Parents Find Good Toys Come From Small Stores

The No Kidding! toy store is remarkably calm for the day after Thanksgiving. Adults peruse the packages while children sit down at various play stations featuring Legos, Brio trains, computers, and more. Several salespeople are giving advice. "Mad Dash is a great game, it's a geography game...."

Many parents and caregivers appreciate such independent toy stores for their non-mall approach to products that encourage healthy play, not manic purchasing. They say they are attracted to quality products as well as thoughtful staff who can answer questions about everything from age-appropriate gifts to educational value.

"These stores are more intimate, and kids don't go crazy. They tend to focus on developmental learning not just fun," says Brian Goldstein, with his daughter, Rebecca, and son, Noah.

Usually, such toy shops are owner-operated and have been in business for more than a decade.

Critics complain of high prices (and sometimes snobbery), but loyal customers point to service as not only a plus, but the main reason they come back. Not surprisingly, many parents develop a longtime rapport with their local toy experts - built on trust.

"We're going to look that customer in the face the next time they come in here so we have to make a good recommendation," says Steven Aarons, manager and part-owner of Child's Play in Washington.

At a time when supermarket toy stores and specialty chains have cranked up the competition, independent stores are honing their roles as community resources and neighborhood play places. At No Kidding!, newsletters, kids' favorite-toy lists, parent-child workshops, seminars on computer software, and a "Friday Drop-Off Night" create a clubby atmosphere for families.

"We want people to feel comfortable here," says Denise Oberdan, manager of No Kidding!, which has been in business in this suburb for 16 years.

But just because a toy store is small and independent doesn't necessarily mean it's the best choice.

One rule of thumb in choosing a store, says Mr. Aarons of Child's Play, is, what kind of feeling do you get? Would the owners sell a product they feel is worthwhile, for instance, if the profit margin isn't that good?

Indeed, not all "quality" toy stores are created equal, says Stephanie Oppenheim, cofounder - with her mother, Joanne Oppenheim - and publisher of the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio (www.toyportfolio.com). Some of the growing specialty chains are becoming less personal, she says.

The good thing about independent toy stores is that often they have things you can't find elsewhere. But keep in mind that while owners may be knowledgeable, they still want to sell you something. And even at the best toy stores, not all the products may have been tested, she adds.

The Oppenheims do what parents wish they could do if they had unlimited time and unlimited money: review products, from infant toys to CD-ROMs, using experts and child-testers. "There are more choices than ever, but there are also more duds than ever," says Ms. Oppenheim, who is the mother of two. She encourages buyers to do some homework. The Oppenheims, for example, found a lot of attractive craft and construction kits out this year. But age labels were misleading: While the products may be safe for a six- or seven-year-old, the child would need to be 9 or 10 to complete the project alone.

The educated consumer is in our best interest, adds Ms. Oberdan of No Kidding! That way, parents can ask questions beyond, "Are there small pieces small children could swallow?"

For guidance, caregivers can look to books, websites, catalogs, and even activist groups. For example, Teachers for Resisting Unhealthy Children's Entertainment (TRUCE), a group founded by Diane Levin, professor of education at Wheelock College in Boston, suggests: Choose toys that can be used in a variety of ways, promote creativity and problem-solving, can be enjoyed at many ages and stages, and will continue to be fun and engaging over time. Also choose toys that can be used with other toys to create new play opportunities; and promote respectful, non-stereotyped, nonviolent interactions among children.

And, they suggest, avoid toys that will channel children into imitating television, encourage violence or stereotypes that could lead to disrespect or aggressive behavior.

*For TRUCE's 1996 lists of "Toys for Healthy & Creative Play" and "Toys-to-Avoid" write P.O. Box 441261, Somerville, MA 02144. Or call 617-734-5200, ext. 229.

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