June 14, 2006 - What would happen if Tolkien's Middle-Earth, the Star Wars galaxy, a comic-book convention, a toy store and an ice cream shop were rolled up and stuffed it into an Oro Valley shopping center? It might look a little like Toy Boxx, Jack Simon's ice cream parlor and shrine to the science fiction and fantasy universe of pop culture.
Simon, small business owner and collector extraordinaire, has filled every inch of the walls of his shop at 12152 N. Rancho Vistoso Blvd. with autographed photos and shelves full of hundreds of figurines and statues large and small. Star Wars and Lord of the Rings play most prominent, but a fan of almost any major comic book series should expect to find many of the characters out on display.
Whether the eccentric decor is just meant to set the ice cream shop apart, or whether the ice cream shop is just a money-maker for Simon's personal collector's gallery, is unclear. What is certain is that Toy Boxx is an independently owned business truly created in its owner's image.
Simon, 46, is part salesman, part obsessively completist collector, and part ice cream enthusiast. Born in Panama, he was a Navy brat who bounced him from place to place throughout his childhood. He remembers reading comic books in school while he was supposed to be writing essays, and he soon became aware of his tendency toward collection.
Collecting was in his blood - his father was an enthusiastic collector of coins and stamps. At first a largely passive collector, a chance encounter with the legendary Alec Guinness that steered Simon down the path of the collecting maniac. While still a high school student, Simon met the Obi-Won Kenobi actor at a Star Wars convention and even managed to score an autographed photo. That piece began Simon's collection in earnest, and can now be found proudly displayed on the wall of Toy Boxx.
Before opening his store at the intersection of Rancho Vistoso Boulevard and Tangerine Road, Simon was a recreation vehicle salesman in Tucson for 20 years. In 1990, he moved to Oro Valley, and later started a family with his wife. Having children left him wishing for a less demanding career that could offer him more time to spend with his sons, 4 and 9.
"To be honest, I was working 70 hours a week, seven days a week, and I never saw my kids," Simon said.
Then, Simon took his kids on a trip to Baskin-Robbins that would change his life.
"It was a terrible experience. The way they treated me and my kids was terrible, the service was terrible - when you go out someplace like that, you expect to be treated with some level of respect," Simon said.
He couldn't get the experience out of his head, and he quickly began to suspect that since this was the industry leader, there was no reason he shouldn't be successful opening an ice cream shop of his own.
"The next morning, I started making calls. Six months later, I was building the store," Simon recalls.
At the same time, Simon's friends had long suggested, quite seriously, that he open some sort of museum or emporium for the massive sci-fi//fantasy/comic collection that was consuming more and more rooms of his house. He knew he would have more than enough merchandise and collectibles to turn his ice cream shop into something truly unique.
"All my friends thought I was nuts for keeping it all, but they thought I should have a museum of toys. And that's what this is," Simon said.
Among the most prized items Simon keeps in the store is a artist proof of Treebeard, a walking, talking tree from the Lord of the Rings, of which Simon said only 10 were ever made. He also has a two-foot statue of Sauron, the trilogy's main villain. Other Lord of the Rings statues Simon keeps in the store were signed by director Peter Jackson, and he recently had a prototype statue of comic book hero Daredevil delivered from France.
"To me, it's an art collection, it's just comic art," Simon said.
His location in Oro Valley made perfect sense to him. A nearby resident with two young boys, Simon was well aware that there was very little for kids to do in the neighborhood.
Now open for two months, Toy Boxx hit a couple of minor bumps before opening. Although he said the Oro Valley town government was a pleasure to work with, he was shocked and appalled to learn he would have to pay Pima County $9,000 to hook up to the county sewer line. And if trying to find the shop at night is difficult, blame the man who was supposed to build Simon a light-up sign for his storefront.
"That sign guy ripped me off - it turns out he lost his license about two months before I paid him $3,700 to build me a sign, and he took off with the money," Simon said. "They eventually did catch him, but I'm just another person on a list of people he owes money."
Although Batman, Frodo, and Chewbacca may steal the limelight at Toy Boxx, it's the ice cream that keeps people coming back for more, Simon said.
He offers 34 flavors, including varieties such as strawberries and cream, cinnamon twist, peppermint stick, strawberry cheesecake, and green tea. He keeps the same flavors year-round because he believes they are the best, and he even offers a variety of flavors for diabetics.
"Other than me, only one store in Tucson has a selection of choices for diabetics. My father was a diabetic, and a lot of kids and teens have diabetes, as well as older people," Simon said.
His staff of seven consists of students from Oro Valley high schools and some who've started college. On Saturday nights, in Toy Boxx tradition, the employees dress up like their favorite comic book or movie character.
"I like it here, and dressing up. My friends are jealous that I work here, although it's a big temptation to eat a lot of ice cream," said Elyssa Ritz, a Toy Boxx employee since the shop opened and convincingly dressed as Batman villain Poison Ivy on a recent Saturday night.
Elisa Rizzo, dressed as heroine Elektra, said Toy Boxx is her first job and she's still not sick of ice cream.
"I love coming to work, because here we're able to really let loose and have fun," Rizzo said.
Erika Sotelo, 12, who visited Toy Boxx with her father and brother, said the ice cream at Simon's shop is her favorite.
"We like the atmosphere because you can just sit for a long time and just look at it all. And they definitely have better ice cream than anywhere else," Sotelo said.
Erich Wickerman, a resident of nearby Rancho Vistoso, said such a unique business deserves Oro Valley's support.
It's great that there's a store like this here that is so interesting and original. I really like that it's a local entrepreneur who owns it, because we need more local businesses," Wickerman said.