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!