“I always wanted to make films,” admits Mark Pedersen.
But the founder of iconic local toy emporium Dr. Tongue’s I Had That Shoppe was instead destined for roles in the post-production side of the industry. Around the turn of the ‘90s, Pedersen headed the Portland State University student film committee, worked as an assistant manager for Cinema 21, and helped create the first line of Dark Horse model kits based on classic Universal monsters. Then, after opening his store 30 years ago, the Portland native began amassing an international fan base as one of the country’s most prominent authorities on film and television merchandise.
After moving three times in the past few decades, Dr. Tongue’s is now located in the Roseway neighborhood, and Pedersen has yet another claim to fame. His store is featured in the fourth season of A Toy Store Near You, the pandemic hit Amazon Prime docuseries developed by the Nacelle Company (The Movies That Made Us, All the Way Black) and directed by its founder Brian Volk-Weiss.
Still dubious about whether the attention will translate to sales, Pedersen has noticed additional foot traffic since the episode began streaming Christmas week, but he still found time to speak with WW about the origins of Dr. Tongue and how he managed to stay afloat during the pandemic.
WW: Dr. Tongue isn’t your real name?
Mark Pedersen: No, and I’m not a doctor. I just play one on TV. It goes way back to the ‘90s when I was trying to open my first toy store. I didn’t wanna just call it Mark’s Toys, you know, and I was a big SCTV fan. Do you remember Count Floyd’s Monster Horror Chiller Theatre? The movies were always Dr. Tongue’s 3D House of (fill in the blank). The funniest part? There’s an actual Dr. Tongue here in town—a practicing physician.
Ear, nose and throat?
Podiatrist, I believe. I’ve gotten calls from patients.
And do you take the appointments?
I’ve filled a couple of prescriptions [laughs].
How did the toy shop come about?
It’s just one of those things I kind of stumbled into. I was out of college, and during the good old days of Powell’s, there used to be a ton of magazines right next to the Anne Hughes Coffee Room. I grabbed a model and toy collector magazine that sounded interesting, started flipping through, and that’s what did it. I mean, I’ve always enjoyed toys. I’d always gone into thrift stores and bought interesting things for myself. In high school, I’d regularly visit the toy section of Sprouse-Reitz and buy something that caught my eye. I’d put stuff on display. That just kind of turned into a business.
Actually, if you want to go way back, I used to sell toys out of my garage when I was really young—like, 8 or 9 years old. This is a true story. Instead of having a lemonade stand, I set up sheets of plywood on a couple of sawhorses and put out my toys for sale so I could go buy more.
You recently appeared in a docuseries looking at the ways in which small toy shops have kept doors open during the pandemic.
That’s kind of how the show started. The first season was all about COVID’s effect on independent stores, but from my guess, I think they found that people already living in their own COVID bubbles didn’t want to be hit over the head with it. I can understand that. And, if you’re going to show all these great mom-and-pop toy stores, why not show some of the toys?
You’ve managed to stay afloat, clearly.
Well, a brick-and-mortar presence definitely helps purchasing. I’m not going to flea markets or garage sales during a pandemic, but a lot of people who’ve been cleaning out their houses end up bringing me stuff. Somebody dug a Star Wars Blue Snaggletooth out of the attic. I bought a tin battery-operated Godzilla from a customer who’s liquidating rare pieces. A couple Shogun Warriors have wandered into the shop.
Compared to books or records, do you feel toy stores are better suited to surviving the age of internet retail?
Oh, yeah. That’s the other reason I’m still here. You can come into the store and feel the toys, touch them, see if there’s any kind of hidden defect. I’ve had a lot of people tell me they’re tired of being ripped off by eBay and would just really like to see things firsthand before making the decision to buy. Honestly, when you buy toys from people, you have to at least give them a fair market value—wholesale value, at that. Treat them with respect. Don’t insult their intelligence. If you’re a scumbag, word gets around in the collecting community.
And, by this point, your reputation is well known outside the Northwest.
Oh, yeah. [The East Burnside Street location] was definitely a destination store. We had people from all over the world, and because of the reputation, they come to this one now, too. It was fairly common to have customers on regular buying trips for their own shops in Japan.
The current incarnation’s somewhat smaller.
It’s packed full of vintage goodness, looks great and people seem to really like it. But, you know, it’s funny. A few people have come up and said they thought it would be bigger, but I guess everything looks bigger on TV.
SEE IT: A Toy Store Near You streams on Amazon Prime.