Matthew Leuck, owner of Quake Collectibles, with many of his treasures. Photo by Tom Benz

Apparently, toys are not just for kids anymore, but maybe they never have been. Entering Quake Collectibles 743 Main Street, one is confronted with hundreds of action figures, games and comics, looking like they are just waiting to come to life like in the movies and practically overrunning the store’s compact space.

Of course, children of a certain age get bug-eyed roaming the aisles, grabbing a Buzz Lightyear from  “Toy Story,” to examine it before moving on to action figures of Iron Man or Green Arrow. But a whole other market has emerged for collecting rare and trendy toys as a combination of both popular culture and a piece of nostalgia.

Matthew Leuck is the affable proprietor sitting behind the long case filled with some of the most valuable icons. He gravitated toward the business as his father collected comic books, often bringing him along to trade shows and flea markets.

Mr. Leuck grew up with a sense that people should be careful about what they threw away, that there was a reason some things got preserved in an attic or a jumbled closet, even if they lay forgotten for years. As a young man, he found himself browsing the original Quake store on Chicago’s north side, and after becoming friends with the owner, decided to become a partner and open a second shop in Evanston.

Action figures in particular have come a long way since the first one, GI Joe, found its way into the hearts and minds of boys across the country. “Over the years, they developed a great deal of craft and detail,” Mr. Leuck said. “Some of them are like little pieces of art.” They have a great deal more “opposability” than their simple forebears, and with more varied range of motion and interchangeable parts comes more opportunity for children to configure their own miniature narratives.

Cartoons and TV shows were early drivers of the toy business and continue to have a strong influence. But the movies have increasingly been tremendous catalysts for characters who seem to take up residence in young imaginations and perhaps help them to make sense of the real world. Many of these represent updates of the original Marvel and DC Comic book characters: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Spiderman, the Avengers, the X-men and Fantastic Four being just a few examples. All have spawned their own feature films and often sequels, further establishing their mythologies in the American psyche.

Collecting took off in the late ’80s. “I guess it became more socially acceptable to be a nerd,” Mr. Leuck said. When asked why he thought there was a substantial adult demand for secondhand toys, he responded, “sometimes we’re too quick to divest ourselves from the vestiges of childhood, too quick to grow up.”

For many adults, the toys evoke the feeling of a time when everything seemed new and full of possibility, like hearing a decades-old song that instantly carries one back to a rich memory. Rather than play with the figures, adults are more likely to display them, create dioramas and create new characters from an existing base by repainting them. 

Browsing through the store reveals a Dalek, an extraterrestrial mutant from “Dr. Who,” a giant-headed Elvis, Woody from “Toy Story,” and comic book superhero, Aquaman.  The collectable’s value depends not just on age and rarity but on what remains in vogue. While figures like Roy Rogers or the Lone Ranger have largely faded into obscurity, others like Transformers continue to retain a following through periodic revivals. The value can also go up if a toy is an original, is still inside the box, or even if it has some slight detail that is different from the rest.

For every collector’s item like unique versions of a Galaxy Ranger or Tiger Shark, there are many more that can be purchased for as little as a dollar. Perhaps the most indelible of all are the characters and storylines that stem from the Star Wars saga. Many versions of its strange, intriguing cast lining the shelves. A special version of R2-D2 or Jango Fett can command up to 50 bucks or more.   

It seems the nature of what is popular is ever changing, but with a new film installment and a museum coming soon, it looks like Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader will be around for a while and “the force” will be with their enduring appeal.