OOnce upon a time – well, only the other day, in fact, a Monday morning during summer vacation – in the beautiful city of Bath there was a building. Just opposite the train station. It was – it still is – a large and beautiful building, built not so long ago but in a Georgian style befitting its historic setting. But it’s not a happy building because its owners have fallen on hard times and left. Today the Debenhams building stands empty, haunted by the ghosts of shop assistants, a relic of another happier era of retail.
Hold the fiddles, though, and walk around the corner to St Lawrence Street, where you’ll find a small pocket of life – joy even – occupying a unit in the same building. Here is a window filled with hot air balloons, a red pedal car, mice, a huge wooden fantasy castle. It could be Mr Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, Toy Story 2, Big, Angela Carter even, if you want to go darker or classier: choose your own cultural comparison. This independent toy store, called My Small World, is run by a woman called Dawn Burden and I spend the morning here.
First of all, before you go play inside, the why part. Because this little scene in Bath is a bigger picture of detail in a microcosm. Amid widespread misery on high streets, department store closures and household names moving online or disappearing altogether, for toy stores the story is less dark and bleak, more boom.
Sales in toy stores from January to June 2022 increased by 44% compared to the same period last year. Duh, you say: confinement at the beginning of 2021, that’s why. Granted, it has a lot to do with it – but what about that? Even in the second quarter of 2022, sales increased by 13% compared to the same period in 2021, when stores were open.
Speaking from his home in Donaghadee, County Down, Alan Simpson, who has been in the industry for over 40 years and is chairman of the Toy Retailers Association, said there was some extra money for some people. “People on furlough didn’t have the expense of going to work; they couldn’t go on vacation. I think the parents felt able to push the boat out a bit when it came to spending on toys and the kids reaped the benefits. »
There are around 600 toy shops in Britain, up from 900 five years ago, but that trend is changing. After what it describes as a bumper year, the Toy Retailers Association expects the number of actual physical stores increase 10% over the next two years. As well as chairing the association, Simpson runs the Toytown chain, which has around 30 stores across the UK. Last year it opened two new stores; this year it will be three. “If your competitors are moving forward and you are not, you are basically falling back.”
My little world in Bath is not part of a chain. Burden opened 17 years ago in another part of town, next to Waitrose, and she admits that is her target market. The things she sells are tasteful, old-fashioned, wholesome. There are no batteries, not a lot of plastic, a lot of wood. It is not displayed according to age or gender. “Boys love dollhouses; girls like to build things. I think we are beyond that,” she said. “It is important that we steer boys towards education and girls towards engineering.”
It’s not cheap. You can get a chain of colorful twist and lock blocks for £2 or a nodding cat for £3, but the most expensive dollhouse is 300 full-size adult pounds, as is the pedal car in red metal in the window. “Things like this are going to last,” says Jo Salmon. “They will pass them on to their children. It’s important to be sustainable now.
Jo is here with her children, Thea, eight, and Laurie, five. This is Laurie’s favorite store. Thea loves books and arty stuff. They are local; hadn’t planned to come in, were just passing through. Mom was led through the door.
The power of Pester, plus the lure of the toy store window, pays off – soon after opening time it’s already busy. “I like it because there are things my seven-year-old only wants to do on screen,” Cheryl Burnside says of her son Sam, who is there with three-year-old David. “He wants to play Minecraft, he wants to play Roblox. But here he’s like, ‘Oh look – a balancing bird!’ It’s not something he would have been exposed to. It’s important to let them come in and play. She ends up getting the bird for Sam and a book for David. They’re not local – they’re on vacation in Philadelphia , Pennsylvania.
It’s good to have the tourists back, says Burden. While I’m in the shop, French, German and Cornish (“fleeing the crowd”) families enter the shop. The Cogswell family – mum Millie, Arthur, 10, and Phillip, three – are not tourists. They are originally from Bath but currently live in Saudi Arabia for work. they came back for a visit. “It’s good to be back where it all is, and kids are still kids and allowed to play with rainbow toys,” Millie says.
“They ban rainbow toys and clothes,” Arthur says of Saudi authorities seizing children’s belongings they say promote homosexuality. He leaves with a do-it-yourself crank bell, natural wood color, but which could be painted like a rainbow. Phillip takes a bath tug.
Louise Evans and Emily Weston have no children but work with them. They are primary school teachers from Swindon and they understand the importance of the physical store. “If you can see something, you can visualize your child, or someone else’s child, with it,” Louise says. “If I buy something online for the class, I don’t really know what it’s going to look like.” Again, they were just passing through. They’re in town on a girls’ day out to visit a real brick-and-mortar bookstore. Hey, internet shopping is so pre-pandemic – the future is in store.
Juno, 10, agrees on the importance of going to a store. “You can interact with things and they let you try things out,” she says. At the moment, she is interacting with a mouse wearing a striped dress lying in a small bed inside a matchbox. “I love small things and creating tiny little worlds.” A mouse in a matchbox costs £23.50.
“We’ve been known to spend way too much money here,” says Juno’s father, Joe Short. But in tough times, maybe especially in tough times, people spend money on different things. “Even in the shit, people take care of their children. It’s not a bad expense. You don’t blame yourself for that, when you don’t feel very good about drinking that extra bottle of wine. Buying a toy for your loved one is kind of fair.
Burden thinks the past two years may have seen some family ties strengthen. “I wonder if people are more attentive to their children because they spent a lot of time with them during confinement. Perhaps children are more visible in their lives than they were before the pandemic.
Good news for kids, good news for toy stores, good news for Dawn. Last year was My Small World’s busiest. By November, sales were back to where they were before Covid. Now, month after month, they are pre-pandemic plus 24%. Even taking into account above-average inflation, it is doing well. I’m not a financial journalist, but I believe the technical term is ker-ching.
Incidentally, here they have a small set of steps at the counter for the little ones to climb up and get involved. The current paying woman, Felicity Lynch, doesn’t need it: she didn’t bring any of her five children “because they’re taking everything.” But she likes to come rather than go online. “I prefer to be able to look, touch and smell.” Today she is getting a wooden puzzle toy for her future two-year-old daughter for £16.
Simpson agrees on the need for physical stores – which is why he continues to open his own Toytown stores: “It would be extremely damaging for toy stores to be online only. You remember being taken to a toy store when you were a kid – it’s a magical experience that kids will remember for the rest of their lives. There is no magic in a cardboard box that arrives.
Hard times ahead, right? “I’m cautious without being depressed about it,” Simpson says. “We know what’s going on there with the prices of petrol, electricity and gas. There is much less disposable income. I think people are starting to batten down the hatches and look for value. We are aware that the end of the year will not be the same as last year. »
Much will depend on the kind of support the new Prime Minister will provide. But for his business, and for Burden and everyone else, there’s another, potentially even more important savior who never fails to deliver, even if it’s only once a year. “The difference between toys and most retailers is that Santa Claus comes at Christmas and parents push the boat out trying to make sure kids have a good Christmas.”
And so they all lived happily ever after. For now, at least.