SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

December 4, 2013

Toy stories

Downtown toy shops have big competition, but lots of fun

BY ETHAN FORMAN
STAFF WRITER

---- — At Green Elephant Toys in Danvers Square, they’re gearing up for the holidays.

Sock moneys, plush toys, science kits, Lego sets, wooden and tin toys — toys that look like Santa’s elves made them — line the shelves. The Brio trains are out on a table for kids to play with while their parents shop.

“If you look around, we make it so much fun to be here,” said Andrew Schylling, who runs the shop with his wife, Jennifer, and who appears to be having a lot of fun himself.

Green Elephant is one of a handful of local, independent toy stores on the North Shore hoping to lure holiday shoppers downtown this season. They offer toys from manufacturers that can’t be found at large discount chains or big-box retailers, they say, along with competitive prices and, often, free gift wrapping.

Still, they have an uphill battle when it comes to attracting their share of holiday business.

A recent Harris Poll showed that nearly half of holiday shoppers will buy toys from large discounters, another 33 percent will buy online, 11 percent will shop at a national toy store chain, and just 4 percent will shop at a local toy store.

Owners of these local toy shops say they are not trying to slight big-box retailers, but their small size allows them to provide individual attention to customers. And while they offer some of the same toys as the bigger chains, they are downtown — not at the busy malls.

”Our market is and has always been people who don’t like shopping there,” said Sam Pollard of Mud Puddle Toys, which has shops in Marblehead and downtown Salem.

Clearly, there are customers who value that.

Marblehead Toy Shop on Atlantic Avenue recently held its 19th anniversary, while Mud Puddle Toys, which originated in Marblehead, opened a second store on Salem’s Essex Street pedestrian mall in 2010. Green Elephant is the second store operated by Andrew and Jennifer Schylling, who have also run a toy store on Market Street in Ipswich for seven years.

But there’s plenty of competition; not only do they compete with the big chain stores, said Pollard, but they must battle online toy sellers as well.

Marblehead Toy Shop manager Barbara Waldman has worked for the store for 15 years. She said customer service is the No. 1 reason why people head to a specialty toy store. She not only knows her regular customers by name, she knows their grandchildren, too.

“We try to get things that are exclusive to specialty shops,” Waldman said.

Local shops also aim to make themselves a destination, a place where kids can have fun, rather than simply a place to buy toys.

“A lot of the people want to see ‘what does this product do,’” said Jennifer Schylling. “I am more than happy to open it up, take it out and show them, as opposed to a box store where if you do that, you look like you are stealing it.”

”One of the nice things about small toy stores is we have a pulse on what’s going to be hot or new,” Andrew Schylling added.

Schylling said the toys his store carries are, for the most part, hands on, and only a few require batteries. The store even supplies batteries with toys so kids can play with them right out of the box.

“The goal is to leave here and be able to utilize your toy,” he said. They also carry lots of throwback toys, like Etch A Sketch, Jack-in-the-Box toys, the Fisher-Price Music Box Record Player and tin toys that are hard to find at large stores.

When asked if downtown Danvers is a good place for a toy store, Andrew Schylling said: “When we first got there, all these buildings were vacant.” He pointed to the shop windows across the street. “If you look around now, you will notice all these buildings are full.

“The New England Dog Biscuit Company, the studio just opened up across the street, the consignment shop right next to us — if you look, none of these buildings are vacant anymore. This is all in the last 18 months or so, where you have really seen downtown Danvers and the Square really becoming a place to be.”

It also helps that many of his customers “really want to support the local guy,” he said.

Andrew Schylling has roots in the toy business: His family recently sold Schylling Associates in Rowley, a large independent toy and gift designer, to two investment firms. Green Elephant is independent of that company, he said.

In 2010, Mud Puddle Toys co-owners Kristen and Sam Pollard of Marblehead decided to open their second store in downtown Salem.

The Marblehead residents noticed Salem was on the rise.

“Over the years, we’ve seen a change and by all accounts it seemed like a city headed in the right direction,” Sam said. The business community proved welcoming, and the city helped with a federal program to provide financing for the new store.

”It was a very business-friendly environment,” Pollard said.

Since the economic downturn, Pollard has noticed a shift among toy buyers who head to specialty shops, however. “The challenge is there is an ever larger population where cost is the single biggest factor,” he said.

Pollard is also noticing another trend among his customers — ”a lot more shoppers who are vocal about shopping local.”

There are other places where shoppers can find toys at specialty shops outside the malls. Salem Toy Museum at the Museum Place Mall has a small gift shop, and there’s Learning Express franchise on Route 1A in North Beverly. Model train enthusiasts can check out North East Trains on Main Street in Peabody, and model makers can try Dave’s Hobby Shop on Cabot Street in Beverly.

Toys N Things on Maple Street in Danvers has morphed from a traditional toy store into a store for gaming products, trading card games, and European-style board games, says owner Evan Jamieson.

Frank Sarcia, owner of the Salem Toy Museum, which features vintage toys from the 1950s to the present, said he likes local specialty toy stores.

“I think it’s a great alternative,” Sarcia said. “It can be exciting because you can find different stuff or stuff that you used to play with. It’s a great opportunity. It’s also a way to get away from the crowds.”

Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at eforman@salemnews.com or on Twitter at @DanverSalemNews.