Michael Davis Photos
Looking for a special gift for a child? Area independent toy stores offer unusual items and personal service not available at your typical big-box store.
In March 2007, Laurie Hunt opened Cazenovia’s Lillie Bean, which sells toys along with women’s and children’s clothing. Hunt moved to Cazenovia after owning a women’s clothing store in Naples, Fla., for 30 years. After arriving in Cazenovia, she found that “out here, there was a need for a toy store,” she says. “You have to fit a need.”
You’ll be hard-pressed to find anything Hunt sells in a chain store. “We’re very specialized,” she says. “I don’t want plastic, typical toys. I don’t sell licensed products. If you’re looking for Dora the Explorer, that’s not me.”
But what Hunt does sell are unique gifts that children would love to unwrap. Her most popular seller is finger lights, a pack of five multicolored lights that children wear on their fingers like rings. “I sells thousands of those a year,” Hunt says.
For Jeff Watkins, nostalgia for the 1980s brings the most customers into his store. Watkins opened Cloud City Comics and Toys earlier this year. He sells vintage toys such as Star Wars, GI Joe and Transformers, all of which currently have modern toy lines.
“The new GI Joe stuff is hot,” Watkins says, referring to Hasbro’s 25th anniversary GI Joe line he sells. (While GI Joe has been around since the 1960s, a second line launched in 1982 spawned the action figures with which today’s younger parents are familiar.)
Cloud City also offers one of the largest selections of Hello Kitty and Sanrio merchandise in Central New York. “Hello Kitty is really popular from little kids to college students to housewives,” Watkins says. “It’s always fashionable.”
Cloud City’s location also offers some perks for Watkins’ business. His store is located in the same plaza as a karate studio and My Gym, so “some parents who grew up with Star Wars are bringing their kids in for their first Star Wars action figure,” he says.
Hunt, too, says geography plays an important role for her Madison County business, which is located just past the eastern border of Onondaga County. “People out here don’t want to drive all the way to Target to buy a birthday present,” she says.
At the other end of Onondaga County, Kinder Garden is a children’s gift shop in Skaneateles that opened nearly 10 years ago. Betsey Conroy, who works at Kinder Garden and is a longtime friend of the store’s owner, Kris Gary, says it’s a shame there are fewer and fewer independent toy stores.
“What if you just don’t want to shop at a larger store?” Conroy says. “New parents and grandparents need someone to talk to. In a big-box store you’ll talk to someone who doesn’t know about the product or where it came from.”
Conroy says everyone at Kinder Garden involved in purchasing for the store are mothers and grandmothers. “We like toys that are fun and educational,” she says, “and it’s nice if you can’t tell the difference.”
They also ensure they only purchase quality toys, including HABA and Melissa & Doug, that are free of harmful paints and chemicals. “We’re very serious about keeping our babies safe,” Conroy says.
While an independent toy store may offer a more intimate shopping experience, the $100,000 question remains: How does one stay open in this day of big-box stores?
“It really doesn’t matter what you’re offering, if you’re an independent business you’re always competing against Wal-Marts and Targets,” Watkins says. “It’s something I’m passionate about, so it makes it a lot easier.”
Hunt says dedication is also key. “You have to work a lot of hours and have financing,” she says. “You have to keep abreast about what’s new and out there.”
Conroy adds that knowing your target demographic is essential. “We know the people who shop with us,” she says. “You have to know your market, know quality toys and know what people will pay for them.”