WHEN JONATHAN STERNFELD DISCOVERED THERE WAS NO DATABASE FOR THE COMIC PUBLISHER’S MERCHANDISE, HE CREATED ONE
By Pamela Y. Wiggins
Are kid collectors drawn to the hobby naturally, or is it an interest that can be nurtured? For a hunter and gatherer like Jonathan Sternfeld, a bit of both led to his passion for collecting. His willingness to help others research their stashes of memorabilia related to Harvey Comics and share his collection with his community are the culmination of a lifelong dedication to his hobby.
KIDS & COLLECTING
Unlike children who follow in the footsteps of a collecting mentor, however, Sternfeld was different. His parents recognized he had a hobby he was clearly – almost intuitively – drawn to even though they didn’t have collections of their own. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t have some collecting fun together back in the day.
Sternfeld, now 47, has been at it for as long as he can remember. “I think my earliest collection was vending machine toys,” he recalls. “The machines had cards displaying the different toys available, and every time we went to the store I would beg for change on the way out to try to get one I didn’t have already.” At an early age, he fell into what some collectors jokingly call SCS – Set Completion Syndrome.
The course Sternfeld followed as a youngster led him to collections of bottle caps, postcards and even business cards. He also collected baseball cards until Star Wars came out in 1977. He considers his Star Wars cards his “first serious collection.”
A natural cataloger, he kept checklists of what he had and what he needed as he amassed sets featuring the film’s characters. “We were living in Queens, New York, at the time, and pretty much any store you went into would have a box of Star Wars cards on the counter by the register. We would buy packs from different stores to try to get a better mix and find the cards I needed to complete sets.”
About a year later, he fortuitously found a discarded comic book – Richie Rich Inventions #1 – and brought it home. Even though Sternfeld’s dad didn’t show an interest in collecting comics, he did enjoy reading this one with his boy. They began buying new issues at a local convenience store as well as scouring comic-book shops for back issues he didn’t have.
His grandmother got involved and helped Sternfeld set up checklists so he could keep track of his acquisitions. “We used an Overstreet Price Guide and a little spiral notebook with a page for each title,” Sternfeld says. He still sees this as a great way for kids to amass a collection with the help of an adult, perhaps using a computer spreadsheet instead of a notebook. He still recommends The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide as a great resource for comic-book enthusiasts of all ages.
His collecting pursuits waned a bit during high school, but while in college, his future wife introduced him to a new type of collection they could pursue together: gems and minerals. “This was a very different type of collecting,” he says, “because there are no ‘runs’ to collect, no sequentially numbered sets. Every specimen is different. You have to keep track of what you have, but you will never have everything.” It was only a matter of time before he rediscovered the comics he loved as a boy.
As often happens when kid collectors mature, Sternfeld reacquired his Richie Rich collection from his father after college. His wife enjoyed the collection, too, and he decided to hunt down the few issues he was still missing. When he started shopping online, he discovered Harvey-related toys and began buying those as well.
“I thought collecting the toys would be like collecting the comic books,” he says. “There would be a small number of them and then I would be done. I could not have been more wrong! I find items all the time that I have never seen before.” He also learned there was no price guide or list of related toys. He learned about “bootleg” items, and determined collectors needed to be aware of those, too.
“Harvey was founded in 1941, and I think some of the Casper and Joe Palooka items might be nearly that old,” he says. “Items of every type were made, from thimbles to dolls to pin-back buttons and rack toys, so collectors of most types of memorabilia can find something Harvey to add to their collections.”
Sternfeld’s cataloging skills came full circle when he found there were few resources for collectors of Harvey memorabilia. He determined a website where these toys could be cataloged and shared with others was sorely needed, and set out to build one. In 2014, he launched the Harvey Mercheum (a portmanteau word he created combining “merchandise” and “museum”). He says HarveyMercheum.com is the only website devoted to Harvey toys.
“I have communicated with people all over the world, and have had several people contribute photos and data for ‘exhibits.’ Even with these contributions, I constantly look for new items to add to the collection,” Sternfeld says. “One item I would really love to own, my ‘Holy Grail’ if you will, is a Ball S6000 Richie Rich slot machine.”
Sternfeld even took a portion of the Harvey Mercheum on tour last summer with an exhibition at a local venue. For two months, he filled several display cases at the Schenectady, N.Y., Public Library with a sampling of toys and comics from his collection. He hopes to find other venues where he can share his hobby, noting that many Harvey toys are still reasonably priced … making them perfect for kids with an interest in comic memorabilia.
Whether Sternfeld’s goals as an adult collector are a culmination of his natural propensity to hunt and gather or the result of support from his non-collecting family members, he is still at it. Happier than ever, he looks forward to seeing where Richie Rich, Casper the Friendly Ghost, and all his other Harvey friends will accompany him next.