How Sarge & Red’s Toys is Selling Memories

This mesmerizing Utica toy store is a portal into childhood.
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John “Sarge” Davis (left) served as a U.S. Marine sergeant. Dee “Red” Davis grew up on a hobby farm in Maryland. She says toys weren’t so much her thing as a child — she was more interested in animals. // Photograph by Sal Rodriguez

There’s no audible door chime at Sarge & Red’s Toys and Collectibles in Utica. But there is the occasional “Wow!” The exclamation means a first-time customer has entered the building, owners John and Dee Davis have learned. And really, it’s hard not to be mesmerized the instant you walk in.

From floor to ceiling, the shelves are a library of plastic Americana (and more), old and new. You can go home with something as run-of-the-mill as a Cabbage Patch Kid or as uncommon as a miniature of the late Joan Rivers.

Just scratching the surface, you’ll find G.I. Joes and Barbies from 1980 to the present, Monster High dolls, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and action figures of professional wrestlers. There are toys from Disney films, horror movies, Star Wars, The Simpsons, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, and Scooby-Doo. There are also games and trading cards. The nostalgia is off the charts.

“Toys elicit everyone’s desire to tell stories from when they were kids,” Dee says.
Recently, a customer seeking merchandise of Wonderdog from the animated series Super Friends recalled a vivid memory. At age 4, channeling his favorite crime-fighting canine, he tied a blanket around his neck and jumped out of a window (which ended in a trip to the hospital).

Dee says stories like this are, above toys and memorabilia, her favorite things to collect. But the story that may be closest to her and John’s hearts begins in 2013, when the couple lived in West Virginia.

“We had gone through a big infertility struggle and gotten to the point where adoption was the path,” Dee says. “It’s expensive.”

So, they took to eBay as a side hustle. They began selling various possessions to save for adoption expenses (which totaled about $30,000, John recalls). Shortly after, some friends gifted them a duffel bag filled with Magic: The Gathering cards. John researched carefully, determining which cards were valuable and which ones weren’t. Magic card sales proved lucrative, and their work was rewarded — the couple adopted their son, John, that same year and their daughter, Talia, in 2018.

They continued to sell. Then one day, John was looking for a Magic card on Craigslist when a collection of He-Man figurines caught his eye. Soon, the couple branched into toy sales, and their online empire grew. Eventually, they were able to quit their jobs and move to Utica, John’s hometown. The Davises cut the ribbon at Sarge & Red’s in November 2021. Their Van Dyke Avenue brick-and-mortar was a former novelty shop that had been unused for quite a while.

The chock-full store hosts meet and greets with pro wrestlers like Jake “The Snake” Roberts. // Photograph by Sal Rodriguez

“A lot of blood, sweat, tears, and cuss words went into this building,” Dee says.

To maintain their constantly rotating collection, the Davises regularly go picking — traveling to flea markets, antiques stores, business liquidations, and estate sales in search of retro finds. These treasure hunts are documented on their YouTube channel. A video from 2020 is their most viewed to date and documents John’s favorite haul.

The couple bought the contents of a house that had sat vacant for over a decade. As the camera shows, the house was a time capsule, filled with over $40,000 worth of well-preserved toys from the ’80s. It took eight trailers to fit all the belongings, and three years later, they’re still sorting through them. Some of the items were sold to prop houses in Los Angeles. Not too long ago, a sealed tube of ’80s Bonne Bell Lip Smacker lip balm went for $995.

“We’re not selling stuff; we’re selling memories, really,” John says. “It’s amazing what a memory will do.”

Santa is coming to Sarge & Red’s from noon to 3 p.m. on Nov. 26 and Dec. 12, 16, and 23. For store hours and location visit sargeandreds.com or call 586-843-3399.


This story is from the November 2023 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition