Lost Hobby Shops: Uncle Pete’s Toys

Uncle Pete's Toys

Uncle Pete's ToysIn the 1980s, Uncle Pete’s Toys was the toy shop that every kid who lived around Sydney wanted to visit.

While a few smaller Uncle Pete’s Toys stores still exist today, back in the 80s they were dubbed Australia’s first “toy supermarkets” and were packed floor-to-ceiling with toy and hobby gold for all ages.


First up, a disclaimer – I never actually visited an Uncle Pete’s Toys store in the 1980s. Incredible really. But despite being known to every child who lived around Sydney in Australia, and despite having large stores and lots of advertising, the reality was that even at their peak, Uncle Pete’s Toys only operated in a handful of suburban locations – and I didn’t live anywhere near them.

Having said that, I still felt like I knew them well.

Between their TV commercials, newspaper ads and the stories I’d heard from some of my friends at school, Uncle Pete’s Toys was apparently the biggest toy shop anyone had seen – a far-away toy utopia I could only hope to visit.

The TV commercials were by far the most effective imagery, as anyone who remembers Uncle Pete’s will attest.

‘Uncle Pete’ was actually a man named Peter Pigott, an Australian businessman. In 1980, after having spent 26 years building up his father’s household cleanser business into one of Australia’s largest medical equipment suppliers, he set his sights on the Australian toy industry by creating a different kind of toy shop.

Modelling his business on large stores he had seen overseas in the United States and Europe, he opened what he dubbed Australia’s first ever “Toy Supermarket” in the Sydney suburb of St Leonards – a large warehouse-turned-store, with long, tall aisles of shelves filled with toys, and even shopping trolleys. He was also keen to open the store on weekends – drawing the ire of worker’s unions, at a time when weekend trading was still against the law for anyone except “small businesses”. Pete argued that shopping for toys was a family activity, and that the only time families were together and likely to visit his store was on weekends.

He was also an avid Helicopter enthusiast, and took ownership of his own Bell helicopter on Christmas Eve in 1981 – but promptly crashed it just a few days later, during takeoff. He was soon back in the air again though, and made the helicopter an integral part of his company’s image. Always keen for publicity, the crash itself had not been a stunt (Pete was apparently “shaken” but unhurt), but he still used it to his advantage in his next print advert – even including a photo of the wreck…

Uncle Pete's Toys

“Like Uncle Pete’s Helicopter, his prices come crashing down!”

Hating traffic, the chopper was his preferred mode of daily transport, and nearly every Uncle Pete’s Toys TV commercial I ever saw seemed to feature a helicopter in some way – either real or animated.

In my very young mind, Uncle Pete wasn’t just the owner of a toy shop – he became something of a character. A toy man who was always flying around, possibly delivering toys for free or something like that (I wasn’t quite sure, being about six years old)…

In 1983, Pete opened a second huge toy store in the suburb of Blacktown, and would regularly work at both locations – commuting between them via helicopter. Keen to draw attention to the business, the Blacktown store reportedly opened with “200 guests, including TV personalities” and was marketed as a “Toy Utopia”…

Uncle Pete's Toys

Uncle Pete's Toys

By the early 1980s, a typical Uncle Pete’s Toys TV commercial featured Pete in his helicopter, loads of great toys (from dolls to R/C cars and electronic games), and that memorable theme song with the words “Uncle Pete’s Toys Are Magic!”


 
“Aunty Ann” was of course Pete’s wife, Ann. And I know that inside one store there was also a mini-store called “Amanda’s Nursery and Ride-On Shop” – Amanda was their daughter. In fact, his children featured in quite a few of the TV commercials – sometimes acting and even falling out of boats in ponds. It seemed to be a true family affair with a sense of fun.

So despite the business being built around the notion of a supermarket for toys, it was in fact a family owned and operated business with a real sense of authenticity about it. Large stores, but far from being soulless, the business is in fact fondly remembered today by those that worked there.

I mentioned earlier about having the childhood impression that Pete was always flying around delivering toys via helicopter. Well as it turns out, sometimes that’s exactly what he was doing.

Back in the 1980s, it was common for various clubs and businesses in Australia to hold family Christmas parties in parks and other grassy open spaces, a few weeks before Christmas. Often these events would involve Santa Claus showing up at some point, to deliver free gifts to all the children that were there.

I certainly remember attending a few of these types of things when I was little. Here are two photographs taken at one of those kinds of parties in about 1987. It was a Coca Cola Christmas Party for staff and their families, and not only did Santa Claus show up with presents for all the kids, but he was given a lift there by none other than Uncle Pete in his helicopter! As you can see, the kids are all standing around and watching Pete land (and you can probably just make out Santa also in the cockpit)…

Uncle Pete arrives at a Christmas Party in his helicopter, mid 1980s

Uncle Pete arrives at a Christmas Party in his helicopter, mid 1980s

A friend also also once told me a rather tragic Uncle Pete’s Toys story…

One day when she was about 11 or 12, she found a winning sticker for a Willy-Wonka style Uncle Pete’s competition in a box of cereal. It was some sort of competition related to the TV show “The A Team”, and a winning sticker (of which only about 5 existed) enabled the winner to spend a minute or so in an Uncle Pete’s store, grabbing absolutely all the toys they wanted and could physically fit into a shopping trolley/cart – for free!

She was ecstatic – until her mother noticed the sticker had already expired! It was out of date by about a month. And unfortunately, no amount of pleading over the phone to an Uncle Pete’s store would change their minds. The competition was over, and the sticker was now invalid. Just imagine…

If this had happened to me, I’m not sure I’d have been able to carry on (in life).

At some point in the mid 1980s, it seems that the Blacktown Uncle Pete’s Toys store must have closed, because by 1987 Pete was opening a new store in Burwood (while the Blacktown address was no longer listed). And he also had a store in Auburn.

Being right in the middle of the R/C car boom, the commercial for the grand Burwood opening (which looks to have featured marching bands, crowds, and queues to get in!) also features lots of great R/C cars from the day, like these…

Uncle Pete's ToysUncle Pete's Toys Uncle Pete's Toys Uncle Pete's Toys

Here’s the clip…


Also from 1987 is this commercial, featuring Pete himself doing much of the talking…


 
One of the great things about Uncle Pete’s was that, like most toy stores of the 1980s, they stocked items for all ages – including hobby items. They were apparently very well stocked with the more advanced R/C kits and spare parts, and it seems that many people in Australia (in the Sydney region at least) have memories of getting toy cars and other things, from an Uncle Pete’s Toys store.

Here’s a quote from Pete just before Christmas, back in 1985…

Uncle Pete's Toys

While I was never lucky enough to visit an Uncle Pete’s in it’s heyday, I have come across some popular 1980s toys over the years that still bear a price sticker from the 1980s – like this Lima InterCity XPT model train set…

Uncle Pete's Toys

As the 1990s approached, Australia was hit by an economic recession that caused a lot of pressure in the toy industry. Uncle Pete’s Toys suffered a financial loss of $420,000 in 1989-90, and $260,000 in 1990-91. In 1991-92 the business was finally profitable once more, but the damage was done and Pete was now looking to sell the business to a new owner. Apparently his children were unlikely to take over in the years ahead, and it was time to move on.

When I realised I wasn’t going to get the interest from my family, I said we’d have a couple of stores and make them the best. For me, in terms of making money I’ve had a wasted life, but in every other way I’ve had a very fulfilling life. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.

– Peter Pigott, in an interview in 1992.

I can actually remember sometime around 1993, when one of the Uncle Pete’s Toys stores was closing. I saw an ad in a newspaper saying they were having a mass sell-off of vintage spare parts for Tamiya cars. Alas, yet again, I wasn’t able to make it there in time to get some bargains… (I guess I’ve made up for it with all the years of collecting since).

Pete’s other great love was animal conservation, and he had been actively involved for many years in saving the endangered Parma Wallaby. His own personal, 12 hectare mountain reserve eventually became home to the largest colony of this endangered species, in the world. And once his toy business had been sold to new owners, Pete retired to this secluded forest home, west of Sydney.

In the early 1990s, the toy industry in Australia was also being shaken up by the arrival of the US company “Toys R Us”, along with rival “World 4 Kids” – both offering essentially the same “supermarket” store format as Uncle Pete’s, only on an even bigger scale. And with far more corporate motivations.

These supermarket businesses triggered the demise of many smaller toy shops in Australia, and (ironically) put pressure on the remaining Uncle Pete’s Toys stores as well – all of which were downsized and relocated, mainly to regional areas. Eventually, World 4 Kids also collapsed, leaving Toys R Us as the dominant large toy chain.

Personally, I don’t really like Toys R Us stores at all. They seem impersonal whenever I visit, with a fairly run-of-the-mill selection of mainstream toys. They’re usually staffed by bored teenagers who behave like they’re serving burgers at a drive-thru. And I always feel more inclined to support the few smaller, independent toy stores that still survive, and hope that more of these spring up in the years ahead.

In the meantime, if anyone has any nice memories of Uncle Pete’s Toys from the 1980s, as always, please share them below.

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25 responses to “Lost Hobby Shops: Uncle Pete’s Toys”

  1. ctheangelsheidiypi1 says :

    Hi toy blogger, I am one of the daughters of Peter Pigott aka Uncle Pete, I was a bit blown away to see your diligent writings about my family history. I am sorry you never got to visit a store in your youth, they were pretty fantastic times, it was very sad for us to close in the end, but everything has its cycles!
    Thanks for the memories, Blessing Heidi

    • rctoymemories says :

      Hi Heidi – so nice to hear from you! I’m really glad you enjoyed the article. And if there are any errors, of course please feel free to let me know. But most importantly, I must thank you and your family for the iconic presence that was Uncle Pete’s Toys, around Sydney during the 1980s 🙂

    • Maree Elliott says :

      I worked at the St Leonards store in the late ’80’s/early ’90’s and it’s still my favourite job I ever had. Wonderful memories of Uncle Pete, Aunty Anne, Heidi, Amanda and all the family, and the Uncle Pete’s Toys family that I worked with, that’s what we were.

  2. Terry says :

    Hi Toy blogger, what a great article. We actually operate a few of the Uncle Petes stores currently. The history of this chain is incredible as you have pointed out. Would love to ask you some questions and get some of the pics etc from you. Perhaps you can contact me? maybe call us on 02 9620 2424

  3. RKP says :

    Uncle Pete’s toys are Magic! I still remember the TV adverts. They appeared about the same time as Magic Kingdom at Lansvale; another TV advert burned into my memory. Alas, I also share with you the fact that I never visited either of these Western Sydney landmarks of the 1980’s. I remember thinking that Uncle Pete was the Oracle of R/C cars. I agree with your comments on Toy’s R Us. way too clinical; no personality at all. My local Hobby Store in Engadine was always stuffed to the rafters with all manner of model kits, lego, R/C etc. You had to dig to find what you wanted. I can still get that kind of fix in Kwong Wah Street in Mong Kok, but I really miss it here.

  4. David says :

    Hi
    This is David i was the original store manager at St Leonard’s when it opened . I remember opening millions of boxes of toys as they were delivered to the loading dock and then going to Hong Kong with Peter and Ann to buy more stock … Thanks also for the memories .

    • Peter Pigott says :

      Hi David You did a great job for us during those very hectic days.All the family enjoyed your company and sound advice on the Hong Kong buying trips. We all thank you for what you did and your enthusiasm. Kindesr regards Pete

      • Robyn McClung says :

        Hi Pete, I just thought I would say hello to you. We owned “Hookes Creek” on the Barrington Tops escarpment…the property you missed out on. . You made a magic memory for our family coming back to us to take our children for a ride in your helicopter. Thankyou. We have continued farming on a property at Barrington that runs up to the back of the Bucketts Mountain at Gloucester….although it is after now 25 years up for sale. We are now ready for a change and maybe less work. So….hello and maybe goodbye to a fellow who left behind him some lovely memories. Robyn McClung

  5. Tony Brown says :

    I have an interesting story for you about Peter Pigott. Around 1980 I was MD of LEGO. One weekend during autumn my wife and I went to Mount Wilson to see the red autumn leaves. We stopped outside a driveway where a boy was selling chestnuts. Just as we were buying some a man came strolling down the driveway and engaged us in pleasant chat about chestnuts which were rare in Sydney at the time. We mentioned that we were looking for a place to lay out our picnic rug. He immediately invited us to find a place under the chestnut trees on his property for our picnic. A while later as we enjoyed a sand which under the trees he again came strolling up, this time with a bottle of wine in his hands. He sat down and started chatting with us. He told us about his plans to be the first person to open a. Toy Supermarket in Australia. Naturally I was very interested and mentioned that I worked for LEGO. With great gusto he invited us into his property to meet Anne and enjoy more wine and enthusiastic conversation.
    We became good friends and spent some great times together both socially and in business. He took my wife and I up in his chopper – playing loud classical music as we flew across the face of high cliffs in the Blue Mountains. It was spectacular and hair raising. He did’nt tell me about his chopper crash until later. We landed deep in some valley by the side of a river and marched up to a cottage and met a family member of a famous Sydney artist.
    Peter was a wonderful guy. Someone who made a big impression on me.
    He was just about the most enthusiastic person I have ever met.
    How is Peter nowadays and what is he up to?
    Best. Regards Tony Brown

  6. Dick Smith says :

    Dick Smith here. Yes I am that Dick Smith. Uncle Pete has been a friend of mine for over 30 years. He is a wonderful bloke and just like you see on the ads. He wrote the famous Piggot report for the Government that set up the Museum of Australia in Canberra. Plus lots of other philanthropic things with conservation . I ” dips me lid ” to Uncle Pete and Aunty Anne.

  7. Peter Pigott says :

    This site is quite amazing and on behalf of my family who all worked with me when we started in 1979.we are warmed by the kind words written by Rob S .and all those who have contributed comments.we tried hard to build a business that would be fun for customers,fun for staff,a business built on integrity.We fought hard to open stores seven days a week and with the help of Neville Wran we met the public demands for this.we did not sell the business we licenced stores to use our name and we are not associated with any other name. I regret that members of my family could not carry on the business but we all had great fun being in the industry and cherished our reputation with suppliers and customers. My best wishes to all that read this site and for a very Happy CHRISTMAS and a fantastic 2015 Sincerely Pete

  8. ctheangelsheidiypi1 says :

    Love the replies Rob they seem to be growing and growing! I dips me hat to you Dick!

  9. Miles Townend says :

    I was lucky enough to go to school with Pete’s son. My best mate Justin’s brother and he were great friends in the early 80’s and it was through him that I met Peter and the rest of the family. Justin and I visited the St.Leonards many times just for a play. The RC toys where always the favourite

    • rctoymemories says :

      Thanks for your comment Miles. Ah, if only I’d been able to visit the St Leonards store during the heyday of R/C… Can you remember any specific models you saw or drove?

  10. Janice H says :

    Hi there, I was interested to read this post after having come across it by accident,whilst surfing the net. To Tony Brown and your interesting story; I had to smile.The boy who was selling the chestnuts was almost certainly my brother Mark. Our parents were employed by some of the local residents, and as far as I am aware we were the only children to sell chestnuts and sprigs of holly to the tourists. We made good money too!! Peter, Mr Pigott (to me as a child) and hes wife Ann employed my parents. They were lovely people.They once gave my brothers and my sister and I books as presents for Christmas. I still have that book, ‘The World of Ballet’. As children we had great times at Yango while mum and dad worked there.We played under the giant conifers,ran through the rooms,much to our mothers consternation;We were always welcomed by Peter and Ann and their children with whom we played . Mount Wilson will always be remembered as a special place to me. And Mr and Mrs Pigott as special people. And I would like to thank them for the work they gave my parents ,along with the other residents who employed them during that time. It enabled my parents to give us a slice of life to which we would never have attained otherwise. My only regret is that my parents did not stay.
    many thanks. Janice H (nee’ O’Brien).

  11. relaxavous says :

    Hi Toy blogger. Tonight for whatever reason, the name Peter Pigott popped up in my mind. I thought I would perform a search online and find a little information about Peter and the Uncle Pete’s toys stores – what i discovered thanks to you was much, much more.
    I worked at the Auburn Joyce Mayne store and remember the Uncle Petes toys ‘family’. I originally commenced with working on the floor greeting customers, assisting them and restocking shelves. A few times i volunteered to wear the ‘pound puppy’ or ‘ popples suit’ and tempt fate by running across Parramatta road to the still existing but changed McDonalds, to hand out UPT’s stickers to kids.
    Not long after starting I then commenced looking after the ‘Tamiya counter’. I sold RC cars, Varta NICAD batteries, chargers and spare parts to customers. I also built the Tamiya RC cars for customers that wanted them ‘ ‘ready to run’.
    There is so many memories i have and i hold them all dear. I remember Peter, Ann, Heidi (who had lovely blonde frizzy hair) , Amanda and Peter’s two sons whom their name escapes me.
    I recall installing a reverse cassette tape deck in Heidi’s cream colored VW beetle. At that time Peter owned the land on the corner of Gt western Hwy and Reservoir Rds, at Blacktown. Later to become a small industrial area with Mitre 10, Caltex and timber yards.
    I really enjoyed electronics at the time and both Uncle Petes Toys and Dick Smith fuelled this interest and hobby and what is now the basis of my work. I ceased working for UPT’s some months before my HSC under less than ethical terms. I foolishly accepted a customers request to assemble their RC car for less money than would be charged if they requested through store. Some customers could really push. I was young, stupid and admit my mistake. Perhaps one day I can officially apologise. Sorry Peter and Ann.

    Well I could write so much more but must say thanks Toy Blogger and thanks for renewing old memories.
    Oh yes, almost forgot. You should have seen the lovely red overalls with the braces that we wore.
    I also still have my original frogger from 1985.

    Thanks Tony

    • R/C Toy Memories says :

      Tony, thanks so much for your memories of Uncle Pete’s – they were great to read about, and I’m sure Pete will enjoy them if he catches up with all the comments here again in future. I’m sure your misjudgement with the assembly must be long forgotten and water under the bridge, by now. Loved hearing about Pound Puppies suit etc, running across Parramatta Rd (for those who aren’t aware: this is, and was, a very busy road!). Do you happen to remember what the most popular R/C models were? And did you have any personal favourites at the time, or was it more of a chore to have to keep building them for customers?

      • relaxavous says :

        Dear Toy Blogger, my pleasure. Regarding the popularity of the RC models, I would have to say the Hornet topped them. Followed by the Frog and lastly the Hotshot which was 4WD and therefore more expensive. Some other models such as Fast Attack vehicle and Grasshopper were sold but not so much.
        I personally liked the Frog due to its tubular style frame and IRS. I also liked the Porsche 956 and bought one for myself which i modified with the sprint motor and 8.2v battery.
        We sold most of the RC cars in package deals along with a Beats 2 Radio Control and fast and slow chargers. The fast chargers were terrible as they were essentially a fixed length of resistive wire and if you missed unplugging battery within 15 or so minutes, your battery pack was cooked.
        I still remember the package deal prices which were $299 for Hornet, $349 for Frogger and $399 for Hotshot. They were the 3 biggest sellers.
        I loved nothing more at the time than assembling these RC cars and painting the polycarbonate lexen bodies as per customers personal preference.

        Best job ever and best employer at the time.

        Regards,
        Tony Diquattro

      • R/C Toy Memories says :

        Thanks Tony. I’ve always had a theory that the Hornet was the most popular Tamiya R/C kit in Australia, and your experience seems to back that up. I also remember those terrible fast chargers! Thanks for the prices, and when you mentioned “Frogger” earlier I had though you were referring to the video game, but I forgot that some people referred to the Frog as Frogger. Great that you kept it all these years.
        But especially great that you enjoyed those days so much, as being responsible for building those R/C kits in the mid 80s at a place like Uncle Pete’s now seems like the dream job of many a collector. You were lucky to be there, so well done and thanks for the memories 🙂

  12. barsmt56@yahoo.com.au says :

    I used to work at a company named Allied Feeds at Rhodes,(from 1975-81).Peter would visit there to order feed for his wild life sanctuary up at Mt.Wilson.He was always very courteous and a pleasure to deal with.With his cheerful enthusiasm and obvious decency,Peter was the kind of person to whom you took an instant liking.I hope he is still going strongly.

    Barry Smith.

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