Space Needle pens are still clicking for inventor
At age 87, Alex Toth, of Whidbey Island, is again hustling what he says was the biggest-selling souvenir at the 1962 Seattle World's Fair, the plastic Space Needle pens. He sold 487,000 back in the day, and is now peddling the 18,000 originals that remain.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Hey, Alex Toth, how would you describe yourself?
"I'm what is known as a hustler," he says. "In all the time I've been married, wife and five kids, nobody has ever missed a meal."
His current project actually is a rerun of something Toth dreamed up and hustled 50 years ago. He sold 487,000 of these babies:
Plastic ballpoint pens, five inches long, shaped like the Space Needle, just in time for the fabulous World's Fair. They were displayed on cardboards that advertised: "Made in Seattle, USA ... The restaurant revolves!"
The way the pens were put together, at the top, by the clicker, a circular piece of plastic turned. It was accidental design, but for Toth, that happy coincidence became one more way to hustle the pens. Sure, that's the revolving restaurant.
Fast-forward five decades, and Toth is back selling the pens — the original pens, in three colors, although he had to replace the dried-up ink cartridges. He's now marketing them as collector's items, retailing at $10 apiece at your Bartell Drugs.
All these years, Toth had 18,000 of them in boxes. Call it a little bit of overproduction.
"The pens were our sixth kid," says Barbara Toth, 83, his wife of 58 years. The pens got lugged from their Wallingford home to the basement of the place they built on Whidbey Island overlooking the water.
Sometimes she sighs when discussing her husband.
She remembers how they first met, back in 1952, when she was a United Airlines stewardess.
She was working a DC-4 flight from Denver to Seattle when this guy returning home from a business trip starts to talk her up.
They ended up having drinks at Trader Vic's in downtown Seattle. A little over a year later, they get married.
"Oh, gosh, he could talk. He can still talk. I've gotten used to it," says Barbara.
Back then, Alex Toth, who served in the Navy in World War II, was selling supplementary life insurance to servicemen.
He eventually switched to real estate, although when the market was slow in the 1950s, he earned money by going door to door selling that new revolutionary product — stainless-steel pots and pans. He did all right with them, too.
Says Toth proudly, "Ever since I've been married, except for two weeks, I've always worked on commission."
So a few months before the opening of the World's Fair in April 1962, Toth remembers, he was sitting around, trying to think up something to hustle at this big world event. He was 37, with a wife and five kids.
"It had to appeal to men, women, children, be something practical, and sell for around $1," he remembers.
Toth says the "eureka" moment came as he was scratching his head with a pen.
Yes, he'd market a pen! In the shape of the Space Needle, which was still being built, but was touted as the very symbol of the fair! He swears that's how it actually happened.
Next, Toth had to come up with some money to design and manufacture the pens.
"Everybody told me I was crazy, that it'd never work," he says.
But when you're an entrepreneur type, you always seem to find somebody who can help.
Finally, Toth talked to a couple of other real-estate guys — Jack Dierdoff and Tony Schille, both now deceased — who were in management at what was then called University Properties, which administered downtown land owned by the University of Washington.
They invested, and soon a designer drew up schematics of every one of the eight parts of the pen. They were very scientific-looking, like drawings for a rocket ship.
Then a Ballard company, Vaupell Industrial Plastics, which advertises itself now as having "grown from a small family business into an international group," was contracted to make the injection mold. The metal mold cost $12,000, which is some $91,000 in today's dollars.
That is why entrepreneurs seek investors.
As with all big ideas, there were initial problems.
The mold, for example, had to be tweaked because the plastic parts had a tendency to shrink some days after they were made and the pens didn't work right.
And Toth quickly figured out that his original idea of assembling the pens in his home with the family helping wouldn't work.
"My wife and kids were going crazy," he says.
In those days, there was a United Cerebral Palsy Workshop in Wallingford that was a "sheltered" workplace for individuals with disabilities. Toth contracted with them to put together the pens.
The Space Needle itself was the biggest customer for the pens, with monthly orders of 80,000, 100,000. Toth had to have a second mold made, as each mold could spit out the parts for only four pens at a time.
Ever the promoter, Toth gave pens to the waiters at the Space Needle restaurant, so customers would ask where they could get a pen like that.
He claims it was the fair's best-selling souvenir, even at the $1 price, which was not cheap, considering that's $7.60 in 2012 dollars.
Toth says the profit was 13 cents a pen, which is 99 cents in today's dollars.
He says the partners made a profit, but he doesn't recall it being a huge amount.
"I did buy a Chrysler Imperial, brand new. God, it was a great car, leather seats, the most comfortable car I've ever had," says Toth.
Meanwhile, there were those 18,000 pens sitting in cardboard boxes.
A while back, Toth made a call to Bartell, the local chain founded in Seattle in 1890. He ended up talking to Justin Richter, seasonal buyer for its 58 stores, meaning he handles seasonal items for everything from Christmas to Halloween.
"I thought it was almost kind of unbelievable, holding onto a bunch of pens for almost 50 years," says Richter. He took a flier on the pens.
Bartell placed an order for around 8,000 of them..
After just a few days on sale, says Richter, "The response has been strong."
That still leaves Toth with thousands of pens at his home, but he's got hopes. Most of these pens are in "blister packs," meaning they're in plastic shrink-wrap, and Toth hopes to market them as unopened collector's items.
The two molds used to make the pens, each mold weighing several hundred pounds, are sitting in Toth's back yard.
They're still usable to make more Space Needle pens, says Toth. Want to buy the molds? All Toth wants is a royalty on each pen.
"Of course I'm still hustling," he says. "It's bred in me."
Toth's wife listens and sighs.
Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or firstname.lastname@example.org