CORTLAND, Ohio – Ignore what Mom and Dad taught you: It’s really not what’s on the inside that counts.
It’s all about the outer appearance – the color of an outfit, body condition, a pretty – or ugly – face, scars, cleanliness.
Little details can make or break you.
Just ask 33-year-old Shawn Mark, a self-proclaimed lover of old toys and PEZ-head, for details of his collector’s world.
He can’t even get his 4-year-old to eat those candy sticks packaged with each PEZ dispenser.
In the past five years, the Cortland man has amassed a collection of nearly 1,000 PEZ candy dispensers, and the collection grows more each day.
Kids of all ages. Approximately 250 PEZ dispensers stand at attention on a classroom’s perimeter shelf, looking down on Marks’ eighth-grade science students.
The Simpsons, Kermit and Miss Piggy, scary monsters, Chewbacca and Princess Leia watch their every move.
Their presence hardly sweetens lessons, but adds flavor and fun to the classroom. Each PEZ there is a gift from a former or current student, Mark said.
The kids eat the candy, he gets the packaging.
Iconic. PEZ candy has been an American icon for 50 years.
It was first marketed as a compressed mint candy more than 70 years ago in Austria. The German word for peppermint – pfefferminz – was shortened to PEZ.
The candy has since been adapted to quench sweet tooths with fruity flavors. According to PEZ, more than 3 billion of the candies are consumed annually in the United States alone.
But forget the candy. It’s not the draw.
The dispensers reflect pop culture and are a hot collectible for children of all ages.
Mark shared half of his collection with public viewers during February at the Warren-Trumbull County Public Library’s Cortland Branch.
The display featured hundreds of dispensers from the 1950s-1990s, including seasonal, cartoon and movie characters, limited editions and more.
More than the best. Shawn Mark’s addiction gripped him about five years ago.
An avid collector of old toys, he traveled to garage sales and flea markets with a friend to scope out the scene. Soon the two men were collecting PEZ, raiding more than 50 sales per week.
“My heart would be pounding, searching for a box full of PEZ,” said Mark.
“I’ve never came across anything good for a quarter. I’m still looking,” he said.
The friend eventually sold his collection to another dealer and left Mark to collect the best for himself.
Survival. Though PEZ dispensers hang near cash registers at almost every convenience store, Mark says those mass-produced items will never be worth much.
There are too many of them, and they’re not that special any more. The real draw is in PEZ dispensers that survived the ’70s and ’80s.
“Think about it. When you were young, you ate the candy, played with the toy, maybe broke it, and threw it away,” he said.
“Not that many of them survived.”
Know values. Mark travels to shows and sales across the region, including the much-talked about PEZamania show in Cleveland each year.
“We went there and our eyes popped out when we saw what some of them sold for,” Mark said of his early experiences.
Still, he stands by his mantra: He won’t pay more than $1 for most PEZ available today. The older ones, well, he’ll give it a thought.
“Any old toy I get for a good deal, I’ll keep. I love old toys, but you have to know values,” Mark said.
Thousands of PEZ have book values of more than $1,000. Some are booked at more than $5,000.
“I’m more in the ballpark of $25-$500 with my collection,” Mark admitted.
Steals and deals. The Mary Poppins PEZ is one of the rarest ones in his collection. After production, only one wave of the Poppins candy holder got out before the Walt Disney Company decided it was disgusted with the way Mary looked and halted production.
It was too late for the first run, already on shelves.
Mark estimates his Mary Poppins – a blue stem topped with Mary’s bright red hair and lips and a pink hat – is worth $450. She could be worth more if she had blushing cheeks.
Mark admits he’s not sure how they manufacture PEZ dispensers. But he does know few PEZes have painted faces – and higher values – because of however they’re produced.
“Really, PEZes have pitiful paint jobs. They’re nothing great,” Mark said.
Other favorites. Some of his other favorites include a Wolfman and a pony.
The Wolfman figure was a gift from a student and is one of few with sentimental value in the collection. No holds barred, the rest are for sale.
A rare blue-headed pony PEZ was harder to come across.
Mark, who buys on eBay, came across an auction for a PEZ. The seller had photographed a pile of the candy dispensers found in her attic, but was selling only a single one pictured. It wasn’t the pony.
Mark saw more value lying there in the background, waiting to be added to his collection. Soon, after haggling with her, he added 36 more to his collection for a hefty price of $1,250.
He thinks that box of PEZes may be his best buy ever.
Another good buy was a Santa Claus PEZ. His head still flips backward, but he’s got more than the traditional stick for a body – he actually has a body shape. The candy holder is worth about $100.
Colors and markings. According to Mark, stem color doesn’t matter for most of the PEZ dispensers. Sometimes it does.
The werewolf was the only PEZ ever put on a brown stem, and a three-piece witch was the only ever made on a purple stem.
Most of the dispensers are manufactured in Austria, Hungary or the USA. Stamped ‘Made in Mexico’ or ‘Made in Brazil’ quadruples the value. But those are hard to find – in all his searching, Mark has yet to hold a Mexican or Brazilian PEZ in his hand.
“Those are the ones big-time buyers put in their collection. We never see them.”
Thrill of the hunt. Still, Mark is enthusiastic about his collection. For him, it’s the thrill of the hunt, the satisfaction of knowing he’s got a particular PEZ in his collection.
“I don’t keep duplicates. Sell, sell. It’s more fun that way.”
And for Mark, collecting is fun, but he sees the manufacturer knocking him down from his sugar-high.
“I don’t think they should reproduce [PEZes] from the 1950s and ’60s. Don’t ruin collecting by flooding the market,” he said.
No worries. Still, Mark buys the best he can afford for his growing collection. Most of them are kept at home on shelves within reach of his 7-month-old.
Mark isn’t worried. Not every one is worth a lot of money, he admits.
“Sometimes you just gotta take a loss. Throw it away, throw it out the window, let the kids play with it.
“This is a big business, and if you know what you’re doing you can make money, plain and simple. But don’t keep your money tied up,” he said.
And mostly, Mark is committed to keeping his collection fun by buying only PEZes he likes.
“If you pay $50 for something and then learn it’s only worth $10, does it matter? If you’re only in it for the dollar signs, proceed with caution. Everybody gets burnt,” he said.
“It’s all a hobby for me” he said.
(Reporter Andrea Myers welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at email@example.com.)
* Small numbers printed on the stem help date a PEZ and can boost a value. PEZes made in the 1950s are from the 2.6 version. Today’s PEZes are marked with 4.9.
* Betsy Ross was the only human ever depicted with a PEZ. The only PEZ ever made with a shape different than the typical stick and head was a Santa Claus.
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