These People Are Going Beanie-Baby Levels of Crazy over Tiny Animal Toys

Drawn to the brand's feel-good philosophy and irresistible whimsy, discerning collectors are blowing thousands on Sylvanian families, a Japanese range of little toy creatures.

by Sirin Kale
Apr 29 2016, 7:00pm

Photo by Ben Miller-Poole via Sylvanian Store Keepers

When 28-year-old Santie Meyer isn't busy working as a firearms instructor, chairing her local shooting club, helping out in a gun accessories shop, or raising her son, she finds time to indulge her other passion: collecting Sylvanian Families. In fact, such is Meyer's love for the Sylvanian way of life that she even has an online avatar. When she's not selling gun accessories or teaching people how to shoot, Meyer's better known as Lady Lollipop: South Africa's premier Sylvanian Families blogger extraordinaire.

Originating in Japan in the 1980s, Sylvanian Families were originally called 'Pleasant Friends of the Forest Epoch System Collection Animal Toy Sylvanian Families'. For those of you yet to make the acquaintance of the Dappledawn Rabbits or Tuxedo Cats, consider this your primer: Sylvanian Families, comprised of literal families of different animals, live in Sylvania, the fictional village that is apparently based on 1970s Great Britain, although presumably without institutional racism and striking miners. The franchise later expanded to include animated TV series, video games, and—for the true of heart, a pilgrimage to the Sylvanian Families theme park in Japan.

I became acquainted with Sylvanian Families recently when I stumbled across their Twitter feed, which is about as relentlessly chirpy as Kermit the Frog or a pre-prison Martha Stewart. Entering Sylvania is like peeking into a digital rabbit hole where nothing bad ever happens; where no one ever gets trolled online, sexually harassed, or spends fruitless hours waiting for a Nigerian bank transfer that never arrives.

So full of whimsy is the Sylvanian Families Twitter feed, so utterly without irony, that at times it reads like one big existential joke written by an out-of-work writer who has tripled-dropped Xanax. To find out whether the person who runs the Sylvanian Families Twitter feed really is the happiest person in the world, we reached out to their PR. However, despite originally agreeing to answer our questions, they subsequently backed out.

Someone who does know about Sylvanian Families mega-fans is Ben Miller-Poole. As an official Sylvanian Store Keeper, Miller-Poole runs the only dedicated Sylvanian Families store in the world, in north London. He informs me that around 40 percent of their customers are adults. What do all the adult collectors have in common? They love the little details, "from the tiny cutlery in our restaurants, down to the individual buttons and beads on our characters' outfits." Visitors come from all over the world: "Brazil, South Africa, Australia and Japan being some of the furthest afield."

What unites these adult collectors? "They tend to be captivated by the attention to detail in the world of Sylvania, and drawn into the community of our characters and their surroundings. All collectors of Sylvanian Families have wonderful imaginations in common, meaning they can immerse themselves into the world of Sylvania and create their own version at home in their personal collections."

For Santie Meyer (a.k.a., Lady Lollipop), collecting Sylvanian Families was never part of her original plan. "I don't really know what has happened in the five years since I started collecting. But I believe that Sylvanians sort of multiply if left unattended, because I now have more than 850 little critters living in my home with me and a thriving village complete with two schools, two nursery schools, houses, two hospitals, multiple shops, supermarkets and restaurants and everything in-between!" While Meyer loves all her Sylvanian Families equally, she says that if her house caught fire, she'd probably rescue the Lavender Rabbit Family out of her $3,500 collection.

Santie Meyer with her collection. Image courtesy of subject

But it's not just women who love Sylvanian Families. Jacc Batch is one of the biggest collectors of Sylvanian Families in the world. In fact, depending on who you speak to, Batch's kind of a celebrity in the tight-knit Sylvanian world. Meyer tells me, "I often dream of having a collection like my collecting idol, Jacc Batch, someday when I am old and grey. It would be marvellous to sit in a sunny room with my grandchildren someday and re-living my childhood with them through my Sylvanians."

Batch, the 30-year-old owner of a dance school from Kettering in Northamptonshire, estimates he's spent close to $60,000 on Sylvanian Families, but he can't see himself ever stopping collecting.

"People sometimes say, 'If you sold them, imagine what you could buy!' But I want to buy things that make me happy: Sylvanian Families!" Batch is aware that his appetites make him somewhat unusual. "When I take a step back I guess it is a little strange for grown men to collect what is in reality a girl's toy. But life would be dull if all people were the same."

In order to truly love Sylvanian Families, you need to immerse yourself in Sylvania. Becoming a Sylvanian Families mega-fan is about much more than having a display cabinet. To be Sylvanian is to embrace the Sylvanian way of life, the Sylvanian ethos; to see yourself in the animal toys you collect. Despite the fact that his first Sylvanian was the hedgehog brother Maxwell Bramble, Batch is a cat man. "If I had to be in one Sylvanian family, it would probably be one of the cat families, as I have six cats of my own and they lead such adventurous lives!"

At the heart of why people love Sylvanian Families so much lie fairly simple reasons: nostalgia. Security. A longing for a world without crime, unhappiness, or despair. I wonder whether Meyer's love for Sylvanian Families is linked to her fondness for guns and the security they provide, so I ask her to explain the Sylvanian way of life to me.

"In one word, happiness! Everyone knows everyone else and there is never a lack of friendly faces to chat to. No one in Sylvania is ever lonely, no one is ever sick or down for long and if someone finds themselves in an unfortunate position, there is always a helping hand nearby to help with a friendly word, a gift or a pot of chicken soup. Poverty does not exist, crime does not exist, and nothing ever goes seriously wrong in Sylvania."

Batch agrees that nothing really bad ever happens in Sylvania. "Crime-wise, I'd say it's doubtful. A huge village in the woods with just one policeman [PC Bobby Roberts, a badger]! I would imagine crime rate is pretty low or I think they would have invested in backup by now."

That said, not everything is perfect in Sylvania, as Meyer points out. "There are some single parents, some lonely hearts, shattered dreams, and disappointed expectations, but no wars, famine or extreme poverty in Sylvania. Every now and again the rambunctious Buster Slydale pulls a nasty prank, or some bunny eats all of the cream pies in the bakery in their sleep, but overall the critterzens of Sylvania are pretty peaceful."

For those of you who want to incorporate a Sylvanian ethos into your everyday lives, but don't have money to splash on pilgrimages to Japanese amusement parks or the space for display cabinets, here's some advice from Meyer.

"Living Sylvanianly means to be kind, to help others, and to generally be a nice person and a good friend. To accept others for who they are and to be true to who you are, but also to look out for those around you."

At the heart of it all, living Sylvanianly is about embracing your inner child. "We're some of the nicest people that you will ever meet in real life. I like to think that anyone's life is just a little bit better for having met a Sylvanian lover!"