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