Kentucky sci-fi store offers hacked Star Wars toys and figures
A northern Kentucky suburb of Cincinnati is home to a unique toy store that celebrates the defunct Ohio toy company that helped put action figures on the map.
Earth to Kentucky sits on the corner of Main Street and W 9th Street, just three miles south of the original headquarters of shuttered toymaker Kenner.
The toy store hosts a monthly show in which dozens of artists create “bootleg” toys inspired by the 3-inch and 3/4-inch “Star Wars” action figures that turned Kenner into a juggernaut in the late 1970s. The coins went on sale to the general public and fetched over $400.
This event isn’t the only thing that sets Earth to Kentucky apart from your usual comic or hobby shops. There are cheaper trinkets aimed at kids and plenty of collectibles to buy that you’ll find elsewhere on the shelves, but things you won’t see anywhere else are much more visible.
Where else can you snap a selfie with a model Jar Jar Binks sliding around while the 1968 sci-fi movie “Gamera vs. Viras” plays on a nearby TV, for example?
“Obviously it’s part toy store and part art gallery,” says co-owner Dustin Benzing, “but we’re trying to get into that kind of ‘roadside attraction.’ We’ve always loved the quirky little places in Kentucky you can find, like in Cave City. We won’t necessarily be anything like that, but we want to carry that vibe and tradition of showmanship.
Dustin and his wife, Polly, opened Earth in Kentucky in September 2020 to much fanfare than expected, given the state of the world. What could have been horrible timing, he suspects, was fortuitous in part because COVID-19 restrictions were starting to ease and people were more willing to find a reason to get out and move around. . Turns out, opening a quirky toy store with select Robert Ripley-esque merchandise was exactly what people wanted.
Well, some people.
“Either people come in and they’re really excited, and they’re like, ‘What is this?’ because sometimes it’s like sensory overload,” Benzing said. “And then, it’s funny, there are people who will cross the front door, make a loop and leave immediately without saying a word, because it’s not for them. And that’s fine, I understand.
Dustin has been fascinated with science fiction and toy collecting since he was a kid. He studied art at Northern Kentucky University before a career in printing that spanned more than 20 years. In his spare time, he worked primarily in linocut and woodcarving, a hobby that eventually connected him with Dov Kelemer, a well-known advocate of pop culture art and designer toys. Through his relationship with Kelemer, Dustin began forging others with artists across the country and has since tumbled down the “rabbit hole.”
Polly, who works in commercial real estate, is responsible for much of the fit-out, which sometimes changes from week to week. Their daughter, Mabel, is an employee and their son, Oskar, is an artist who has contributed to shows. It’s a true “mom-and-pop” business, even if the trappings aren’t what you’d expect from an upstart store. At its core, Earth to Kentucky sells nostalgia, so it’s oddly appropriate that it operates in a way reminiscent of a time when the kind of the pop culture it celebrates — science fiction, action figures, general “weirdness” — was far less embraced by society than it was in 2022.
“We want people, when they leave the store, to have discovered either a new toy or a new artist, seen something they’ve never seen before, and maybe have fun,” says Benzing. .
Colonel Sanders Show
Earth to Kentucky’s goal is to hold monthly rotating art galleries, comprised of themed group shows and single artist-supported shows. The last show centered on a Kentucky icon: Colonel Sanders. Artists were given a blank mold of a 3-3/4-inch scale figure of the Kentucky Fried Chicken mascot (sculpted by Los Angeles-based artist Scott Cherry) and encouraged to do what they saw fit with it.
Among the 33 pieces in the exhibition resulting from this exercise: “Colonel Myers,” a Sanders inspired by Michael Myers with a diorama of the slasher’s childhood home “Halloween”; “Stretch Sanders”, based on another popular toy, Stretch Armstrong; “Deep Fried Guy,” which reimagines Food Network star Guy Fieri as the colonel; “KFC-3PO”, which has a droid-like Sanders aboard a Chewbacca-themed Grimace, a retired McDonald’s mascot; and “ColonelJuice,” a Beetlejuice version of Sanders designed by Jonathan Queen, a Cincinnati-based artist who painted “Cincinnati Toy Heritage,” a downtown mural that recognizes Kenner’s contributions to the city.
Most of the pieces have sold out. The on-site exhibit runs through May 8, but pieces will continue to be available for purchase on the Earth to Kentucky website.
From Earth to Kentucky
What: Toy store/art gallery
Or: 836 Main Street, Covington, KY 41011
Hours: 12pm-6pm Wednesday-Saturday; 12pm-5pm Sunday; closed Monday to Tuesday
More information: earth2kentucky.com
This story was originally published May 4, 2022 10:28 a.m.