25th Anniversary

Bringing Childhood Dreams Back to Life

By: Francesca Hellebrandt, eBay News Team

A veteran and his wife share vintage toys and collectibles with nostalgic shoppers worldwide.

Editor’s note: In celebration of eBay’s 25th anniversary, we’re spotlighting a seller every week from our global community in our Mini-Stories column through 2020.

For John and Denise “Dee” Davis, there’s timeless magic within childhood memories. The Michigan couple runs a vintage toy and game shop on eBay, filling their online store’s shelves with treasured toys from Smurf figurines to GI Joe and He-Man action figures. Every day, their hope is to help rekindle moments of youthful nostalgia among their customers, to bring them “back to a simpler time, when they were a kid and had no worries,” John said.

The couple’s strong sense of optimism and playfulness, intertwined with the discipline and determination it takes to run a small business, has served them well in growing their eBay store, Sarge & Red’s Gaming & Vintage Toys. For John especially, he credits his hard work ethic and drive to the time he spent in the Marine Corps. “When you're in the Marines or any branch of the service, they teach you to push past your limits,” he said. “The best thing I learned from the military that's helped my business is the ability to adapt, overcome to get the job done.” Dee affirmed this statement with her characteristic smile. “I married a Marine, and that means we never abandon the mission. If the going gets tough, John never gives up and always finds a way to make things happen.”

And now today, the Davis’ plan to expand their online shop into a brick-and-mortar store in Utica, Michigan, sometime in early 2021. “Launching Sarge & Red’s, researching toys, finding deals, and getting to be a part of that facet of life together is really exciting,” Dee said. “When you run your own business and become an entrepreneur, it’s a sunrise to sun-down job. Being able to do it with the people that you love the most makes it pretty special.”

Sarge Red Family

John and Dee with their two kids

Seven years ago, the couple began selling on eBay as part of an effort to cover private adoption expenses. “We had struggled with starting a family and found ourselves dealing with infertility,” Dee said. “We pursued adoption, but as anyone who has gone through the process, it can be expensive.” John worked at the county sheriff’s department following his years in the Marines, while Dee continues to also work in telecom expense management. To help raise more money, the couple began to look for items they could sell around their house to list on eBay. “Anything we could find that we thought we could sell, we sold,” John said.

Friends and family chipped in where they could to the adoption efforts by hosting fundraisers, while the couple continued selling household items to sell on eBay. Then, John’s high school friends pitched in with two duffle bags of Magic: The Gathering cards for the couple to sell — a generous donation that ultimately helped to pave the way to cover their adoption costs and propel their eBay business. The couple now has two children, both adopted.

“It doesn’t matter how your kiddos come to you because you will love them with everything you've got,” said John. “Our path to parenthood is unique, and we feel so grateful to be able to share our story with others who may be struggling on their family building journey. Our family business dream is also entwined with our parenting goals—to teach and show our kiddos that they can build anything. We want to teach and show them the entrepreneurial spirit that grows and adapts and flourishes.”

“John is an amazing dad,” Dee added. “I know they say every dad loves his kids the most, but John wanted to be a father so bad as I wanted to be a mother. And we worked really, really hard to build our family.” 

Sarge Red Captain America Shield

John with a Captain America shield

Sarge Red MosquitorMosquitor from the Masters of the Universe line (He-Man)

Sarge Red YodaYoda figurine from the Star Wars collection

Sarge Red BarbieHansel and Gretel Barbie collection

As the couple grew their business, they continued to source more Magic cards, along with older video games, vintage toys and other fun nostalgic objects from thrift stores. “It’s all stuff that I’m passionate about, that I remember, it makes me feel like I’m a kid again, to be honest,” John said, as his wife laughed. “He just wants to play with the toys!” Dee said.

Overall, the couple complements each other nicely both in work and life, with John’s strong work ethic and Dee’s optimistic personality. And doing business together has shaped the couple into the business owners they are today. The couple has found such success since launching their online store, and they now look forward to opening the doors to their brick-and-mortar store next year.

“We purchased an abandoned novelty shop in my hometown of Utica, Michigan, to expand the business,” John said. “We plan on moving the store from being solely online to a hybrid, eCommerce business using eBay to reach a worldwide audience, and having the brick-and-mortar storefront reach our local community and beyond.”

Sarge Red Infographic

In a perfect moment of serendipity, the novelty shop that they’re repurposing for their own needs holds a special place in John’s heart. “I came to this place as a kid to purchase all kinds of miscellaneous items — from stink bombs and joy buzzers to fake puke — you name it!” he recalled fondly. “When we found this place falling apart and abandoned, we decided to buy it and bring back this memory I had as a kid. The entire community is so happy to see it getting a new life.”

With more space to run their day-to-day operations, the couple also plans to hire employees from the local community to staff the shop. “This is my hometown, and I want to give back in any way that I can,” John said.

Sarge Red Marine Corps

John during his service in the Marine Corps from 1996 - 2000

The couple has found other ways to contribute to helping others in their community, beyond the virtual walls of their store. In addition to running their online operations and prepping for the grand opening of their brick-and-mortar storefront, John and Dee manage a YouTube channel where they share toy hauls, sourcing tips and Q&A’s on how to run a successful eBay business. In an effort to educate and entertain, the couple shares stories, vintage finds and tips for flipping items on the global marketplace. “We want to share what we’ve learned with others, so they don’t have to go through all the trial and error,” John said.

And because of his unflagging loyalty to his Marine Corps roots, John and Dee regularly offer discounts to military families and also participate in the Marine Corp Toys for Tots Program. Aimed to bring the joy of Christmas to America's less fortunate children, the program collects and distributes new, unwrapped toys to economically disadvantaged families. “Giving back to veteran causes is extremely important to us,” John said.

Sarge Red 80s Toy Haul

John posing alongside 80’s toy haul

For John, selling on eBay has opened up a global network of potential buyers. “What I love about selling on eBay is the freedom and worldwide audience,” he said. “You can sell on other local platforms, but you're only capturing a minute amount of people. eBay gives you the opportunity to go worldwide.”

As 2020 comes to an end, John is optimistic about what the new year will bring. “I’m so proud of what we’ve accomplished together, and I look forward to all that’s ahead of us,” he said. “We want to be the biggest toy shop, not only in Michigan but on the internet. So our goal is to keep pushing to expand our business.”

Empowering entrepreneurship and creating economic opportunity for all has been our philosophy at eBay since we were founded 25 years ago. Our marketplace has been enriched by the hundreds of thousands of independent small businesses and entrepreneurs worldwide. We win when they do. Learn more about how we partner with our sellers.