By Katherine Hyunjung Lee
In a gentrifying neighborhood increasingly attractive to families and children, boutique toy store Play is thriving in an otherwise struggling toy retail industry. The store, owned by toy business consultant Ann Kienzle, has been growing its reputation as a specialty store since first opening on West Logan Boulevard seven years ago.
The store, which sells toys for children ranging from newborns to age 10, occupies a 1,000-square-foot space packed with books, puzzles, games and stuffed animals, among other playthings.
Customers run the spectrum, from loyal residents of Logan Square, to visitors who happen to be dabbling in the neighborhood’s eclectic dining options.
“I Googled ‘best toy stores’in Chicago,” customer Cara Garbarino said. On a recent Saturday morning, she and her husband had brought their 20-month-old son to the store.
“There’s a novelty of going to a toy store now. It’s certainly something that I did as a child, and so I think that taking our kid to actively go play with toys and be surrounded by all of this – it’s like going to the park with toys!” Garbarino said.
The couple’s son, shorter than most of the display tables, toddled around the store. Everywhere he turned, he was finding items to reach out and touch at his eye level.
Surviving as a Toy Store
Kienzle opened the store after working first as a banker and then in a series of jobs in the toy industry. She got her start in a toy company’s customer services department, before becoming a traveling consultant for toy companies and retailers.
She was always looking to build her own “home base,” though, and eventually found a space in Logan Square and started Play.
When choosing what to bring into her store, she selects quirky, interesting toys that could also help with intellectual development. But Kienzle knows firsthand that toy retail is a difficult business to be in. Christmas sales alone account for 30 percent of the store’s annual sales.
The industry is facing even tougher competition from e-commerce.
According to market research firm Nielsen Scarborough, the number of people that shop for toys on Amazon in has increased 17 percent between 2015 and 2016, reaching about 37.2 million consumers.
As a specialty store owner, Kienzle believes in the importance of keeping her eyes on her vision.
“We have to make the store experience all that much more special,” Kienzle said. “We try to have so much of our products out for kids to play with, for adults to play with. We educate our staff so we have a high level of service.”
So far, “business is in growth mode,” according to Kienzle. In the past month, Play had an average of 65 transactions on Saturday, its busiest day of the week, with each transaction amounting to about 30 to 35 dollars.
40 percent of Play’s Saturday customers are new visitors. The other 60 percent, as well as most weekday customers, are Logan Square residents who keep coming back for more.
Logan Square resident Fred Grier has no children but visits the store often to buy gifts for his nieces and nephews. On Saturday, he brought his friend, an interior designer visiting from Missouri, to the store to buy gifts for her three year-old son.
“Online stores are sort of a mass of things,” Grier said. “Being able to come in and actually see stuff, feel it and touch it changes the shopping experience.”
“You can also come into a store that you can trust, and all of these toys have already been approved and reviewed,” Grier said.
Logan Square’s gentrification over the last several years may have played to Kienzle’s advantage. The residents support Play because it fits their ideal of a quality small business; they identify with it because of its emphasis on family.
Kienzle recalled one weekend in particular, one of her favorite memories of running the store.
“The Farmer’s Market next door was open, and a lot of customers came into the store. Parents were chatting, and children were playing. That was what I had envisioned for the store. I wanted the store to be a kind of community meeting place.”
A Small Business Tailwind
That so many of her customers are consciously dedicated to supporting local businesses may also be Kienzle’s luck.
Customer Hilary Hodge, who moved to the neighborhood seven years ago, said that supporting local businesses was her main reason for shopping at Play often.
“Logan Square is a great place that celebrates local businesses, that has a ton of amazing restaurants,” Hodge said. “I love the movie theater. I love City Lit Books. I try to support them a lot, too.”
Brian Laskov, father of two, also came into the store on Saturday morning. His one-month-old baby was fast asleep on his chest, wrapped in a white infant sash, while his two-year-old daughter roamed the store, wide-eyed and curious.
Laskov, who lives across the street, said he liked to bring his daughter into the store to play with the toys, even if it was just for 10 minutes.
“They have story time here and everything,” he said. “Even though we might see something here that you see at a bigger box store, I’d still rather buy it here, even if it costs a little bit more.”
Laskov said the neighborhood could use more small businesses and retail shops.
“I think it’s going to come eventually,” he said. “We have all the great restaurants and bars, and when new homes and housing units come in, it’ll be able to support more small shops.”
Play and Educate
Kienzle knows that the community is key to the future of small businesses. Her next goal is to be a more consistent presence in the strengthening of local schools.
On Dr. Seuss’s birthday two weeks ago, she and the nearby pie shop owner read “Green Eggs and Ham” at the St. John Berchmans School.
“What you don’t want is for families to start to grow and find out that the schools aren’t good enough for them, and they move to the suburbs,” Kienzle said. “I feel like that’s a good spot for us to start.”