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Independent toy stores thriving after Toys 'R' Us left the playground
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Independent toy stores thriving after Toys 'R' Us left the playground

Big national toy store chains like KB Toys, F.A.O. Schwartz, Child World, Circus World and Zany Brainy have faded from malls and shopping centers into nostalgic memories over the years.

Toys 'R' Us, the last corporate toy store left standing in the United States, collapsed into bankruptcy last year, shuttering shops in Hobart and Michigan City, as well as a Babies 'R' Us in Merrillville. 

It's the second straight holiday shopping season without Geoffrey the Giraffe or "from bikes to trains to video games, the biggest toy store there is." While many shoppers are now getting dolls, action figures and other toys from more general retailers like Target, Walmart and Amazon, independent toy shops have been rising up for years across Northwest Indiana to help fill the void.

Specialty toy shops have been cropping up across the Region, including the Chesterton Toy Shop, Crown Point Toys and Collectibles, Mind Benders Puzzles & Games in Whiting, Ye Old House of Toys in Merrillville, The Man Cave Toys and Collectibles in Valparaiso, Monroe Collectibles Toys and Comics in LaPorte, and Toys in the Attic in Crown Point, Hobart and Valparaiso. They often focus on retro toys, developmental games with an educational component, or nostalgic throwbacks that appeal as much to adults as kids.

Toys in the Attic, for instance, sells vintage toys, games, puzzles, puppets and arts and crafts in the basement Court House Shops in the historic old courthouse in Crown Point, as well as in 19th-century buildings in downtown Hobart and Valparaiso.

Owners Tim and Chris Reddick opened the retro store with a focus on free play and toys like Melissa & Doug wooden puzzles and Playmobil sets that emphasize learning and development. It shuns technology in favor of a curated selection of whimsical and unique toys one wouldn't find at a big-box store. 

"Since Toys 'R' Us closed, the toy business has kind of spread out, even at Menards and place like that," Tim Reddick said. "We've probably got our fair share of that."

Retro toys like Colorforms, Spirographs, Jax and wooden train sets have proven popular.

"A lot of that fun stuff brings back memories for people," he said. 

The Reddicks opened in the Old Lake County Courthouse in Crown Point four and a half years ago, in Hobart about four years ago and Valparaiso about three years ago.

"We provide an experience, more than just a product, at independent stores," Tim Reddick said. "All of our buildings date back to at least the 1890s and the courthouse back to the 1850s."

Toys in the Attic has been adjusting to the pandemic, such as by moving its children's storytime readings and craft lessons to Facebook Live and by offering free delivery on online purchases. It's also planning to let customers make early-morning reservations so they have the store all to themselves during the pandemic.

Not just for kids

It's no longer the only toy store in downtown Crown Point, after Crown Point Toys and Collectibles opened three months ago just north of the courthouse at 103 N Main St.

The 2,000-square-foot store carries vintage and modern toys, including collectibles dating back to the 1960s, Marvel Legends and Funko Pop figures.

"I've been doing toys 25 years on the side and it's always been my dream to open a store," said John O'Block, who co-owns the shop with Tom Waddell. "I have other businesses on the square, a bar and a tattoo parlor, and I'm just drawn by the sense of community."

Crown Point Toys and Collectibles stocks more than 10,000 toys, an ever-changing inventory that's constantly replenished because it's always buying new toys.

"There's more variety than at a Target or Walmart," O'Block said. "It's not so commercial. It's just a toy store for people around the neighborhood, though it has drawn people from as far as Michigan and Wisconsin. We're always buying toys or trading them to keep it fresh. I filled this space to capacity in three months and have tons of inventory in storage." 

It draws about 50% to 60% of its business from adults, because of collectibles.

"We have Star Wars, G.I. Joe, He-Man, all the favorites we had when I was a kid," O'Block said. "It brings back memories. We're seeing a lot of the '90s stuff take off, like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Jurassic Park. Those kids grew up and have jobs now and want to buy back part of their childhood."

Just a kid at heart

Zach Kinsey and Tracy Melcher started Chesterton Toys at 201 S. Calumet Road in downtown Chesterton a decade ago out of a love for toys.

"I'm just a kid at heart," Kinsey said.

They started selling toys, hats and candy at the Chesterton European Market to "test the waters," and it took off from there.

"We have imaginative, non-battery toys," Kinsey said. "We specialize in puzzles, Playmobil and wooden trains. Chesterton embraces trains. We've got Funko Pops and just started selling candy: Albanese gummies, gourmet chocolates, and Jelly Bellies."

Chesterton Toys has a lot of support from the community and draws out-of-towners, especially during the summer tourist season at the nearby Indiana Dunes.

"We have new people in every day who found us while looking up toy stores online," Kinsey said. "There's a lot of local support. People in a town like Chesterton like to shop local instead of at a big box."

Puzzle sales have been skyrocketing during the coronavirus pandemic.

"Puzzles have really made a comeback," he said. "At first we couldn't keep them in stock, but now we have six different suppliers. Coronavirus brought family time back and people want puzzles and games. Maybe the only positive out of coronavirus is that it's brought back family time."

Wow factor

Mind Benders Puzzles & Games at 1438 119th St. in Whiting also has been seeing jigsaw puzzles fly off the shelves this year.

"Families can do it together. Some even have different sized pieces that are bigger for younger kids," said Joel Bender, who co-owns the shop with his wife, Amy. "With schools being out and kids doing e-learning on computers all day, families are looking for socialization and getting off the cell phone or the computer. People are looking for different ways of stimulating the mind that don't involve computers. Our games are brain-powered. When you're playing a game, you're making a memory."

The store in downtown Whiting, which just won an E-Day Award from the Northwest Indiana Small Business Development Center, carries a wide selection of logic games, brain teasing puzzles, strategy games, 3-D puzzles, learning aides, early development games and Rubix cubes, as well as science, engineering and robotics toys. 

"We have an engineering marker space with a crane and mechanical models with circuits, LED lights and motion detectors," Bender said. "Toys for us are a personal service unlike big box stores. You can come in and ask for recommendations for a 7-year-old girl and we can match games to their age, interests and personality. We have personal service and a lot things you can't find in the big-box stores like logic thinking games and brain games. The independent specialty stores work a little bit harder and are a little more unique."

Locally owned independent toy shops carry unique finds like hand-crafted toys or puzzles imported from Germany or Italy, Bender said.

"Everybody remembers a trip to Toys 'R' Us, where the kid can buy anything he wants, even if that just ends up being a rubber ball," Bender said. "It had that wow factor where kids' eyes would bulge as they looked down the aisles of toys to the back of the store. It's a sad thing that Toys 'R' Us is gone, but independent stores have a lot of the same wow factor. Customers tell us it's great to see that toy stores are still around. When they see all the toys, puzzles and games we have, it brings them back."

Gallery: A Walk Through Downtown Hobart

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Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.

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