Still in the game

Neighborhood toy stores thrive despite predictions of their demise

LittleBits owner Billy Thelander plays with Audrey Pruneau, 2, whose grandparents were Christmas shopping in the Wellesley toy shop. LittleBits owner Billy Thelander plays with Audrey Pruneau, 2, whose grandparents were Christmas shopping in the Wellesley toy shop. (Dina Rudick/Globe Staff)
By Scott Van Voorhis
Globe Correspondent / December 16, 2010

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Billy Thelander bent over the counter of her LittleBits Toys shop in Wellesley Hills, screwdriver in hand, putting together a wooden doll cradle.

Next up on the counter-turned-assembly-line — an old-fashioned red wagon.

“As a parent, I would have loved to have someone put bicycles together for me on Christmas Eve,’’ said Thelander, a former store-window designer who opened her business at 304 Washington St. in 2003.

The demise of the local toy store was once taken as a certainty in an age of big-box retailers. But instead of dying out, family-run operations are making a comeback in area communities, buoyed by a mix of faithful longtime customers and growing interest in shopping locally.

Shop owners say they strive to offer distinctive and sometimes quirky arrays of games, puzzles, and books not likely to be found at mass-market competitors jammed with loud plastic toys.

“Pandemic,’’ a top-selling game at Brookline’s Eureka! Puzzles, allows children as young as 12 to compete to head off the next global disease outbreak.

Still, to make ends meet, shop owners say they must outhustle their chain competitors, offering such services as assembling, wrapping, and even mailing presents for their customers.

“I love games and puzzles,’’ said David Leschinsky, owner of Eureka. “I love finding them, and finding good ones, and introducing them to people.’’

Despite the rise of Toys ‘R’ Us and other mass-market outlets, local toy shops have even gained a little ground over the past two decades.

Today there are about 2,000 independent toy stores across the country, with New England having one of the largest concentrations, said Kathleen McHugh, president of the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association. While the number of specialty toy stores dropped after the 2001 economic downturn, there are now as many newcomers entering the business as leaving it, she said, with the strongest markets in more affluent communities where customers may not be as driven by cost considerations.

Thelander opened her second LittleBits shop in Natick Center earlier this year.

Thelander had worked for years designing window displays for department stores in Boston’s Downtown Crossing, and then as a consultant before deciding to open her own shop. She mortgaged her house to launch the business, and puts in long hours to keep it going.

“I wanted the freedom of being an independent store owner,’’ Thelander recalled. “I also wanted something I couldn’t be retired from, something of my own. I plan to be here for the last day — I don’t have any plans to retire.’’

For his part, Leschinsky also found a new calling in life selling toys to friends, neighbors and fellow Brookline residents.

Driven by a childhood love of puzzles and games, he said goodbye to software marketing and development to open Eureka! Puzzles in Brookline in 2004.

Relative newcomers like Thelander and Leschinsky joined a number of long-established toy stores, some of which have been around for decades.

The Wellesley Toy Shop and Belmont Toys both opened in the early 1990s. The Toy Shop of Concord has them all beaten, having opened its doors in 1942.

However, the owners of toy shops, new or old, say they are surviving and even thriving by carefully selecting their offerings while going above and beyond for customers, who in some cases are considered longtime friends.

While most carry Legos and other toys to be found at major retailers, the small toy shops specialize in lesser-known, more-challenging games that might be harder to find elsewhere.

“Spot It,’’ a matching card game, is popular at the Wellesley Toy Shop, while the top seller at LittleBits is a building set called “Magna-Tiles.’’

Over at Eureka, the popular “Forbidden Island’’ forces players to make their way across a sinking island in search of mysterious hidden objects. It’s one of 1,500 games, 2,000 jigsaw puzzles and mechanical puzzles, and 600 book titles that Leschinsky carries.

He noted with pride a new line of Japanese puzzles created by an “old master’’ who has returned to the trade.

“Not only can you not find it in the general market, you can barely find it anywhere,’’ he said.

Calico Critters are popular at Belmont Toys, as are such environmentally conscious “green’’ toys as a build-your-own windmill kit, according to manager Gage Brownell.

While their toy selection is important, the shop owners say, they specialize in something even more crucial: happy customers.

At LittleBits, that means not just wrapping presents for customers. It also means putting together complicated toys as well, with projects ranging from sleds to preschool kitchen sets.

At the Wellesley Toy Shop, when Andy Brown, who runs the shop with his mother, runs into a customer who can’t find a particular toy on his shelves, he will make a note and go looking for it.

And over in Brookline, Leschinsky has started a puzzle camp for children while also helping put on game nights for adults, including providing staff to teach people how to play.

One of the biggest advantages for local shops is their close bond with customers.

Brown, who lives in Wellesley, said he is constantly running into his customers around town, and they chat like old friends.

One of his customers, Joan Clipstone, said she began coming to the Wellesley Toy Shop 18 years ago for her own children and now shops for her grandchildren. While the selection can be overwhelming, she said, the staff always helps her find the right gift.

“This toy store has everything,’’ she said.

Meanwhile, the family atmosphere at many of these shops is more than window dressing, with sons and daughters working side by side with parents.

The three Sahagian brothers grew up in Lexington in the 1980s and now all do business together as well, having opened up a network of Learning Express franchise stores across the area.

It all started when Greg Sahagian was selling toys to a Learning Express store in Needham back in the early 1990s. The store was put up for sale and the brothers, at that point out of college and starting careers, teamed up and bought it.

The trio, who meet for dinner at their mother’s house in Lexington every Friday night, added a store in Sudbury a couple of years ago, and have locations in Acton, Beverly, and Burlington as well.

“We just fell right into it,’’ recalled Paul Sahagian.

Back at LittleBits, Thelander was putting the last screws into the doll cradle with her mother, Lorraine, and a niece, Shannan, looking on.

Both regularly help out at the store. The family now lives together as well, Thelander and her husband having bought her childhood home in Wellesley from her parents.

“I work 10 to 12 hours a day,’’ Thelander said. “It’s like having a child — you don’t mind if it’s your own. I never get tired of it.’’