As Toys ‘R Us Downsizes, Local Toy Stores Thrive

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Friday April 21, 2006

What began as a fantasy, a “fairy-tale candy land” in the form of Sweet Dreams Candy Store 35 years ago on College Avenue is now a successful toy shop.  

“The best part about being an independent toy store is that you can be yourself,” owner Gary Gendel said. “Very few stores indulge in the kind of unique toys that we do.” 

Gendel said that Sweet Dreams had never felt the competition from larger toy-chains in the Bay Area like Toys ‘R Us or even chains such as Walmart and Target, which have recently added toy sections. 

“Independent toy stores are not just about rows and rows of merchandise,” Gendel said. “There is nothing wrong with having plastic stacked up with some neon lights for show, but that’s just not how we want to sell toys.” 

Berkeley’s independent toy stores are thriving at a time when the toy store business is not all fun and games. Toys ‘R Us, with an outlet in Emeryville, is reeling nationally from financial losses and has closed a total of 73 stores nationwide as of last month. 

“The majority of these stores were located in markets that have one or more additional Toys ‘R Us locations,” Bob Friedland, spokesman for Toys ‘R Us, told the Planet. “This included two Bay Area Toys ‘R Us stores in San Francisco and Vallejo.” 

Friedland said another dozen Toys ‘R Us stores will be converted to Babies ‘R Us stores this spring, including the ones in Colma and Emeryville. 

Friedland added that “these closings and conversions were a result of a comprehensive review of the Toys ‘R Us store portfolio across the United States and would help position the company for growth over the long-term.” 

Michael Sloan, co-owner of Games of Berkeley on Shattuck Avenue said that his store had seen some positive effect from the closure of the Bay Area Toys ‘R Us stores.  

“We saw a sudden increase in the sale of Scrabble, Apples to Apples, UNO, and Monopoly—games that were sold at Toys ‘R Us extremely cheaply.” 

Sloan added that Games of Berkeley didn’t need to compete with toy chains.  

“We don’t carry the same things that toy chains do. Chains carry maybe 15 percent of the stuff that we have on our shelves. We buy from around 400 vendors all over the U.S. A majority of them are hobby suppliers.” 

Sloan however acknowledged that in this age of X-Box and other electronic gizmos, the independent toy industry is something of a shrinking market. 

“The good news is that the number of people who carry independent toys are also shrinking,” he said. “So it is turning into a specialty item. As long as people want to play chess or hug a hand-made doll, business will go on. Our future depends on how people allocate their dollars.” 

In the past, several mall-based retail toy stores have gone out of business including Zainy Brainy and The Game Keeper chain owned by Wizards of the Coast. KB Toys filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2004 and closed 365 stores around the U.S. 

Sloan and his wife Janet Winters bought Games of Berkeley from its former owner Toy World in 2003 when the store was being closed along with 12 others in Northern California.  

Winters told the Planet that the store benefited from being located so close to the downtown Berkeley BART station. 

“Our Wednesday night open ‘Scrabble’ and Friday night ‘Magic: The Gathering’ played in our game room is a big favorite with the college kids and other regular customers. Our products are driven by customer requests. You won’t find our staff hiding in some backroom when customers are around,” she quipped.  

Peter Bernard, a resident of Oakland, is a regular at Games of Berkeley because of its expansive game collection. 

Marilyn Ornelas, a Berkeley resident, had brought her grandson Moses into the store recently. “Moses wanted a particular type of squishy toy that was only available here. Personally I prefer to do business in Berkeley and keep all my money in Berkeley,” she said. 

Johnny Williams, owner of Boss Robot Hobby on College Avenue said that dealing in independent toys was gradually turning into a struggle.  

Boss Robot sells radio controlled cars and trucks as well as model kits from the Tamiya and Kyosho brands that are imported from Japan. “It’s a lot of work involved in making customers happy,” he said. “Store variety and product knowledge needs to be far superior in order to compete with the bigger chains. We need to fill the niches that bigger chains are not interested in.” 

Pam Byars, who owns The Ark on 4th Street said that smaller toy stores added to a sense of community. 

“There is something special about seeing a child being born, growing up, and then coming back to the same store as an adult,” she said. “Target or the other chains won’t wrap up your toy with a bow and make it look all pretty—we believe in going that extra mile for all our customers. We believe in creativity, in being open ended, and in taking a child’s breath away.”