy Awards in New York City named Rotofugi Best Toy Store and Best Online Toy Store. It was the second straight year the Kerrs won both awards.
"When we started, we fully expected for me to keep my job," Kirby Kerr said. "After about nine months, we realized that was not viable. Do you give up the day job to try and pursue the dream?"
Designer toys started out as a way for artists with a following to sell high-end merchandise to fans, but over the years many artists have begun to focus purely on the vinyl toys.
"While a painting might be several thousand dollars, you can get a toy for $50 or $100," Kerr said.
About half of the customers who come in Rotofugi are walkups, but the rest are collectors who seek out the store for its rare toys. The business has gained international attention as well, and ships about 20 to 30 percent of its orders abroad.
Kerr said one of his customers was in Barcelona, and when the customer told a local he was from Chicago, the first thing that came out of the Spanish person's mouth was "Oh, Rotofugi!."
"It kind of blows my mind that a random person from Chicago would bump into a customer from Barcelona," he said.
Employees of the store are toy enthusiasts, too. Although 22-year-old Dillon Perry grew up hating toys, he can't get enough of working at the shop.
Perry's father, Michael, owned a toy manufacturing company called Rocket USA, in Forest Park, that is no longer in business. But it used to sell its tin toys at Rotofugi.
"I never really expected to spend lots of money on toys, but now I do," he said.