Builders are what people in the model toy industry call their fellows. Tom Dang, the owner of International Model Toys, located in Seattle’s International District, has been serving local builders for 23 years. Mr. Dang, an award-winning builder himself, has a deep passion for model toys. He also loves sharing his knowledge with builders who walk into his shop.
In case you are unfamiliar with model building, model toys usually come in a box kit. There are many pieces in the box, and if you follow the instructions, you can build robots, ships, planes, and more. But, the most interesting aspect of model-building is when builders “customize freely” – creatively adding their own colors, sprays, making their own pieces, and so on.
I caught up with Mr. Dang to talk about International Model Toys’ products and future goals. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
International Examiner: What led you to open International Model Toys?
Tom Dang: To be honest, I love models…. I liked building things when I was a little kid. And then I have been building toys, and model cars, and also some other models…from different countries.
When I was a freshman in high school, I got a chance to go visit Japan, and we saw a lot [of] models over there. Back in the late 80s or early 90s, these things [were] not quite that popular in the U.S. So, we didn’t get a chance to see all of these in the U.S. That’s why when we were over there, it kind of caught my eyes. I started buying a lot of them, and [I would] pack them in my suitcase and bring them back.
And the next year, I got chance to go there again and…I started talking to the owner of the store and tried to get information. And finally, I packed all the information together; I tried to get a hold of them and open up [an] account so I can buy wholesale from them and bring them back to the U.S.
IE: How did you decide to open your store in the International District specifically?
TD: Well you know, before I owned a business, me and my friends, we [would] always come down to Chinatown to play when we were younger. And we [would] go down here because we liked the food here, we liked the cultures. And back then, back in the 80s, [there were] a lot more shops in the I. District. Back then we called [it] Chinatown. There [were] like a lot of different shops, and different kinds of food…. And that’s why we’d hang out at Chinatown.
So the first thing [when] I wanted to open up a business, that is the first place that I would choose. And it kind of popped up on my mind, well because this is the place that I came down to play, I [grew] up with, and I want to do my business right here.
IE: In your opinion, what are the best things about building models?
TD: …[T]hese days, there’s a lot more people that build models. Especially Japanese robot models – we call them Gundams. And the exciting [thing] about that is now, we’ve got internet and we can go online. We can learn lessons from YouTube, and some other social media videos [that] show you to work on the model, and to get it done better.
And you know, also, I can see now the new, younger generation – that they come together with a lot of better ideas than what we had from before. So now we share a lot of the models that you build, to share your display. Also, we bring them on to competitions and contests these days. And from a basic kit like this, now we can turn it into a really nice-looking display. …[I]t could be an art form right now…[and] we can commission built pieces for customers at their request, too.
IE: I noticed there are many Japanese model toys in your shop. What kinds of differences are there between Japanese and American [models]?
TD: Well, we mainly carry imported Japanese hobbies, and toys and figurines. But the difference between the U.S. and the Japanese [products] is…[with] Japanese [products], there is more specializing on animations. [Those] kind of robots, like gaming robots and toys. They have their own line of products that goes right on to the products that we have, and they match really, really well.
In most of the Japanese models…[they] snap together. They snap-lock together. Pretty much you don’t have to build them with glue anymore. And I think the idea is [to make them accessible] for all different kinds of ages and all kind of different builder levels. If you are [a] first-time beginner, walking into this model building, then you…don’t have to do that much anymore. All you have to do is kind of follow the instructions and snap them together from pieces and turn them into a model, and you can play with them right there. Or display them right there.
[With] the U.S. models…I would say that they’re more into military styles. Like WWII planes, and battle ships, and those kinds [of things]. All maybe 1/24th scale. Cars, and stuff like that. Back then I’d build a lot of U.S. models too, but most of them require glue. I’m not sure if they still do these days, but back then, you’d just have to do a little bit more work [on] it to make it better. You’d have to glue them, spray them, paint them, and everything.
Because now the new generation is more into gaming and watching animations, so that has kind of helped to make the Japanese models a little bit more popular these days in the United States.
IE: There are so many Japanese model toys [in your store], and these instructions are maybe in Japanese. In that case, do you translate [to English]? How do you make these model toys [accessible to] American people?
TD: Well, that’s the strange thing. I wish I [could] read and write Japanese myself, but I only know a [few] Kanji that I can understand because I learned [them] from my family. The strange thing is like, [with] this menu, the instructions [are] all in Japanese, but the good thing is it has the number – the part, and the number of the pieces – it’ll say right on there. … So, you can kind of follow it, look at the menu, follow it, cut it out, and put them together. That’s how it is. I mean, I know a lot of people [who] don’t know Japanese that much, but we’re all good builders.
IE: Model toys are very popular in Japan, but I haven’t seen many model toy shops in the United States. Are they becoming more popular nowadays? What is the situation here?
TD: Well, yes. We are pretty much the only hobby shop in this area. …[T]here are some in downtown Seattle, there are some in Southcenter. … In Washington state, pretty much there is one in every city right now.
But we are down here at the ID just because we [were] here from the beginning. So, we are not moving, we are not reselecting locations…we are permanently here.
[Model building] is getting more and more popular these days, and a lot of people are into this because of the wave of the internet, like I said before. And also, these things gather people together, just because in Washington state, there are competitions all year long. But the biggest one [IPMS] is in April.
In April, there are a few big contests that bring people together to show their displays. And that is kind of a motivation, to make people build more models. Then everybody is waiting for spring to come, and we just go there and display our models, and have fun with each other. Normally we talk a lot, and we share a lot of how-to tips [for how] to make better models. Now in Washington state, there is even a club – they call themselves Gunpla Builders. …
IE: How do you select your products?
TD: I normally follow a lot of animations and I kind of follow games, too. I don’t play games a whole a lot, but I do pay attention [to] what is on, and what is “in.” And also, I talk to a lot of my customers that come in here.
Because in this business, there’s a lot of choices. There’s so many different lines you can choose from. And to be honest, I don’t know everything. I don’t know everything. So, I kind of choose my products because of the way I look at them – I like them. And I think they’re going to work out at the store because they’re related to the theme we are carrying at the story.
And the second point is that I like to talk to my customers when they come in here and shop. We have conversations about models, hobbies, and what is hot. And sometimes I’m asking for ideas, and advice on how to make [my] shop look better or work out better. So that is how we trade ideas.
Also, I supply [models] from Japan. Sometimes [suppliers and I] talk to each other on the phone or on the computer. And if I have special requests from customers, I send [it] in, and hopefully if the product [is] going out from Japan, they’ll ship it to me. If not, I just have to wait until whenever there is a chance. And that’s what it is. We normally just go onto a computer and look for new products, and talk to people about it, and see how popular it will be, and how long that produce will last.
But mainly I just order pretty much anything from Bandai [a Tokyo-based model company]. We more specialize in Bandai’s [products]. The reason why is I [wanted to] try to turn this into a one-of-a-kind shop. I mean, if you’re looking for Bandai products, we’ve got pretty much everything here for you. Bandai, Tamiya, Mr. Hobby – those related products to model building. [When] you walk in here, [it’s] pretty much one stop for builders. That’s what our goal is, and we’re working on it slowly.
IE: Are your customers mostly experienced or beginners when it comes to model building?
TD: We have a lot of different clientele. I have guys [who are] seven years old or eight years old come in here and buy a little tiny [model kit] – we call them the BB Gundam, Super Deformed Gundam – which is really easy to build. But after a couple month, their skill [increases]. They want something harder to build. [I’ve been] in this business [for] the last 23 years…. I have seen a lot of kids that come into the store, grow up, and now [are] a really nice young man. They are really good builders now.
And we’ve also got people coming down here to pick up paints and supplies, and those are like professional builders. And I have people come from the University of Washington – they teach there, they’re professors there. And I have people [who] work at an arts store on the other side of the city, and then they come down here and they buy models.
So we’ve got a lot of different kind of ages, different kind of backgrounds…[and] different levels. I’m really happy to keep my door open for whoever comes in and [wants to] talk about these things or wants to build these things. And we always share ideas…to keep them company.
IE: What has been the most difficult thing running a small business?
TD: Well…we are facing a lot of high rent [costs]. In Seattle, the real estate is so high, and everybody wants a little bit more than what used to be. And we are paying a lot of more than what we should for being in business.
The second thing is that now we compete with a lot of internet business. And we compete with the local business and the internet – about pricing, about who’s better in service, or who knows more about these things. So, we compete a lot… And when one hobby line is getting popular, everybody wants to do it. Everybody wants to [supply] it. And that’s why now you can buy a Gundam at a book store. And that…is the most difficult thing for me, to run [my] business.
But what I am trying to do is…to share my knowledge with builders. I build commissioned pieces to keep myself busy here. I also paint helmets. Whatever I can do to make an income, I would love to do it just to keep this place alive. And on the weekend, I go out and do some side jobs, and try to work for somebody else [to] get pay for myself. And sometimes we need that check to bring it back here, and to keep this place alive and open, or just for buying the toys, and stuff like that.
But it’s good though. Because the more competing – to me, it kind of gives me a little bit more energy to put myself [into it]. To walk, or to run a little bit faster…. To just catch up [so as not to] be left behind. Or what I can do better.
So now, small business is pretty tough. You see a lot of neighborhood businesses in Chinatown or the I. District shut down because some of the older people or the older generation, they retire. And then the younger generation in the family, they don’t want to take it over because they’re not interested in doing these things. Because a lot of people say that if you’re going out to work for somebody [else], you make a bigger paycheck than being a…[small] business owner. That’s how it is these days.
And that’s why a lot of things here, you know, small shops – I remember when I was a little kid and we’d normally come down [here] to buy a lot of different things. Toys, clothes, and everything…but now they’re all gone! And that’s the reason, because a lot of people think that [small business ownership is] not worth it anymore. With the time you put in, sometimes at the end of the month, you don’t have much left on hand after [doing] payroll. So yeah, that makes it pretty tough.
IE: What are your hopes for International Model Toys in the future?
TD: Well, to be honest, I don’t have big hopes for myself. I just work everyday. Everyday the first thing [I think when] I get up is I need to come down here and open my door, and work on what needs to be done, and move on and get my day going.
I [want to] try to hold on to this place. I try to hold on to it, and I try to work harder with this place, just to make it a little bit more successful. I want a hobby shop that’s open in the neighborhood, where people can come in and look at the product, feel it, and buy it. You know, rather than you just look at a picture on the screen and you click it and you order it – you don’t know when or what is going to be coming in to your [mail]box.
So, I want to stay open. That’s what I hope for the International Model Toys. I always look around and try to find out what should I carry at the store. What is the popular product line that will help me to [make] my business a little bit busier. And also, we always look at prices, and try to have things in the store that are a little bit more decent, a little bit fairer, just [so] everybody [can] come in and stay happy. That’s what I’m hoping for.
IE: What are your hopes for the neighborhood as a whole?
TD: Well, like I said, in the ID – I grew up here. Back then, we’d come down here every weekend because of the food, and…to play and stuff.
I have seen a lot of change for the last maybe ten years. I believe that the changes will make a better business area for people who want to come in and invest. And I hope this place will stay the way it is, or [get] even better…[with] everybody trying to help each other out. Just to keep [the neighborhood] clean, to keep it a safe place for shoppers.
And [for] myself, I want to stay until maybe [age] 65, then to retire from Chinatown. Yeah, that’s what it is. Right now, I’m pretty happy with what we’ve got…in the neighborhood. I’ve never had any problem here, to be honest. Sometimes I do have small things that happened around me, but it’s nothing major to be worried about. …
I notice a lot more organizations down here that [are] helping out to [make] this place better every day, every year. And I do appreciate that.
International Model Toys’s opening hours are Mon – Sat: 11:30 a.m. – 7:30 p.m. and Sun: 11:30 a.m. – 7:00 p.m. International Model Toys is located at 524 S King Street, Seattle, WA 98104 in the International District. For more information, check out International Model Toys’s official website: aeroaces.com/internationalmodeltoys.htm