Toy Story 4

Words by Silas Valentino

Photos by Annie Barnett

If you’re business-focused, this is Q4, but for everyone else, the last few months of the year are for the holidays. Independent toy store owners are somewhere in the middle. After all, isn’t their business to help supply holiday cheer?

Although gifts aren’t the reason for the season—the original Christmas presents of gold, frankincense and myrrh were more symbolic than practical, especially for a newborn child—the exchanging of gifts is a tradition that begins with a visit to the little shop around the corner.

Here on the Peninsula, we’re treated to several: Talbot’s Toyland in San Mateo, Ambassador Toys in Palo Alto,  Adventure Toys in Los Altos and Cheeky Monkey in Menlo Park. The owners champion the power of playtime as much as they do one another, referring customers to each other’s stores or collaborating over large toy orders to split the cost. Together, they forge ahead, embracing the pros and woes of running a toy retail in the age of delivery.

“So many people come in to use our store like Amazon shopping. They take photographs and say, ‘I can find it cheaper online,’” says Linda Kapnick of Ambassador Toys. “I don’t think customers understand the level of work it takes to put that toy on the shelf. With all the research and curation, toy stores are a little bit like a museum.”

Talbot’s Toyland

When Santa Claus arrives at Talbot’s Toyland on Black Friday each year, he does so in style, appearing on the back of a San Mateo Fire Department truck. Hundreds of folks show up to greet him, in a tradition that still packs an emotional punch for the toy store’s general manager.

“I call it a ‘very magical Santa arrival,’” Keith Schumacher says. “I get choked up; I’m 43 years old and it’s really him! We get people every year who complain about the line for Black Friday because the kids actually get some face time with Santa. He asks about how they get along with siblings. It’s not [in a reference to The Christmas Story movie] ‘You’ll shoot your eye out, kid!’ and then get the boot on top of the head.”

The 30,000-square-foot toy hub in downtown San Mateo approaches Christmas with fastidious care. Need help hiding gifts from the kids? The store offers up the top of its warehouse as a hideout until Christmas Eve.

And beginning last year, Talbot’s introduced a giving tree inside the store where philanthropic patrons can purchase an ornament representing a different toy to provide homeless families with gifts through the Menlo Park organization LifeMoves.

“Giving back, that’s what people don’t realize with the Internet shopping,” Keith explains. “The little independent toy store sponsors Little League teams and gives back to schools. You just don’t get that from Amazon.”

Keith has watched Christmases come and go, along with their fads. He said the last hot item was the Kendama, a Japanese spin on the old ball and cup toy, which sold thousands in one holiday season. Popular toys won’t pop until as late as November, which keeps Talbot’s on its toes, tracking trends like a stockbroker on IPO day.

“When Tickle Me Elmo came out, we were in New York at a trade show and didn’t think it would do much. The guy at Tyco said it was the hottest of the season but we heard that 90 times already,” Keith remembers. “We probably ordered 40 and were going to get rid of them until we decided to wait until Christmas. The minute Rosie O’Donnell squeezed the toy and Elmo said, ‘I love you!’, it became the hottest new thing.”

Ambassador Toys

When Linda Kapnick began envisioning Ambassador Toys 22 years ago, opening first in San Francisco before landing at Town and Country Village in Palo Alto, she designed her store with both the child and parent in mind. She said the Bay Area circa 1997 was lacking independent toy stores, leading her to consider what was missing.

“Toys “R” Us was a difficult place to go into as a young mother—it was a cavernous warehouse. I thought there are so many beautiful places for adults but nothing for children,” she says. “Looking to the future, we wanted to bring ideas to children of the global community and create an environment for education—plus fun.”

Learning with playtime became integral building blocks for Ambassador Toys, which specializes in items that stimulate the scientific, technological, engineering and mathematical minds. “Long before the whole STEM movement, I had what we called the Space Room, which was all about science,” Linda says. “It’s where we put the glow-in-the-dark stars, science kits and all things NASA.”

The San Francisco location is larger than Palo Alto’s, which allows Linda to globetrot without moving, dividing the West Portal store into continents featuring toys from far-away places. Working with a smaller size at Town and Country allowed her to focus on providing more books and board games, an activity she’s seen remain stable amidst eye-grabbing video games.

Ambassador Toys outlasted the 2008 financial crisis and is rolling with punches from Amazon and e-commerce. But adapting a timeless practice like playtime into the new millennium didn’t come without challenges. It’s why Linda has only admiration for her independent cohorts.

“I have respect for anyone who gets into this. Back in 1997, I considered Talbot’s to be the Wizard of Oz—it had such a reputation! I didn’t want to go there because I was going to get scared,” she says, laughing. “I don’t want to pull back the curtain, but it’s a wonderful place with wonderful people.”

Adventure Toys

The holidays don’t officially kick off in downtown Los Altos until Adventure Toys reveals their annual window display. Taking cues from the Macy’s windows in New York, store owner Leslie Chiaverini spends the last weekend in November decking the walls with lights and seasonal flair. This dedication repurposes Adventure Toys as a town square or gathering place for families.

“We’re part of the community in many ways,” Leslie says. “Not only are the tax dollars supporting schools, but we also provide a social environment. Parents see their neighbors in here and you’ll oftentimes hear, ‘Hi, how are you?’ five or six times in a day.”

Adventure Toys began as a mother-daughter venture in 1986 before Leslie purchased the store alongside her own mother in 1999. She’s since assumed full ownership and developed the store with a focus on educational toys and games.

“I do my own buying and that becomes the differentiation from other stores,” she says. “We may have many of the same products but we actually do have different clientele. The store becomes more curated because we’re buying what we like and what we think our customers would want.”

This equates to educational fun such as Legos, Ravensburger puzzles and Playmobil sets. Leslie likes to offer games because they teach kids how to win or lose, and how to be a good sport. The store promotes science kits that teach children to learn by doing. She recently noticed how manufacturers will slap a STEM sticker on just about any product with hopes of convincing parents it’s educational. She’s carved out a more refined educational niche in the local toy shop scene and the other stores are her compadres, Leslie says, not competitors.

“I’m personally friends with Anna and Dexter at Cheeky Monkey. We go out to dinner together when we’re at toy shows and we’ll share orders to get free freight to keep costs down,” she says. “It’s nice during the holidays to call them; I once called Talbot’s for wrapping paper! I think it’s important to support each other. There’s a community within our own group of stores.”

Cheeky Monkey

Anna Chow, who owns Cheeky Monkey Toys alongside her husband, Dexter, has developed a simple technique for understanding the world at large.

“My basic philosophy is that you can tell the state of the world through the sales of Whoopee cushions and finger paints,” she reveals. “When things get stressful, Whoopee cushion sales fall off because we lose a sense of humor. Now, finger paint is popular because it’s a little messy.”

The Chows have a front-row seat for observing a world in flux through their downtown Menlo Park toy shop. They’ll notice how hot toy trends begin on the East Coast before reaching the West (middle America is last in line) and they’ve recently bolstered their inventory for small items fit for a care package. The tween-age market is currently devouring things like the plush toy Squishmallows or the kind of pom-poms you hang on a bag.

The Chows watched as the toy store juggernaut Toys “R” Us ceased operations last year and then disrupted the toy ecosystem. “Toys “R” Us infused a lot of money into the toy industry and would purchase a lot of toys from a lot of manufacturers,” Anna says. “Now they don’t have that channel. A couple of smaller manufacturers went under because Toys “R” Us owed them money and they had no capital.”

Cheeky Monkey began in 2000 in a smaller unit down Santa Cruz Avenue and the Chows took over in 2002. They have since quadrupled their store’s size after moving to their current location in 2007 where they designed the space to have easily-accessible sections. “With a store this big, we don’t want it to feel too cavernous,” Anna says.

They’ve created a playful ambiance that might borrow inspiration from toy store giants of the past, while remaining a store uniquely their own.

“FAO Schwarz created the experience and that’s what we hope to do here,” Anna says. “We’re more West Coast and have fun as opposed to white gloves holding the front door open. We’ll get down on the floor and play.”