San Francisco’s last toy store, where Robin Williams was a regular

Robin Kwok may look like a lowly shop owner, but he’s actually humanity’s best hope for destroying Godzilla.

Safely locked behind glass in the back corner of the Heroes Club, Kwok watches over the Oxygen Destroyer, an ultimate weapon 2 feet long and resembling the silver core of a reactor. In 1954, it was the only way to kill the original Godzilla. Only five of these realistic reproductions were made. This one sells for $13,998.

“For hardcore Godzilla fans, this is the holy grail,” says Kwok.

Kwok, 54, has run the Heroes Club on Clement Street since 1990, after three years at a previous location. Technically, this could be called a toy store, as it sells cheap $10 Godzilla figures, but the dozens of hand-painted stormtroopers, zombies and monsters that line the walls are closer to fine art than toys.

Kwok builds and paints most of the models in a cramped workshop at the back of the store. Tiny bottles of paint and half-finished models lay everywhere, including a 4-foot-long spaceship from Disney’s Space Mountain, with fiber optic cables hanging from it. His tools haven’t changed much since his studies at the San Francisco Academy of Art, the highest tech in his workspace is an old airbrush. He makes some models from scratch, others he assembles from limited edition resin kits. Each sculpture takes months to complete and sells for hundreds of dollars.

These days, 80% of his buyers are collectors from other countries, but there was one San Francisco resident in particular who was a huge fan: the late Robin Williams.

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“I met Mr Williams in 1987 when I first opened. Over time we became friends. He lived close to the store on Lake Street so he would come here in his spare time “, explains Kwok. The couple bonded as they both went through divorces and have stayed in touch over the years, speaking on the phone the day before Williams died. Kwok keeps an immaculate binder of memorabilia from their relationship, including personal letters, magazine clippings featuring photos of Williams in the shop and a signed receipt for a $1,200 purchase (see photos above in slideshow ).

While most of Kwok’s work revolves around iconic sci-fi and horror franchises, Williams was more interested in Asian characters and military figures. At an auction of his possessions by Sotheby’s in 2018, a full-scale model tank sold for $875. In a series of now-deleted Twitter posts, her daughter Zelda asked fans to help her identify parts of her collection, which she said included thousands of figures.

Zelda Williams tweets about her late father’s toy collection on May 15, 2018.Zelda Williams via Twitter

As a housewarming gift, Kwok designed an original piece for Williams inspired by the 1928 film, “The Man Who Laughs.” The film is obscure, but the character is instantly recognizable. Sitting on an antique chair, he wears a tattered pink and orange suit, white face paint, and a gruesome lipstick smile while holding a shotgun. This is clearly the first inspiration for the Batman villain, the Joker.

Although the store has other celebrity clients (Nicolas Cage, Metallica’s Kirk Hammett, Guillermo del Toro) and a healthy stream of window shoppers, today most of their sales take place online. To adapt to the changing retail landscape, Heroes Club has built a strong web presence, including a YouTube channel called Art of Toys that shows off the meticulous detail of pieces like Peach Blossom Island. Each eyelash on the woman’s face was individually painted and attached, a grueling task that took five hours.

Adapting to changing tastes has also been a challenge for the store. Customers appreciate contemporary video game characters, and many franchises, like Alien, continue to produce movies, but most of the action features vintage properties. Kwok attributes this to more than nostalgia, but to a change in filmmaking style.

“The new ‘Avengers’ is visually entertaining, but once you step out of the theater you probably forget what it was about. In an older movie like ‘Exorcist’ they don’t have a lot of budget or graphics CG, so the director has to spend more time creating the atmosphere. Those details stick in your memory,” he says.

An example of this concept hangs near the store’s entrance: a screaming face of “The Exorcist” that only crossed the screen for a second, but still haunts fans to this day. It’s these kinds of details that excite Kwok the most – obscure references with such resonance they’re worth recreating by an artisan who will spend hours airbrushing lashes.

As for the future of the store, Kwok admits that business isn’t what it used to be. It’s not officially San Francisco’s last toy store, but laments the fact that most of the others have closed. Still, he is undeterred and plans to continue honing his craft in the studio every day.

“I will retire the day I can no longer paint,” he says.

Click through the slideshow for more photos of stormtrooper sculptures, the artist’s studio, and a personal letter from Robin Williams

Dan Gentile is an SFGATE digital editor. Email: | Twitter: Dannosphere