Chico Family Adventure Museums

Give the National Yo-Yo Museum a Spin

Every year on June 6 — Nation­al Yo-Yo Day — one of Chico’s more incon­spic­u­ous trea­sures steps into the spotlight.

Near the back of Down­town Chico’s Bird in Hand , the Nation­al Yo-Yo Muse­um — the bona fide mec­ca of Amer­i­can yo-yo cul­ture — has oper­at­ed since 1993, bring­ing the joy of the icon­ic toy to kids of all ages for near­ly 30 years. From this unas­sum­ing spot in Chico, founder Bob Mal­owney leads the long-run­ning ode to the pas­time, sell­ing yo-yos, teach­ing vis­i­tors about its long his­to­ry, and lead­ing con­tests both local­ly and nationally.

The yo-yo muse­um is kind of a giv­en here in town. Peo­ple know we’re here, and go, That’s neat,’” Mal­owney said. But when we go some­where else, Chico is a big deal. It’s like Coop­er­stown for base­ball, or Can­ton for foot­ball. All you need is some­body who has a pas­sion about some­thing to do some­thing about it.”That fits Mal­owney, and the Nation­al Yo-Yo Muse­um, to a tee. When he start­ed the muse­um in the ear­ly 1990s, yo-yoing hadn’t picked up as a major trend — but Mal­owney saw it com­ing. He had been host­ing yo-yo com­pe­ti­tions and sell­ing the toys local­ly in the late 80s, work­ing with the Chico Area Recre­ation Dis­trict to put on tests of trick­ery, and they were pop­u­lar in town among the most enthu­si­as­tic yo-yoers.

The Pop Cul­ture Rise of the Yo-Yo

We had lots of kids there and lots of their par­ents there doing it with them. It grew real­ly quick, and the inter­est peo­ple had was gen­uine,” Mal­owney recalled. When I saw that enthu­si­asm and looks on the kids’ faces, that’s when I saw it coming.”

Sure­ly enough, the yo-yo scene began its Amer­i­can erup­tion in the mid-’90s, espe­cial­ly near the end of the decade, thanks in large part to a simul­ta­ne­ous boom in Japan­ese pop­u­lar­i­ty when toy­mak­er Bandai began pro­duc­tion of its own mod­els. One of the most endear­ing, ever­last­ing points of inter­est with the yo-yo is that its design, while immi­nent­ly mod­i­fi­able to a toymaker’s tastes, is essen­tial­ly unchanged since its first record­ed uses — some schol­ars date it back to ancient Greece or even 1,000 BC China.

Keep­ing Inter­est Alive

When we first start­ed the muse­um in 1993, nobody was much inter­est­ed. We’d have peo­ple come in, stand in line and throw one a dozen times or so, and then nev­er pick one up again,” Mal­owney said. By the end of the 90s, it was a phenomenon.”

The muse­um itself tells that tran­si­tion. Hav­ing lived it, day by day, Mal­owney under­stands that in addi­tion to col­lect­ing old items, and inter­pret­ing how toys might have been played with before, the muse­um pro­vides vis­i­tors with a chance to dive into his­to­ry both ancient and liv­ing. It relies on dona­tions to dis­play old mod­els and styles, and Sat­ur­day con­tests and lessons to keep peo­ple active­ly engaged. Vis­i­tors can buy yo-yos in the toy shop, but vis­i­ta­tion to the muse­um itself is and always has been free.

Nos­tal­gic Appeal

Like all muse­ums, we’re try­ing to pre­serve some­thing that not every­body got to expe­ri­ence, but they can see and expe­ri­ence it after the fact with the col­lec­tion of past antiq­ui­ties,” Mal­owney said. So many peo­ple remem­ber the yo-yo. It’s a rite of child­hood, to play with a yo-yo and see how good you are. Even kids today, who have smart­phones and play video games, real­ly appre­ci­ate the tac­tile appeal. We hear sto­ries about kids get­ting a yo-yo and play­ing with it while they’re wait­ing in line, and every­one around starts look­ing and now the kid has an audi­ence. It’s just some­thing that’s appre­ci­at­ed by everybody.”

The muse­um also over­sees the com­pet­i­tive Nation­al Yo-Yo League, which began the same year the muse­um opened, and Malowney’s team over­sees all the offi­cial con­tests across the Unit­ed States, admin­is­ter­ing from the Chico loca­tion. Tru­ly the epi­cen­ter of Amer­i­can yo-yo, the town holds the title qui­et­ly, despite hav­ing been a dri­ving force behind the toy’s revered nature over the decades.

Inher­ent Joy

Chico’s very enlight­ened about yo-yos, to the point where an aver­age Chico per­son show­ing a friend vis­it­ing will rou­tine­ly amaze me with how much they know about all the dif­fer­ent dis­plays,” Mal­owney said, not­ing that there is some­thing inher­ent to the enjoy­ment of the yo-yo to all humans — which might explain why it dates back so far, or why it’s been able to main­tain its sto­ried place in toy lore.

There’s just some­thing about it,” Mal­owney said with a smile. The world is spin­ning, and this is spin­ning, so it all feels like it just works together.”