Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Happy Holidays

As 2007 draws to a close, we want to wish our customers and our community a Happy Holidays and a wonderful 2008. We appreciate your business--Thank you for trusting us in what turned out to be a difficult year to buy a toy for a child.

Truly, this has been the busiest season ever for us and many of our toymakers. None of us thought that simple, well-made toys could become so popular! We're looking forward to a less frenetic pace in the coming months as we work on restocking the store and catching up with things we've overlooked these past couple of months.

May your new year be filled with love, happiness, and peace.

Thank you,
Millie, Dan, Jule, Abby, Riley, Duncan, and all of us at Peapods

Friday, December 7, 2007

Good Morning America's "Green Toys" Segment

This morning, the ABC News Program Good Morning America had a segment on Green Toys. They featured some Haba wood toys from Germany, some Fair Trade finger puppets from Peru, an Imagiplay puzzle from Sri Lanka, and some organic soft toys by Under the Nile from Egypt. All are pretty good toys, and we have many of them in our store.

The anchor guy asked his guest, "How do you know these are safe?" His guest, an environmentally-minded blogger answered, "Well, these are all made in the USA!" All these toys happen to be in the USA, but none were actually made here.

We do wish the media would get their stories right. It makes us wonder how many other stories they get wrong.

If you're looking for USA made toys, we still have them!

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Toys and the Democratic Presidential Candidates

In today's NPR Democratic Presidential Candidate Debate, the candidates were asked, "Will you be buying your family toys made in China?"

Christopher Dodd replied "My toys are coming from Iowa!"

An obvious joke, but we thought the reality behind this comment deserved a second look. The only Iowa Toy manufacturer we know of is a tiny company called Scale Model Toys of Dyersville, IA. (I'm sure there's also a few other hobby toymakers or local Amish or Amana Colonies shops. Scale Model is the only company I know that sells to toy stores like us.)

They make die cast farm toys--we've carried their Farmall tractor in the past. (We kind of stopped by from them a couple of years ago because we had trouble getting an updated price list or getting through to a live person when we called.) Scale Model Toys was started by Joseph Ertl--from the same family that founded Ertl Toys in the 1940's.

To this day, Ertl is the far larger company, selling to Wal-Mart, Target and others under the names Ertl and RC2. Ertl stopped manufacturing in Iowa in the 1990's. They now manufacture mostly in China.

You may be familiar with some of RC2/Ertl's products. One of their most popular brands is Thomas the Tank Engine.

So, we recommend to Christopher Dodd that he can still buy (with some persistence) farm toys made in Iowa. In the meantime, what are we going to do to prevent another debacle like Thomas the Tank Engine? And how can we nurture American toy makers in a age of mass merchandisers like Wal-Mart? That's the question we'd like to have answered.

And hey--if anyone knows of other Iowa toymakers, let us know!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Little Little Little Toy Company

As we look forward to 2008, we're wondering where the issue of Chinese-made toys is going. Will the toy industry and the government institute meaningful reforms, or will this string of recalled toys continue?

Supposing that toy companies will continue to seek higher profits and less expensive toys, it seems likely that most toys will continue to be made in China. Given that, what should a responsible Chinese-based toy maker look like? We offer the example of the Little Little Little Toy Company.

Little3 is headed by Peter Reynolds, who ran the American branch of Brio Toys from 1977 to 2002, working with specialty toy stores across the country. When Brio decided to pursue mass market stores like KMart, Peter left to found Little3. Little3 seeks to be

"a little toy company for little retailers who sell to little people."

Little3 toys are made in China, but Little3 emphasizes how their approach is different. In a recent email, Peter wrote that most companies manufacturing in China are concerned only with cost. "US importers spend a great deal of time arguing with providers over price and comparatively little over safety standards. Hardly surprising, and this reality is the underpinning for our current safety crisis...Too many companies are willing to take the long-term risk for our children in order to sustain their short-term market share and profit margins. "

He calls for higher standards and mandatory proactive screening of all toys by third-party labs to ensure that they continue to meet those standards. This is what Brio has always done and what Little3 does now.

Also, toy companies innovate mostly by offering "endless additions to basic toys even when they have nothing to do with any recognized child-rearing ideal". Thus, we have computer-chip driven pounding benches with blinking lights, blaring sounds, and claims of educational qualities.

So, Little3's statement of purpose is "that toys should be viewed as the 'tools of childhood,' not possessions to be acquired. Further....that less is more, that parents can choose fewer toys, better matched to challenge and engage their children. We need more companies to adopt a philosophy where the child comes first, not the income statement."

We have always argued that it's the toy companies who have created this safety crisis. And, if the toy companies are going to get us out of it, we think Peter Reynolds' Little Little Little Toy Company offers the right blueprint.

You'll find several Little3 toys in our store, including their new line of simple wooden trains (like Brio circa 1980) called Nuchi.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Local Toy Makers Story on MPR

We were very pleased to to be featured on Minnesota Public Radio's Midmorning show on "Black Friday", the day after Thanksgiving. The story featured two of our long-time partners, BEKA toys and Fairy Finery, both of whom make toys here in the Twin Cities. Each of us has also been featured on the WCCO Morning Show, which ran a series on alternatives to Chinese-made toys.

It's exciting to see many of our manufacturers getting so much attention now, after years where we were all struggling uphill, trying to sell higher-quality toys against cheap imports. Most have dramatically ramped up production and we should be able to maintain inventory. (It makes it easier that they don't have to load containers and cross an ocean to get to us.) Some, however, are totally swamped. It's a good problem to have, really.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Do you have more of this?

So--as Dan said, it was a very busy good day today.
Our store, and a lot of our vendors, have gotten some very good, positive attention with all the toy recalls. So our store, and a lot of our vendors, are getting a lot more business than we projected for this year.
I hate to say this, because it seems like such a hard sell technique. But we are running out of some things. And in many cases, we can't get more because our vendors are already out. US made toys don't have to cross an ocean to get to us, which speeds things up. But many of our US suppliers are one or two people puttering away in the wood shop, and they are thrilled but also blown away by the sudden demand for their toys.
Of course we have lots of wonderful toys, and we will have lots of toys through Christmas Eve. But if you or your child have your heart set on a specific toy, please shop early.
Thank you to all the happy and patient people in today.
Happy Thanksgiving!


Today we had our busiest day ever. The day went really well for us--we had plenty of staff and plenty of inventory and the computers worked all day. It was a really smooth day. I think more and more people are looking for better quality toys and it was great to meet so many new folks today.

In past years, our busiest days have been the two Saturdays just before Christmas. So, we're wondering about where we're going from here....

Wherever we're headed, let us take a moment in this week of Thanksgiving to say thank you to all of our customers. Our family appreciates your business and all the positive energy you bring into the store everyday. We look forward to celebrating this holiday season with you. Best wishes, Millie and Dan.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Chemistry + Toys = ???

OK, we were a bit taken aback by the Aquadots recall. We hadn't heard of this toy before all this, but it's apparently a popular craft toy where chemically-coated beads are arranged in a predetermined design and then sprayed with water, causing the beads to stick together. Apparently, the chemical formula was changed by the Chinese factory into something that metabolizes into a compound similar to the drug ecstasy. Not good.

So, what to give crafty kids who want to make mosaics this holiday season instead? We suggest lentils and elmer's glue.

On a related note, we've been hit with our first lead paint recall on Schylling's wind-up Duck Family Toy, which we sold 6 units of last spring. This was actually labeled as a collector's item, not a toy, if that makes any difference. If you have this toy, call Schylling at (800) 767-8697 to get an exchange or refund.

Also, a related recall was issued on Schylling's Dizzy Duck Music Box, which we have sold for several years. This recall, however, did not affect the batches of toys we sold. If you bought Dizzy Ducks from us, they are not being recalled. Full details on both toys are on our website.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

This week at the CPSC

Monday: CPSC Director Nancy Nord, a former industry lawyer, testified before a Senate committee that her agency did not need more funding or greater capabilities or greater penalties for manufacturers who make unsafe products.

Tuesday: The Senate Committee passed legislation beefing up the CPSC and banning lead in toys over the objections of Nord and the Bush Administration.

Wednesday: In the late afternoon of Halloween, when parents weren't likely be watching the news or checking the CPSC website, the CPSC quietly recalled 380,000 "Ugly Teeth" for lead paint violations. These toys were intended to be put in the mouth as part of a Halloween costume. A few hours before trick or treating time seemed like a good time for the CPSC to recall this cheap, poisonous crap.

Friday: the Washington Post reported that "Nancy Nord and her predecessor, Hal Stratton, took nearly 30 trips since 2002 that were partially or fully paid for by trade associations, manufacturers or corporate lawyers, at a cost of nearly $60,000". These included a $11,000 trip to China sponsored by fireworks manufacturers and trips to New York and San Francisco paid for by the Toy Industry Association.

All this adds up to what we've been saying here: The CPSC is nothing more that a PR firm for manufacturers. The agency has been imbued by the Bush Administration with weakness and conflicting interests. And their lack of oversight in the past 7 years has enabled greedy toy manufacturers seeking to reduce costs and outsource oversight.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

California bans phthatlates in toys

This week, California became the first state to ban phthatlates in toys. Phthatlates are used in plastic toys to make them softer and more pliable. They have also been implicated as false estrogens, capable of causing long term hormonal changes in humans.

We applaud California for taking the lead on keeping phthatlates out of toys. As with their efforts on global warming, California is leading the way while the Federal Government in missing in action.

Tellingly, the Toy Industry Association (TIA), a trade group to which we do not belong that represents toy manufacturers, criticized California's action. Playthings Magazine reports that, despite being banned by the European Union and at least 14 other countries, TIA's official position on phthatlates is that “there is simply no solid, scientific evidence that any person has ever been harmed by the presence of phthalates in toys." Yes, even the toy industry has its trade group lobbying against making their products better.

We hope that the Federal Government will someday follow suit and get phthatlates out of toys.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Another perspective on toy safety and China

From Dan: Our fellow toy store owner, Mary Sisson of Kazoodles in Vancouver, WA, wrote this piece about lead poisoning and Chinese toys. To date, it's the most thoughtful writing we've read on the subject:

"The key to a toy’s safety isn’t where it was made, but how it was made, the standards for its production, and the testing done throughout manufacture to ensure that those standards are met.

The United States and Europe have the highest toy safety standards in the world. In today’s global economy, the majority of manufacturers find they have to go to factories overseas to stay competitive. Those factories are expected to conform to the American or European standards, but it has been the responsibility of the manufacturer to be sure they do. Reputable manufacturers will clearly spell out regulations up front for the factory to avoid problems later.

The Chinese government, responding to the spate of recalls, on Aug. 20 began requiring all Chinese factories that export toys overseas to pass strict inspections and sample testing before a permit is given to export. This process is expected to cause backlogs in manufacturing and possible toy shortages for the holiday season.

Meanwhile, the toy industry in the U.S. is working to strengthen safety standards even more and encouraging Congress to bolster the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which has half the staff it started with when it was founded in 1973.

Lead paint on toys was the cause of most of the recent toy recalls. High levels of lead in children’s bodies can cause physical illness and harm children’s intellectual development.

Visiting China this summer, I saw another kind of poisoning — the pollution spewing out of Chinese factories that makes Los Angeles look pristine in contrast. The developed world’s thirst for cheap goods has sent manufacturers to developing countries, where pollution standards are nowhere near those we expect in the U.S. Chinese children have no choice but to breathe this thick, brown air.

'I have written against the pollution relocation within China and also from the developed to the underdeveloped world,' said Chinese journalist Chen Weihua, whom I met in Shanghai. 'Sadly, for poor countries desperate for development, environment protection is always put in the second place and sacrificed.'

So how can you ensure your children’s safety this year? Don’t shun toys based on where they were made, but find out how the manufacturer makes certain that strict American safety standards are met. A reputable toy store will have that information or try to get it for you."

Indeed, product safety is only one side of the mirror. It's time we all look across the wide oceans that more and more of our consumer products sail and make global commerce safer for everyone.

Mary's comments belong to her and are used by permission.

Monday, October 8, 2007

More Errors by the CPSC

From Dan: Another article in the NY Times today about the Consumer Product Safety Commission's failures to protect people from unsafe products, this time in the case of an unsafe aerosol tile sealant product that severely hurt people's lungs.

As with the CPSC's oversight of toys, this article illustrated what happens when no safety testing is done before a product reaches store shelves. And, even after people started getting hurt, the CPSC lacked the ability and resources to adequately evaluate the product and lacked the follow though to enforce a proper recall. The result was people getting hurt for more than a year after the original recall.

This is the same pattern of partial recalls followed by continuing injuries followed by expanded recalls a year later that we saw with Magnetix toys. The CPSC is suffering from gross neglect and mismanagement, purposefully arranged by the current administration whose interests seem to be in sustaining corporate profits.

It seems to us that the current iteration of the CPSC is about safety in name only. Reading this latest article, you might think of it as the Corporate Profits Security Commission.

We continue to assert that a global free market requires strong oversight. The market itself offers few ways to protect ordinary people from unsafe toys or tile sealants. We need to be able to trust the products we buy.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Xeko Indonesia is here!

If your kids have caught the Xeko bug, we're happy to report that the newest edition of Xeko, Mission Indonesia, has arrived. For the uninitiated, Xeko is a trading card game based on endangered species and biodiversity. It's a green alternative to fantasy games with all their merchandising tie-ins. We are also stocking the Costa Rica and (for a limited time) Madagascar editions.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Introducing the Pikkolo Baby Carrier from Cat Bird Baby

We were very happy to find this new carrier at the ABC Kids Expo (see below). It's made in Chicago by Cat Bird Baby, a small mother-owned company from Chicago.

Their new Pikkolo carrier is a nice innovation. It's basically a soft structured pack, using adjustable straps to secure a central panel holding a baby. Unlike a front carrier, it has a waist belt that helps redistribute weight to your hips and more support for baby's head and back. And, unlike the other structured carrier we sell, it has a narrower panel that an be cinched smaller so that you can carry and infant without a special insert. Its waist strap isn't padded though, so we don't think it'll be quite as comfortable for hauling toddlers.

All in all, the Pikkolo is a nice middle ground, especially for folks who are looking for one versatile carrier that'll work for all three years of a child's babywearing age.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Our Graphic Designer

From Dan: We've been very pleased with our new logo since we introduced it earlier this year. It was designed by my sister, Katrina Hase. (Yep, we're putting the family into the family business!) She's now created her own design firm called mix creative. If you happen to need design work, give her a call--we know from experience that she's really good at working with picky clients!

Thursday, September 13, 2007

ABC Kids Expo in Las Vegas

From Dan: We just returned from 3 days in Las Vegas to attend the ABC Kids Expo, which is a trade show for baby products stores. This year, we decided to make it a family trip with Millie's mom Jule and our three kids.

We managed to eke out a few fun times in Vegas, but I have to say that, all the marketing to the contrary, Las Vegas is NOT a family friendly place. This may not be news to some, but we were truly surprised. We've never been anywhere where our children were so unwelcome. Trying to get from one side of our hotel to the other involved dodging cigarette butts and numerous withering glances that said. "Why did you bring those here?" One forty-something man, passing our skipping two year old Duncan, actually said "Ishhhh...." An older woman at the car rental agency just scowled at us. At the FAO Schwartz store in the Forum, we overheard a man with an armful of toys exclaim "What are we doing? I didn't come to Vegas to shop for toys!"

We came to think that kids somehow are antithetical to the Las Vegas mojo. A reminder of the family left at home and why adults are not normally allowed to act like children.

Although we dearly wish the ABC Kids Expo would pick a different city, we did enjoy the show. It was amazing to see so many small companies like Bum Genius, Ergo, Hotslings, and Moby Wrap alongside the likes of Graco and Chicco. Only a few years ago it was hard to find a single cloth diaper or baby sling at a show like this. We also found a few new items that we hope you'll like. More on those later.

One other observation: the trend in smarmy baby t-shirts has officially gone too far. Sure, a onesie that says "Boob Man" or "Party, My Crib, 3am" is cute and funny. But this year we saw one with a picture of two crossed M-16s that said "Booby Hunter". Not cool.

Anyway, we're glad to be home with own overgrown lawn and quiet lives.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Whittle Shortline Featured on "The Story" on Public Radio

We were very pleased to hear a great feature about Made in the USA Whittle Shortline Toys on Public Radio's The Story this evening. Looking for Whittle Shortline Trains? We've got 'em!

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Problems at the CPSC

From Dan: The NY Times today published a lengthy expose about the many problems at the CPSC (The Consumer Products Safety Commission) and how they are failing to keep unsafe products off the market. Under the Bush administration, the article reports, testing and enforcement staff have been dramatically cut, the agency has been infiltrated with pro-industry appointees, and regulations have been relaxed. The same story can be told in the last 7 years of the EPA, the FAA, the FDA, and myriad other federal regulatory agencies.

Meanwhile, Chinese manufacturers view the CPSC's voluntary safety standards as optional, and often choose to ignore them.

So, we have an industry that's been outsourcing more and more production to foreign firms and a regulatory agency that's been regulating less and less. This effects not just toys, but everything from cigarette lighters to ATVs.

As a parent, a business owner and a citizen, I expect more from the CPSC. In a time when more and more products are manufactured offshore, we need more diligent oversight, not less. And, we need an agency that stops unsafe products before they reach our homes instead of relying on injury reports to issue ineffective recalls. We need a president that values citizens above corporations.

This summer's wave of toy recalls has made many people question the quality of mass-market Chinese toys. It should also demonstrate that the choices we made at the ballot box in 2000 and 2004 have had tangible results in our everyday lives.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Introducing TAG Toys American Made Toys

We've recently added a new line of American made toys from TAG (Think And Grow!) Toys. They're just about the best made toys you'll find anywhere, designed to withstand years of plays at schools or generations of play at home. On our website, we're featuring their Busy Little Lock Box, the Tracker Ball Run, and the Shape Sorting Wagon.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Gus and Tombo

This past week Gus and Tombo found new homes. We were very pleased to find two families who were excited to adopt them. We know that many of you will miss them as much as we will, but we knew this was the best solution for them.

The brothers Gus and Tombo first came into our lives in 2000, when we adopted them as kittens from the humane society. We had no idea how big they would grow or how friendly they would be. Gus would actually approach people as they entered the store and ask for affection. Tombo was more reserved and would wait until one of us was doing desk work to jump into a lap.

Then there were the times when they seemed to get a twitch in their tails and would chase each other around the store, knocking over fixtures and sending merchandise flying. Not a few items in our sidewalk sales were sent there by the cats.

In the past year or so, however, both brothers have been showing signs of stress in the store. Partly we think it was the result of entering feline middle age, but we felt it was also due to how busy the store has become. Gus found it more difficult to do his bear rug imitation in the middle of the floor and Tombo was running out of good hiding places. It was clear that they needed to find a quieter place.

So, while we're sad they're gone, we're very glad that they've found new homes and we're sure that they will make their new families as happy as they made us.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Where have all the toy makers gone? Long time passing....

From Dan: So, a bunch of us ASTRA independent toy stores got together recently to compile a list of companies that make toys in the USA. Keep in mind, there were more than 1,500 toy companies exhibiting at the 2007 American International Toy Fair. After sending a couple of dozen emails around on our listserve, here's how many American-made toy companies we could think of:


I don't think any of them have more than a couple of dozen employees. Most have less than 12. We buy from maybe twice that many because we search for even smaller toymakers who don't market themselves nationally. These 37 are all companies big enough to buy a booth at toy fair.

A customer today asked why we don't sell a cloth baby doll that's made in the US. We have some nice ones from China and some very nice ones from Germany, but the sad answer is that US made dolls don't exist. There is no baby doll factory in this country. Please--let us know if you know otherwise.

Small World Toys

From Dan: Small World Toys, a company that we've been working with for years, entered chapter 11 bankruptcy this summer. Small World is an importer of high quality toys made mostly in China and Thailand. Some of their brands include IQ Baby, Nuerosmith, Ryan's Room, and Gertie Ball.

Historically, Small World Toys has only done business with specialty toy stores. We buy a variety of wood toys from them, including our Activity Table (made in Thailand by Pin Toys, it's the perfect toy for one year olds learning how to stand and play) and wooden puzzles and Eric Carle toys which are made in China. We also did some Ryan's Room toys.

In the last year, however, Small World started doing business in the mass market with Target stores. At the same time, we and other small toy stores started having trouble receiving delivery of the toys we ordered. It seemed to us that Small World was putting most of their efforts into fulfilling Target's orders, which were probably a lot bigger than all of us little stores combined. But Target is a tough buyer. They demand deep discounts, they return items that don't sell, and they require a company like Small World to align it's production schedule to meet the demands of Target's quarterly merchandising goals. Like many toy stores, we cut way back on how many Small World items we ordered and found other alternatives.

From our vantage point, it's impossible to tell whether Small World's dealings with Target led to their bankruptcy. However, it does seem like the Big Box effect in action on another small company. Hopefully, Small World can emerge from bankruptcy and reestablish it's place in the toy business as a supplier of quality toys to specialty toy stores. In the mean time, we have learned that the activity table has been discontinued. We still have a few left, but it doesn't look like there'll be more anytime soon.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Baby Einstein

From Dan: So, it turns out that Baby Einstein videos don't make babies smarter. Not a big surprise, really. Babies and children don't need all the devices of parental ambition of which Baby Einstein is only the earliest iteration in a child's lifetime. Babies need floor time, wrestle time, lap time, book time, cuddle time. Kids of all ages need their parents' attention, not their ambition. Peace.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Where is this made?

From Dan: As Millie notes below, we've being trying to provide alternatives to Chinese-made toys for years. We feel like we've found a lot of great choices, especially in American made toys.

Finding good American made toys is actually pretty tricky, though. If you go to a trade show like the American International Toy Fair in New York City, most of the products there are made in China. This is where most toy stores big and small find their merchandise. Country of origin isn't usually advertised, so Millie and I go from booth to booth asking "Where is this made?" The answers we get are often bizarre, sometimes even hostile: "Why? In China, of course"; "Well, It's designed in Italy"; "It's made with love in China"; or "What does that matter?" We've even been laughed at.

We usually find a few new lines at Toy Fair, but most new toy companies nowadays don't even bother setting up manufacturing in the US--they go straight to China. In fact, the US toy industry has been decimated in the past two decades as company after company has left for China. Today, there's whole categories of toys with no option except made in China.

The truth is, most of the American Made toys we buy are from very small companies or individual craftsmen. Many are made by retired folks who enjoy making toys. These folks don't advertise, though. Whenever we travel, we seek out local toy stores, craft stores, and farmers markets looking for unique items. We've found toys from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine this way. Our Larry the Lobster, Dragon Pull Toy, and Magnetic Fishing Pole are a few examples of these. Some are more expensive, but many are just as affordable as the Chinese alternative.

There are also a few toy companies that are still operating toy factories in the US. Not only do we buy from them, but we also try to promote them to all the other toy store owners we know around the country. Minnesota's own BEKA and Fairy Finery are two examples.

Sometimes, though, we find a new product that we think is made in the US only to discover after we receive a couple dozen that it's made in China, either because the vendor's marketing material was unclear or because the vendor's rep was mistaken. There's no law that requires stating where a toy is made on marketing material or catalogs and most toy distributors don't. Most of our catalog competitors don't either. Take a look at almost any consumer toy catalog or website--you'll sometimes see reference to a toy being made in Germany or the US, but most items list no country of origin or just say "imported" (read: China). On our website, we state exactly where each item is made so you can evaluate it fairly.

So, when you visit our store, please feel free to ask us "Where is this made?". We've been asking the same question.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Chinese Toys, again

As I'm sure you can all imagine, we're getting lots of questions about Chinese toys right now. Do we sell Chinese toys? Are our Chinese toys safe? What alternatives are there to Chinese toys?

These are questions we've struggled with as a store for many years now, long before the current wave of recalls and safety problems.

Very early on, we decided we did not want to be a "toy boutique." We strive to sell toys at a wide variety of price points, to a wide variety of people. We have lots of really beautiful, fairly expensive European toys. And we have lots of affordable, "everyday" type toys, many of which are made in China.

We have several concerns with Chinese toys: The labor practices of many if not most Chinese factories, the environmental costs of China's industrial revolution, and finally, the questionable quality and sometimes safety of Chinese toys.

But in the end, we have been unwilling to decide not to sell Chinese toys in our store. It would mean having a lot fewer options. And it would fundamentally change the character of our store. We would no longer have pocket-money toys for children to spend their allowances on. We would no longer have a good selection of $15 birthday-party presents. The store would be beautiful and exclusive, which as I said, is just not what we've ever aspired to be.

The best position we've been able to define as a store is we will actively search out options and offer you alternatives. We can tell you where most everything in our store is made, and we try to be very up front with this information both in our store and on our website. We can offer you US, European, and/or non-Chinese options in most categories. (See our website for a clear list of countries of origin. Chinese products are all listed under East Asia.) We actively seek out fair trade and domestically made products wherever good-quality and fairly priced options exist, and we talk to our vendors (a lot) about where their products are made and why it matters to us.

If that seems like a very wishy-washy answer, it's not for lack of thought.

Take care--Millie

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Highland Park Playground

From Millie and Dan: Found a new playground today not far from the store. We thought we knew what was going on in this part of town, but this brand new playground was a surprise. It's across the street from Circus Juventus on Montreal. It's three stories tall with a very tall and very steep slide. Abby and Riley were impressed. Dan liked the shredded tire/astroturf play surface all around it. Very comfy to sit and watch on and no sand in your sandals!

Saturday, July 21, 2007

On Toy Trains

From Dan: We never sold Thomas the Tank Engine Trains, not because they're made in China, but because we've always had an aversion to anthropomorphized machinery. We've never been keen about what kind of life lessons children are able to take from Thomas, which are: 1. The tracks are already laid out for your whole life. Do not leave the tracks. 2. A rich man in a top hat will tell you what to do and you will be judged based on how useful you are to him. 3. You live in a strict class system where some engines are more important than others, all engines are more important than boxcars and passenger cars, and an underclass of human workers serves them all. As a moral, it's almost Victorian. Which makes sense, since Thomas was invented in 1940's England by a clergyman, the Reverend Wilbert Vere Awdry.

In our store, we've always opted for Brio trains instead. They look like real trains with no faces, offering a more direct connection to the real world. At the time we added them to the store, they were still made in Sweden, but Brio has been moving production to China in the past few years. We've been impressed with how Brio has upheld its quality standards and we hope that they will maintain better control than RC2 did with Thomas. But, we wanted to add an option for trains that isn't made in China.

So, we are pleased to introduce Whittle Shortline Trains, which are made in Missouri. Not only are these trains very well made, but they offer a very unique appeal for kids. Each wooden train, car and caboose is painted just like real life trains that kids are likely to see everyday. We've picked lines that are common to the upper midwest--Burlington Northern, The Great Northern Railway, the Rock Island Line, Santa Fe, and Wisconsin Central. So, when your child sees a train crossing a viaduct above you, she can spot elements from her own toys at home.

Of course, Whittle Shortline trains will work perfectly with Thomas, Brio, or Plan City trains and track. What moral will emerge from playing with them, however, will be up to you and your child.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Waldemart has returned!

If there was any question that there's an evil genius behind your local super center, take a look at this.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Open letter to US Senator Amy Klobuchar re: Toy Safety

Dear Senator Klobuchar,

My wife Millie and I own Peapods Natural Toy store in St. Paul, MN. We are very pleased to hear that you will be investigating the issue of toy safety, an area that we have been concerned with since we started our business 10 years ago.

As you know, over 80% of toys sold in this country are now made in China. And, the largest seller of toys is Wal-Mart, which often uses their toy department as a loss leader to bring customers into their stores. The result has been an industry-wide race to the bottom, as other toymakers have sought to reduce costs in order to be picked up by Wal-Mart or compete against them.

In our time as toy sellers, we have seen prominent brands like Brio and Radio Flyer close their home factories and move to China. Newer toymakers don't bother to ever set up production at home but go directly to China.

The problem with outsourcing to China is that these companies are also outsourcing a great deal of oversight and control over how their toys are made. As in the case with RC2 and Thomas the Tank Engine, the toy companies become merely importers instead of manufacturers and are unaware when leaded paint is substituted for lead-free paint.

From the beginning, we have been attempting to find alternatives to toys made in China for our store. In some categories, we have found excellent alternatives. For example, when Radio Flyer moved to China, we switched to Berlin Flyer wagons, which are still made in Ohio. For many whole categories of toys, however, there are no domestic alternatives available for less than twice the price of imported toys. Wood puzzles, board books, stuffed animals, and dolls are a few examples.
As for solutions, we would like to see a few changes.

First, we'd like to see the CPSC take a more proactive role in testing new toys and preventing problems before they occur. Every toy should be tested by the CPSC or an accredited third party before being imported.

Second, the CPSC should be more thoughtful about evaluating risk. We've seen many recalls on toys where a problem such as a small part breaking off was identified and a recall initiated even though no children had been injured because the toymaker was being proactive and wanted to correct a production problem. These recalls, however, get lumped together with toys that are actually causing serious injury or death, such as the dual recall of Rose Art's Magnetix toys. The CPSC needs to create a red flag alert program for toys like Magnetix that gets toys off of retailer's shelves AND out of consumer's homes. Magnetix toys remained on sale for over a year after the first child died from swallowing its powerful tiny magnets.

We've also seen the CPSC issue warnings in order to benefit the manufacturers they regulate. For example, the CPSC has been working with the Juvenile Products Manufacturer's Association to warn parents against the culture practice of co-sleeping. This campaign has been a marked attempt to promote crib and mattress companies and has been based on very flimsy science. The CPSC should not involve itself in promoting the use of any product.

Finally, we would like to see global disclosure of country of origin. When we buy for our store, it is often impossible for us to determine where a toy is made until we actually receive it and can read the label on the box. Every wholesale catalog, every consumer website, and every consumer catalog should be required to identify country of origin. This would enable both retailers and consumers to better evaluate products before purchasing them. In the internet era, requiring country of origin labels only on the physical product itself is no longer sufficient.

We would be pleased to help with your investigation of this issue in any way we can. Thank you for your time and interest in this subject.

Thanks and best wishes,

Dan Marshall
Peapods Natural Toys & Baby Care

Monday, July 9, 2007

Corn Syrup

From Dan: On our recent trip to Canada, I bought a 24 pack of Coca-Cola. I don't usually buy coke except occasionally at restaurants, but this was Canadian coke, which meant that it was made with sugar, not high fructose corn syrup. It tasted great, less syrupy and crisper than U.S. Coke.

As a family, we've stopped buying soft drinks almost completely in order to avoid corn syrup, which has been linked to increased obesity in children and adults. We've come to believe that the prevalence of corn syrup in the American diet is directly linked to our country's obesity epidemic.

Why does Coke and almost every other soft drink or candy maker in the U.S. use corn syrup? Because it's cheap. Why is it cheap? Because we all pay to make it cheap, through U.S. Government subsidies to corn growers and processors. Indeed, the NY Times on July 4, 2007 reported that, due to farm subsidies, "Between 1985 and 2000 the cost of fresh fruits and vegetables increased nearly 40 percent while the price of soft drinks decreased by almost 25 percent".

Why do we tolerate this? We need to stop subsidizing corn, corn and more corn. Sure, kids need to turn off the TV and go outside and play. But they also need a better choice of foods that won't negatively affect their health for the rest of their lives.

Not that we needed another reason to move to Canada...

Monday, July 2, 2007

4th of July

From Millie:

We'll be closed on the Fourth of July, in case anyone is wondering.

I've been pondering today what we'll do to celebrate. It's one of those strange, non-holiday type days, and I'm never sure how to proceed. Just the fact that it's a bonus day off should be enough. But I have some strange vision of Americana in my head, involving parades and barbecues, maybe boats. I don't usually buy into that type of thing, but somehow holidays make me feel I should stage these things for my children. I find I'm really challenged when it comes to creating "new family traditions". I don't know anyone who owns a boat, and I'm not really feeling ambitious enough to stage a barbecue. I could try to convince the kids the the Fourth of July is a traditional day to clean the house? We could tackle some minor home improvement project. I could come in to the empty store and try to catch up on desk work. All somewhat uninspiring ideas.

Probably we'll sleep late, spend some time jumping on the trampoline, swim in the inflatable pool, and cook some veggie burgers and pasta salad for dinner. Maybe do some reading with the kids on Wikipedia about the Fourth of July--hey, never miss a teachable moment! Maybe do a token load of laundry to appease the cleaning fairies. We'll watch the fireworks from the treehouse in Grammy's backyard.

One of my ongoing self-improvement projects is to focus more on the moment, less on the past, future, and imaginary could-have-been present. "The crucial moment is the present moment"--I think that's a bit of Jedi wisdom from one of Riley's Star Wars books. So I'll try to let go of my Norman Rockwell picture of the Fourth of July that could-have-been. Extra sleep and time with my family is a pretty good tradition.

Enjoy the day with your family!


Our Pacific Northwest Vacation

From Dan: Millie, Abby, Riley, Duncan and I recently returned from a 3 1/2 week vacation to the Pacific Northwest. We've been trying to make time to take a long vacation once a year as a way to renew ourselves, reconnect with each other, and get some perspective. We camped in our pop-up camper the whole way--we only spent three nights in motels.

Aside from the trip itself, we learned that a lot of people don't embark on this kind of family oddysey anymore. We got many strange reactions from the people we met when we told them that we were visiting for no real reason other than to see what their town was like. Do people not do this anymore? We learned that the pacific coast is A LONG way from Minnesota. We learned once more how important our employees are, including Kenda, Greta, and Sara, and Emma, who all worked extra shifts to make our trip possible. And, Millie's Mom Jule, of course, who truly holds our store together whether we're here or not. We learned that after a 3 1/2 week vacation, you will not recognize your house. And, we learned that if you camp in a rain forest, you will get wet.

We did lots of fun stuff on our trip like climb trees, see some whales, and chase the surf on the beach. Being who we are, we also saw lots of toy and baby stores. A few that we thought were cool and had a similar approach to our store were Nature Boy / Walking Stick Toys in Missoula, MT; The Mothering Touch Centre in Victoria, BC; Bambini of Bend in Bend, OR; and Clover Toys in Seattle, WA. Each had its own personality and approach which we found interesting. Each store had some similar products to ours, but each was completely different and unique.

We also toured the Robeez shoe factory in Burnaby, BC (near Vancouver). That was pretty cool. It was a very clean, efficient, and (on a hot day) cool factory. We got to see how the shoes begin as tanned leather skins and are cut, sewn, assembled, stocked and shipped. Robeez are one of only a few baby shoes made in North America. Seeing how efficient they were helped us to understand how they can keep their prices low and compete with so many imported shoes. Their workers use computer-controlled sewing machines and the entire production line is synchronized to minimize changing thread or wasting leather. We were impressed.

So there are a few highlights of our odyssey. Not sure yet where we'll go next year. We'll keep you posted...


From Dan: Welcome to the Peapods blog. This is actually our second blog--we previously maintained a page called "Carrots and Sticks" for several years, beginning back in 1998 when we first started peapods.com. Our intention then was to praise people and items that promoted attachment parenting and to criticize things that didn't. It was an interesting exercise, but we came to feel that the world isn't nearly so black and white. We found ourselves less and less able to separate our posts into good carrots and bad sticks.

Our intention now is to provide some insight into our family, our store, and the choices we make. As our store has grown, Millie and I seem to spend more time on administrative stuff and less time talking to people than we used to. This blog is an attempt to bridge that gap.

Expect infrequent posts on a variety of quirky topics. Many will be written at 2am when Millie or I have "brain fire" and can't sleep. Not sure if it's kids our the store that causes the brain fire, but that's another subject....

Thanks for your interest. Enjoy!