Toy stores play on: Online shopping, chain stores take a toll on the local toy store scene

art frIf you have it, they will come.

That’s the philosophy for the small facet of independent toy stores remaining in Western North Carolina.

“The kids know it’s here, and this is where they want to come,” said Melanee Lester, general manager of Mast General Store in Waynesville.

The selections are solid: science experiment kits, classic board games, metal lunch boxes, wooden cars, sock monkies. You won’t find the latest fad or cookie-cutter toys — the kind embossed in glitzy plastic packaging that seem irresistible on the outside but lack substance once you tear them open.

The toy department has been a successful mainstay of Mast’s Waynesville store — and in fact, all of its stores since its roots as a true Appalachian general store back in 1883.

And, as far as Lester is concerned, it always will be, thanks in part to all the tourists traipsing through downtown and inevitably drawn inside the store.

“They come and bring their kids, who all end up down here in toys while their parents are shopping,” she said. “They always wind up leaving with a bagful of toys and candy.”

But, just one block down Main Street, a once prominent toy business sits vacant. Dust gathers not only on the empty shelves but also on the fond memories local children had at Fun Things Etc., which closed its doors this October for personal and financial reasons.

The former owner, Denise Teague, laments the hole that was left in the community when she closed.

“Toy stores offer children the opportunity to dream, wish and spend their coins from their piggy-bank,” said Teague. “Kids and families gain so much from having access to games, puzzles and toys.”

Opening in 2006, Teague had high hopes for the business. But, eventually, the strain of running a small business, coupled with growing family demands, took its toll. It was a tough decision for Teague, who closed the shop after much soul-searching.

Online sales were one obstacle Teague battled. Sometimes, shoppers would browse her merchandise, then bargain shop for the same product online once they got back home.

“The reality is that many small specialty shops are becoming more and more ‘showrooms’ for web-based shopping,” she said.

Yet, no matter where she goes from here, Teague will always cherish the people from around the world and around the corner that entered her establishment. She’s watched children grow up and families expand. It was a special place, but good things also come to an end and one must hold onto the memories.

“I miss selling toys, but mostly, I miss talking to people and making those connections,” she said. “I’ve watched families go from a single person to a married couple to a married couple with children.”

Though opening an independent toy business may be risky, James Bandy, co-owner of Blast From The Past Toys in Canton that opened in October, sees it as an opportunity to do something different, something that can stand on it’s own and flourish.

“It’s all in how you do business if it survives or not,” he said.

While he likes toys, that alone won’t make his business successful.

“You can’t sell toys because you just like toys and want to keep them. You’ve got to let them go and make money,” he said.

Though the economy is tough, Blast From The Past Toys saw a niche to be filled — one of the few viable models for local, independent toy stores these days.

“You’ll find items here no longer available in your chain stores,” Bandy said. “After next year, those toys and merchandise are closed out. A year or so later, you won’t see the things anywhere and have to search all around online to find them.”

Bandy points to his expertise on toy lines as something he has over the competition. You aren’t just looking for a toy; you’re looking for the right toy, at the right price, from someone who can direct you to the correct purchase.

“I have experience taking toys apart by piece and putting them back together technically,” he said. “There’s a lot of advice I can give here that most places can’t, at least the right answers anyway.”

Wandering through the new establishment, Canton resident Danielle Snider sees the store’s opening as a win-win for the community. She feels it’s important to support local businesses.

“Shopping at a local toy store is far less stressful,” she said. “There aren’t a million people looking for toys, and here it’s only about the toys. You can find what you’re looking for.”

In Highlands, The Toy Store, a beloved destination for community members and tourists alike, continues to stand its ground in a teetering industry where nobody can predict the ultimate outcome. Owner Michelle Bears had thought about walking away from it all, thinking perhaps nobody would notice if the store disappeared. After toying with the idea, the surrounding community stepped up and told her she couldn’t let that happen.

“All this time, I didn’t realize I was making a difference in people’s lives,” said Bears, the owner since the mid-1990s. “When they come up here, they look for a different experience. I enjoy talking to them, getting to know their families, spending time and watching their families grow.”

With the tastes of modern-day children rapidly changing, Bears knows it can be tricky to identify items and ways to attract consumers. It’s all about finding things that not only bring families together in a society of endless priorities but also toys and games that get kids outside, engaging their brains.

“Simplify your life; bring your family back together with quality time, games and puzzles,” said Bears. “People are getting so far away from traditional things and ways that they’ve made their lives so complex.”

To stay ahead of the game, Bears tries to offer things that you can’t find elsewhere or haven’t hit the shelves at the chain stores yet. It can be difficult, but The Toy Store is up for the challenge.

“So much character is lost when you see strip mall after strip mall,” she said. “You know exactly what you’re going to get, but if you go into these individual stores like ours, people want something different and have choices for things that not every kid on the block has.”

Back at Mast General Store, Lester voiced similar sentiments.

“We try very hard to carry more old-fashioned things, timeless toys,” she said. “You can find some of our things elsewhere, but not everything. It’s about the atmosphere.”

Browsing the toy department at Mast, Eric Hendrix, a local small business owner himself, is looking around for possible holiday gift ideas. He stressed the importance of communities rallying around their independent businesses, because those who run them are your friends and neighbors.

“Anything local is good,” he said. “It builds and teaches community. It shows young people that even though the rest of the world is important, that it all begins at home, and you need to nurture that attitude.”

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