Aug. 18, 2023 By Jessica Militello
When The Museum of Nostalgia in Astoria opened its doors last month, within two weeks there were guests that became regulars and an overwhelming amount of messages online and calls to the museum looking for certain toys, or to sell and even donate their collectibles.
The part toy store, part museum offers its visitors a portal to simpler times and innocent joy-when toys were brought to life by childhood imagination.
The museum is filled with thousands of toys, games, and other collectibles, mostly from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s.
The owners, Jeff Zappala and Phebe Taylor, have been collecting toys for fun for most of their lives and wanted to share their world with the community.
“We just really wanted to make sure that we can contribute to the community and do something that’s different in this neighborhood,” said Zappala.
“We do sell on eBay too, but it’s much more fun to have a kid come in here and [see a toy] and start screaming that he hasn’t had that since he was little,” Taylor added.
Zappala and Taylor have been a couple since 2010 and got married in 2015. They both work in education, Zappala teaches second grade and Taylor is a sightseeing guide for a student travel company.
When they met, Zappala mainly collected Transformers, and Taylor had a more diverse collection from her childhood era. It became a part of their relationship to help each other grow their collections.
“When we got together, we just kept the cycle of collecting,” said Zappala. “Every Christmas, every birthday, we’d buy each other toys and we just kept adding to our collection.”
Eventually they would have floor to ceiling shelves that a friend built for them, but they didn’t initially have a plan in mind to open a museum. Their first taste of sharing their collection came in 2020. While stuck at home during the city shutdown from the pandemic, a friend suggested they audition for HGTV’s Cash in the Attic, which they initially auditioned for via a Zoom call.
While the premise of the show is to see how much your items are worth to sell them and put the money toward a major goal, Taylor and Zappala gained something else from participating in it.
“The expert on the show is actually just a wonderful comic bookstore owner upstate,” said Taylor. “So he was our first contact with someone who owns a small business in that realm of nerdy, geeky collector stuff. The best thing about the show was not what we made in the auction, it was really meeting him, and he also introduced us to other people that have been very helpful.”
When the 31st Avenue Open Street in Astoria became introduced to the neighborhood, the couple used that as a first point of contact with the community to get a better idea of what people responded to and were interested in. They would eventually become regulars at the Queens Night Market in Flushing, which they still attend, but once they found an available space for rent in the neighborhood, they were more than ready to put their ideas to life.
“New York City doesn’t really have a lot of vintage toy shops,” said Taylor. Zappala added, “I think if we were just a toy shop we might be doing even better, but we wanted that little touch that separated us from any other toy shop.”
Taylor and Zappala admit that with all of the toys and collectibles the museum is filled with, it’s only about 5% of their collection at home. They also have arcade style video games and a vintage Ms. Pac Man cocktail table which they keep in one of their most beloved aspects of the museum, a family room, complete with a plastic covered couch and TV, just like you may remember growing up.
“Her concept was to have that environment of someone’s basement or your family room that you kept your toys in,” Zappala said. “I love this room. I never dreamed of how it would all come together. It just has a great feel.”
According to the couple, many visitors often make themselves at home and watch whatever cartoon or movie they might have been playing that day. Overall, the reception from the community has been incredible.
In the short time since they’ve opened, they have received great feedback and are regularly brainstorming to create new, fun concepts for their visitors to enjoy.
“The turnout has been amazing, people have been so supportive,” said Zappala. “A couple in the neighborhood keeps on bringing different family members in. There was a guy that came in and he was tearing with joy. He was so happy to be in the experience and seeing triggering memories, like “I had this toy when I was younger.”
The Museum of Nostalgia is located at 31-27 31 St. in Astoria and is open from noon to 7 p.m. daily, except on Wednesday.