The Joys of the Mom-and-Pop Toy Store

In the age of big box stores that have everything you need in one place, mom-and-pop toy stores are thriving. Find out why, and the benefits of buying from your neighborhood toy store.

Want to know the secret to the mom-and-pop toy stores’ success? Two words: Birthday parties. Invitations, RSVPs, and even carefully organized calendars can’t seem to stop parties from creeping up on parents, leaving them without a present days—or worse, just hours—before the event. Not even drone delivery can help then, and a visit to the big box store is, for many parents, an overwhelming, overly time-consuming option.

But it’s not just the rush factor, or even the free gift wrapping: Parents and kids alike want to choose something special—not just a present, but the perfect present—for a party. As both a mom of two and the owner of the newly opened TP Toys and Accessories in New Rochelle, Kemesha Salmon is deeply aware of the struggle to choose the right gift. “I don’t want to just pick a gift to give it—I want something the child is going to learn from, not just play with and then put down,” she says. 

Here’s how big birthday parties are for locally owned toy stores: They trump even the winter holidays. “I don’t count on Christmas. December is just like any other month,” says Louise Simon, owner of south Park Slope’s Toy Space, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. “I’m a birthday party business. Because people still want to see, touch, and feel what they’re buying someone else for a birthday.”

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‘We Define What’s Popular’

It’s hard, sometimes, to imagine how the local toyshop survives; between Internet shopping and big box stores, it has probably never been easier for parents to shop anywhere but that cute toy store around the block. There’s much that online and big box stores can offer toy shoppers: a giant inventory, the very lowest prices, and easy price comparisons, as well as predictable selection. If you’re looking for the big “it” toy—think this year’s version of Tickle-Me Elmo, or Rainbow Loom—or if you have tons of buying to do, there’s no doubt that online or chain stores are a better option.

But when I ask Simon, who is my cousin, for the secret to her success, it turns out that she doesn’t see herself as playing on the same field. “On the Internet, they’ll see what’s popular and then buy it. Here we define what’s popular.” Toy Space, Simon says, is “indigenous to her community.” Both her window display and her inventory are different than any other store in the area, and she refreshes constantly, refusing to stock any toy that gets complaints from customers.

Vanessa Solly, Brooklyn mom of 2-year-old Chet, goes to a big box store near her office for practical items and when she needs to make a big holiday haul. “But I certainly don’t find myself strolling through Toys ‘R’ Us on my lunch break to see if Chet can use something,” she says. When it comes to browsing, she credits the nearby local shop for getting her son into fake fruit and vegetable toys, which he adores. “If I didn’t have local toy stores right outside my front door, I might not have pushed him in that direction.”

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Setting Trends, Not Following Them

This is the remaining piece of the puzzle that is the continued success of mom-and-pop toy stores: Where bigger stores, online and off, glory in offering every possible option, the local toyshop owner is a cool hunter, carefully curating the shop’s inventory to match neighborhood sensibilities. Walk into a store in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and you’ll see a totally different selection of toys and games from a store on the Upper West Side in Manhattan, Babylon, or Nyack. You won’t get all the options available in a big box store, but you also won’t get the sensory overload.

“I’m not really a parent who’s 100-percent up on all the latest toys,” confesses Solly. She shops her area stores in downtown Brooklyn and Park Slope, because they “know our market. They get the neighborhood and know what the kids would be interested in.” Salmon, who named TP Toys after her children, ages 4 and 6, credits her kids with helping her pick winning toys and games: “Every time people come in and say, ‘You have beautiful selection,’ I say, ‘Thank my kids!’”

Simon is always hunting for the unique, wonderful, and unexpected to stock at Toy Space at places such as Renaissance fairs and folk festivals. Inspiration can come from unexpected sources. A friend visiting from the west coast casually mentioned Shoulder Buddies. Simon hadn’t heard of the small figurines, which perch on a person’s shoulders aided by magnets, but she immediately thought they sounded amazing. She ordered a supply, and had every staffer wear one. Shoulder Buddies were a hit, sweeping through nearby schools. “Every kid had to have a Shoulder Buddy,” she said. “It was a total made-up trend! And that’s what a mom-and-pop shop can do.”

So long as Toy Space is still around, Simon will continue to seek out the next great toy. And so will the proverbial mom-and-pop toy store owners around the region.

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Main photo: The Toy Box in Pearl River
Photo by Jim Russo