Since the announcement that Toys ‘R’ Us would close all its U.S. stores following the company’s default, business news and analyses have mostly verged on the vexed question of whether Amazon killed Toys ‘R’ Us, or whether debt did. The most common conclusion? A mix of the two.
In New York, where online shopping has gotten so popular that apartment buildings often scramble to fit incoming packages into their lobbies, some brick-and-mortar retail stores have been closing, and Toys ‘R’ Us—whose New York stores are set to close permanently on June 30—is one of the latest to fall.
But away from the glare of the city’s mainstream retail areas, neighborhood toy stores are quietly fighting their day-to-day battle—and surviving. And some of their owners have a different take on what sank Toys ‘R’ Us, and on what really keeps a brick-and-mortar toy store open for business.
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, 78-year-old Dawn Harris Martine slowly walked into the Grandma’s Place toy store on West 120th Street in Harlem, holding on to a cane. She wasn’t there to buy toys for her grandchildren; she owns the shop. Martine, a small woman with a puff of gray hair and big glasses, is a former teacher from the neighborhood, and a businesswoman since 2004.
She first seized the space on West 120th Street, next door to her apartment, in 1999 and turned it into a literacy center, she said. She would collect or buy books and make them available for Harlem residents—children and grown-ups—to read. Martine said that when rent for the 600-square-foot space doubled, in 2004, she could no longer afford to run the center on her teacher salary and decided to turn it into a toy and book store.
Today, Grandma’s Place’s toys are mostly intended to cater to the African-American and Latino communities. Dolls come in several different skin tones, and toys named Baby Einstein and Mighty Mind are in display next to books that talk to children about integration and differences in ethnicities and gender.
It’s a niche, as Martine put it. And that is keeping the business afloat. “You have to have a niche, because Toys ‘R’ Us, Walmart, Amazon can sell everything I have at a lower price,” she said. About Toys ‘R’ Us, though, she added: “Toys ‘R’ Us is gone, but I’ve never really competed with them, anyway.”
Through the years, Martine learned the importance of having an online presence to advance her business, and has asked her daughter and son-in-law to manage the shop’s e-commerce. “I have people coming in from Brooklyn or New Jersey, and when they can’t come, it’s good for them to buy online,” she said.
But for those who do come to the store in person, a cozy, colorful space welcomes them. As Annette Meed, Martine’s friend and helper at the store, saw an upside-down puppet in a pile, she hurried to fix it. And when a man entered the shop to inquire about a dollhouse, Martine explained in detail the pros and cons of every dollhouse model she sells.
Grandma’s Place isn’t particularly profitable, Martine says, but it never closed, and it continues to be a reference point in the Central Harlem community. It’s one of the few toy stores in the neighborhood. That fact, and Harlem’s changing demographics, have benefited Martine’s business. She has noticed that, as the community changed, people in the area started having more money to spend on their children. The walk-in traffic to the store increased.
Meanwhile, Martine has other sources of income that supplement the shop’s profits—like her pension, Social Security, and rent from some apartments she owns. Some of her employees are volunteers, like Meed, who is a social worker and helps out at the register sometimes.
“My business is still open on sheer determination to keep it open,” Martine said.
The importance for toy store owners to keep their stores nice and cozy resonates with retail experts, too, and some believe that Toys ‘R’ Us failed in this respect.
“I would believe that Toys ‘R’ Us is closing because it didn’t take care of its stores,” said Chelsea Connor, communications director for RWDSU, the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, in a phone interview. “A lot of retail stores are closing, and it’s because they didn’t invest in their stores. As they had to compete with online stores, they lost sight of their product.” she added. “You want to have knowledgeable employees, you want your store to look nice. And they lost sight of that.”
Some Toys ‘R’ Us employees interviewed by NyCityLens said they are not worried that they won’t find another job in retail. A young male employee in the chain’s location in the Manhattan Mall near Penn Station, who didn’t provide his name as he wasn’t authorized to speak to the press, said he will look for another job “wherever,” because “Work is work.” He had been employed at Toys ‘R’ Us for only two months, he said.
The store manager of the Times Square store said he is not worried at all about being laid off, and he waved his arm at the square outside to say that with so many retail stores still open, he will for sure find something else. When asked whether he considered Amazon a threat, he said no, adding that he buys toys for his own kids at Toys ‘R’ Us, of course.
“I don’t know why other people choose to buy on Amazon.”
They do, though. Yet while Amazon’s growth seems unstoppable—Forbes reports that the company accounts for about 44% of all e-commerce spending in the U.S.—some experts are skeptical of its role as the annihilator of brick-and-mortar retail.
Dustin Longstreth, chief marketing and strategy officer at CBX brand agency, pointed to the fact that when it comes to toys, Amazon can’t provide “the magical moment between you and your child.” “Toys ‘R’ Us should have been thinking more like Disney than like Walmart,” Longstreth said in a phone interview. “Moments are more valuable than toys. They might still be around if they did that.”
Local stores, like the one owned by Dawn Harris Martine, seem to have seized on that concept.
On the Upper West Side, next to an antiques shop and in front of a tennis court, on a stretch of Amsterdam Avenue near 84th Street that is dotted by small businesses and European-style cafes, sits Westside Kids, a family-owned toy and children’s bookstore. It has been there since 1981. The owner, Jenni Bergman, said that though revenue growth used to be higher in the 1990s, the store is still doing quite well. It mostly serves people in the neighborhood. On a recent afternoon, as a Bergman’s helper answered phone calls and informed customers that, yes, the store sells puzzle boards, Bergman served customer after customer at the cash register, sending each off with a kind smile. A toddler wouldn’t let go of the miniature MTA subway car with automatic doors that he had picked, and showed it again and again to his mom, who agreed it was “cool.”
Bergman thinks that her landlord’s decision not to raise the shop’s rent is part of the reason that it is still open. The landlord believed in the importance of a local shop like hers, she said, and promised never to raise the rent.
Where this hasn’t happened, local shop owners had to fight for survival—and some made it anyway.
HomBom Toys, a small store on the Upper East Side, used to exist in two more locations in Manhattan, but both stores were priced out of their spots in the past few years. This one, on First Avenue, remains. “We have a local clientele, and they come to us because of our expertise,” said Ilene Gayer, the owner. That afternoon, the store was prepping three big bags full of toys for delivery on behalf of a young mother from Manhattan.
“People like to see the personal touch,” Gayer said. She doesn’t see her store as ever competing with the online retailers, to the extent that she didn’t even set up an e-commerce for her business. Those who want to receive their purchases at home can use HomBom’s delivery service. “I don’t want to compete with Amazon,” said Gayer. “We’re unique.”
Customers seemed to appreciate the uniqueness. One lady came all the way from Chelsea to purchase a certain kind of stuffed dog. A little girl toured the store to make her birthday wish list, to Ilene Gayer’s delight. “Oh, I see, she is investigating!” she said.
Other boutique toy stores, like Mary Arnolds on the Upper East Side or Kidding Around in Chelsea, seem to be running on a similar ethos as HomBom, Westside Kids, or Grandma’s Place—tailoring their offerings to the demographics of the neighborhood while making their shops unique.
“Toys ‘R’ Us closing hasn’t really influenced us, we have the same local customers,” said Luis Guzman, manager at Mary Arnolds on the Upper East Side, a store that mostly sells higher-end toys to local residents.
Those who don’t live in the vicinity of a boutique toy store—or aren’t ready to spend the extra dollar on boutique toys—are profiting from the final sales at Toys ‘R’ Us before the closing.
On Sunday April 29, while sandwich-men patrolled the Times Square area to advertise the discounts, some families browsed through the aisles, looking for deals. One family from Astoria, for example, carried big bags full of toys. The father, Walter Siguencia, said that they used to frequent the Toys ‘R’ Us in that location, and that he didn’t feel good about the closing. His 12-year-old daughter said that 99-cent stores are the closest options to a toy store available in their neighborhood.
“There’s not much left there,” said Siguencia. “I don’t know where to go now.”