Like Toys On Christmas Morning: A Visit to Kidd’s Toy Museum

“Nobody knows about us,” was one of the last things we heard as we were leaving the Kidd Toy Museum at 1301 SE Grand Avenue. I had gone there with Will Simmons from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania who’s famous for his Pittsburgh Orbit blog. The comment wasn’t made to elicit sympathy, it was a statement that had to do with the museum’s no advertising policy.

It may have been the ninth time I’d heard about it, more on that later, but the tip that got me through the door came from writer Chuck Palahniuk. I had heard rumblings about the place and read about it in Palahniuk’s book “Fugitives and Refugees,” but my preconceived notions of a what a toy museum could be may have kept me away. I imagined being herded into an annoying gift shop filled with precious toys for sale, but no, Kidd’s Toy Museum is nothing like that–a characteristic that cements its low-key charm. Palahniuk recommended the place in a list of Portland must-sees in one of the weekly newspapers making it an opportune place to visit with an out-of-town guest.

photo by Will Simmons

In all my overstimulation resulting from looking through rooms of old toys, I overlooked getting the name of the woman Will and I spoke with as we were headed out the door. She was informative and gracious looking up at us from where she sat in a cluttered office area. I missed the origins of Kidd’s toy collecting mania as it was described because I was slow to turn on my phone’s voice recorder. I recall that Frank Kidd’s collecting bug started with finding and buying a toy on a business trip.

Regardless of the genesis, the museum holds quite the collection of banks, dolls, cars, trains and other odd genres. The collection is grouped by category, housed in glass enclosed cases and lit by fluorescent lighting. We were told that the museum exists in part because an inheritance tax that might have required parts of the collection be sold off. Kidd created a nonprofit to keep the collection together, a nonprofit status that requires the toys be made available to the public.

Kidd owned the museum’s building where there had been a fire from a former tenant’s restaurant. At that point the decision was made to remodel the space for the toy displays. The museum opened fifteen years ago. As crammed full objects as the museum is, it houses only one-third of the collection. Kidd shares the toys he likes the most. Part of the museum’s inclusion of multiple versions of the same of item made sense when we were told that Kidd bought the best examples of what he could. This had Will chiming in, “sometimes three or four.” Many of the banks, are duplicated. Sometimes it’s different paint jobs or different castings that are hard to tell a part. The collection was described as being “generally pre-World War 2.”

photo by Will Simmons

One feature of the museum is how unlike a museum it is. It’s an opportunity to see a well-curated antique toy collection. The displays offer little information like brand names or dates. This minimalism is due, we were told, to the notion that signs would take up valuable display space. Seeing the objects as they are offers visitors a to experience the toys and form their own interpretations.

Word about the museum doesn’t get out due to that lack of advertising. It was explained that, “people locally don’t tend to know we’re here. People from out-of-town look for things to do.” Word of mouth comes from a woman who runs a North Portland candy store who recommends that people visit the museum. People are sure to mention when the “Candy Lady” sent them.

As we were running out of conversation we were given a quick lesson in advertising. Our museum contact told us what she’d learned in an advertising class. She explained that you have to see something three times before you actually see it and three more times before you act on it. The math means you have to see something nine times before you do anything about it. The number nine stuck in my mind. It seemed as good an explanation as any as to why I had lived in Portland for nine years before l made it to Kidd’s Toy Museum. Don’t let it take you that long.

I received a comment that made a good point. It should be noted that the museum is open weekdays from 9am to 5pm. It has no weekend hours.

Note: There are items on display at the museum that some might find controversial. At a time when we’re offering wishes of good will to all mankind I made a decision not to delve into this aspect of the collection. I may visit it at a later time.

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