"My dad was a founding member of a fire department and chief one year," he says, noting that his dad's firefighter badge from the Florida department he helped create is displayed on a Smith-Miller truck.
Couldn't afford these toys as a child
The Smith-Miller truck is a Mack truck and has a tiny bulldog as the hood ornament.
"Most of them have lost their bulldog," says Amsler, who sells SDK Apparel and Promotional Products for a living.
Amsler never would have owned the truck when it originally was produced in 1950 because it cost $30.
"That was probably half my dad's weekly salary at the time, so we never got one of these," he says, noting that the truck today is worth $800 to $1,000. On the other side of the mantel, is a Doepke fire truck that dates to 1954.
The trucks from the 1930s displayed on the hearth are made of steel.
"In those days, they made them really tough. An adult could stand on them and it won't bother them," he says.
The steel Mack truck is worth $700 to $1,000.
The windup toys, which include a skating clown and an old jalopy, mostly are from the 1950s, but a cowboy on a horse is cruder, showing it dates to the 1930s.
"I've not been able to pinpoint it but it probably was made in Ohio because it was a breeding ground for toy manufacturers."
Brother and best friend also collect
The unusual hippo probably is worth $700.
"I've not seen another one," he says.
Amsler is joined in his love of collecting toys by a brother and a best friend, who both still live in Florida. After many years of indulging in his hobby, Amsler has it down to a science. One of his methods is to check out what is being offered an auction, then go to his car to look at his pricing books to know what to bid. Today's technology means he may make a cell phone call to his brother or his friend to look up the eBay pricing for him if they don't already know the pricing.
Eventually, he plans to further refine his methods.
"I've been trying to figure out how to take a picture with a cell phone and send it to them."
Amsler says there are times when his brother has been more successful than he in collecting. For example, one item Amsler particularly would like to find is a Structo dump truck like one in a photo of he and his brother on a Christmas morning in the late 1950s.
"I've been looking for one to have for years. He found one."
His brother had a toy repairman restore the truck, something Amsler usually doesn't do.
"I have a friend who redoes old toys and it's perfect now. In most cases, I don't have them redone because it drags the value down," he says.
eBay also can devalue the toys. For example, a 1960s fire truck by Tonka would bring $250 to $400 before eBay, but eBay means that truck readily is available.
"Because it's always available, it would only bring $100 to $200," says Amsler, noting that the item might bring the higher price at an auction that draws people who don't use the Internet.
Another lesson he has learned about collecting is that toys that are billed as collector items don't always go up in value the older they become. He experienced this when he bought several Texaco planes and failed to sell them when the price was highest.
"If it's a hot collectible, you've got to turn it over. You can't sit on it for five or 10 years."
In addition to the fire trucks, Amsler has a sentimental draw to space toys. When he worked at NASA, he was part of the launch team for Apollo 11.
Wife and daughter also love toys
He is particularly proud of a Mr. Robot made in 1960. When he spotted it at an auction, he looked it up in his book and saw it was valued at $350. He knew another toy collector was at the auction, but somehow he wound up with the robot for $17.50.
"It's worth $600 to $800 now because space stuff is starting to grow."
His family, wife Debbie, and daughter Kristyn, a junior at Transylvania University, share his love of toys. For Debbie, it's a weakness for dolls. She has a couple of Cabbage Patch dolls she wouldn't part with even though she was offered $1,000 apiece. Kristyn realized that toys were more than mere playthings early on.
"Because of us, she has every toy she's ever had. She has the original Care Bears."
Of course, the toys play upon his memories of childhood, but one of the draws for Amsler is because of the value of the toys.
"If you read up on this, you get into this when you are older because you wanted these toys when you were younger and Santa was around. Of course, I have a lot from the '30s because I think it's neat."