NEW MILFORD – As the downtown toy store becomes a nostalgic relic of the past, the historic district here is host to three.
All within one block of each other, three independently-owned toy stores are thriving in the center of the historic district, taking their part in a $20 billion industry that’s been challenged by the growth of online shopping.
The holiday shopping season is here and Toy Hut, Play Toys and Nordica Toys will be open among the 15 New England-style storefronts that attract visitors from near and far who long for that old-fashioned shopping experience, just like years gone by.
“New Milford is a holiday postcard just waiting to be explored,” said Kevin Bielmeier, the town’s economic development director. “Our holiday season kicks off on Small Business Saturday, with coordinated themed store displays, photo-op ice sculptures, special events and extended store hours.”
The owners of New Milford’s toy stores say their diverse products and specialty items that others don’t carry are one secret to their success. Though there are three shops, there’s little overlay as each has found its niche.
Toy Hut, the newest of the boutique toy stores, opened its 1,600-square foot shop eight months ago at 50 Bank St., next to the retro Bank Street Movie Theater.
Cindy Zheng, a New Milford resident for 10 years, co-owns the business with her mother-in-law and owns the row building with her husband. They carry trendy toys popular in China that are hard to find in the United States, and her perfect “testers” are her two children, ages eight and 10.
Zheng said that their family-run business is doing well. When they first opened the store the spinners – the latest craze that’s all the rage with kids – were selling like crazy, and so were animal-shaped ceramic planters with bamboo plants. Now that the holidays are coming, she said that many of her shoppers are browsing for Christmas ideas.
She predicts this year’s top-seller will be the series of Lamborghini electric sports cars in the $30 to $60 range, also a personal favorite of hers.
Zheng stocked up on some of her customers favorites, too, such as the model wood sailing ships in the $40 range and the snugly key-chain bunnies, that sell for $7 each.
Mary Hu, a New Milford resident for 30 years, and a loyal customer who visits the store often, bought a Lucky Cat. “It wiggles its one hand and paws at you. I’m buying this for my baby granddaughter. I enjoy shopping for my grandchildren,” she said. Zheng said the cat has special meaning in China and wishes people prosperity.
Toy Hut also imports handmade ceramic and wood products from China. “The tea sets and wood-carved animals sell really well, too,” said Zheng.
Across the Street from Toy Hut is Play Toys & Gifts, at 49 Bank Street.
Laeri and Annie Nast of Sherman, husband and wife co-owners, opened their New Milford location 12 years ago. They have a second Play toy store in Beacon, N.Y. The couple is from New York City and they have been in the industry together for 20 years. It all started when Annie inherited B Shackman, a toy store that opened in 1898 in Manhattan, which they closed in the late 1990s.
Laeri Nast said they chose New Milford for their toy store because “we can’t deal with shopping strips and malls. We like the vibe, and small towns.”
The Nasts run both stores and their two teenage sons help them out. They have one employee.
The couple primarily sells “fun novelty, silly-oriented products” and pride themselves for being on top of pop culture. “I buy the toys and Annie buys the books, gift cards and women’s accessories. We sell a lot of joke, trick, and gag gifts, too,” he said.
From nostalgic traditional toys like TiddlyWinks, Pick up Sticks and Slinkys – to “new modern” items like Rubik’s Cubes, lava lights and pop culture metal lunch boxes – Play carries it all.
Laeri Nast said he often hears his customers say, “I remember I had that as a kid,” and enjoys seeing them carry on the tradition when they buy something in the store. “They’re perpetuating the tradition of sharing timeless toys, and they’re also starting traditions with the newer toys,” he said.
Karin Shultz of Pawling, N.Y., was in the store shopping for Christmas gifts. “I love the originality of it all and how I can get things that you can’t find at Toys R Us.”
What’s “hot” in their stores right now…stress balls, funny socks and anything Bob Ross.
Laeri Nast also carry’s his own line of artistic fantasy jewelry, called Sculptcha. Some of his designs have received worldwide recognition.
Nordica Toys, at 7 Main St., across from the town green, is the quintessential toy store from yesteryear. It has been in business for 36 years and its 1,000-square feet of space is packed with toys.
Marie McCarthy, the store owner for the past 14 years, who has lived in New Milford for 42 years, runs the business with some help from two employees.
She carries several of the mainstream toys that are big sellers like Calico Critters, Thomas the Train and Lego. Breyer horses, Schleich figures and Bruder trucks are popular with the children, too, and she sells them at retail.
However, it’s her small manufacturer focus that’s really starting to take off.
“I carry Luke’s Toy Factory products out of Danbury. They’re small cars and trucks for 3 to 5-year-olds,” she said.
Ted Lukawski of Pawling, N.Y. traveled with his wife to shop at Nordica Toys. He picked out a Green Toys tugboat for their grandson. “I like that it’s an environmentally friendly toy made in the USA that my grandson can play with in the tub. I also like that Nordica Toys is an old-fashioned toy store. There are not too many around,” he said.
McCarthy said that Christmas is her favorite holiday and she’s a kid at heart. “I have Christmas, that’s my doorbuster,” she said. Advent calendars, Christmas books and Lincoln Logs are the seasonal classics that she sells a lot.
McCarthy credits the town’s central location for being a key reason why the historic district has a steady flow of customers. “New Milford is a hub for smaller towns if you need anything,” she said. “We get a lot of people traveling through to the northern spots. We also have people that are loyal to New Milford. They come here when they visit family. It’s a destination.”
This feature and photos by Alicia Sakal originally appeared online and in the Business section of the November 24, 2017 edition of Republican-American, a regional daily newspaper in 36 towns and cities in Litchfield County and Greater Waterbury, Connecticut.
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