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Star Wars bootlegs and ‘KFC-3PO’ art: Kentucky toy store deals in one-of-a-kind weirdness

Josh Moore, Lexington Herald-Leader on

Published in Fashion Daily News

COVINGTON, Ky. — 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 at the corner of Main Street and W 9th Street just three miles south of the shuttered toy-maker Kenner’s original headquarters.

The toy store puts on a monthly-ish show in which dozens of artists create “bootleg” toys inspired by the 3-and-3/4-inch “Star Wars” action figures that transformed Kenner into a juggernaut in the late 1970s. The pieces are put up for sale to the general public and have fetched upwards of $400.

That event isn’t the only thing that makes Earth to Kentucky stand apart from your standard comic or hobby shops. There are some cheaper knickknacks intended for children and plenty of collector-level goods for purchase that you’d find on shelves elsewhere, but far more noticeable are the things you won’t see anywhere else.

Where else can you snap a selfie with a Jar Jar Binks mannequin in drag while the 1968 sci-fi film “Gamera vs. Viras” plays on a nearby television, for instance?

“Obviously it’s a toy store and part art gallery,” says co-owner Dustin Benzing, “but we’re trying to roll into that sort of ‘roadside attraction.’ We’ve always loved the little weird spots in Kentucky that you can find, like in Cave City. We won’t necessarily be something like that, but we want to carry that vibe and that tradition of showmanship.”

 

Dustin and his wife, Polly, opened Earth to Kentucky in September 2020 to greater fanfare than anticipated, given the state of the world. What could have been horrid timing, he suspects, was fortuitous in part because COVID-19 restrictions were starting to ease and people were more willing to find any reason to get out and about. The opening of a bizarro toy store with Robert Ripley-like curated wares, it turns out, was just what people wanted.

Well, some people.

“People either come in and they get really excited, and they’re just like, ‘What is this?’ cause it’s like sensory overload sometimes,” Benzing said. “And then, it’s funny, there’s people that will walk in the front door, do a loop and just go right back out without saying a word, because it’s not for them. And that’s okay, I get it.”

Dustin’s 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 lasted more than 20 years. In his spare time, he worked mostly in linocutting and wood sculpting, a hobby that eventually connected him with Dov Kelemer, a well-known advocate for pop-culture art and designer toys. Through his relationship with Kelemer, Dustin started forging others with artists around the country and he has spiraled down the “rabbit hole” ever since.

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