Toy stores where kids play, explore are thriving while others struggle

Ella Wiesenfelder has been coming to Barstons Child’s Play her whole life, so naturally it’s where she wanted to be on the afternoon of her 8th birthday.

She had already picked out a Lego spaceship and a magic kit with 150 tricks for herself and was now helping her 6-year-old sister, Cora, make a selection.

“How about this?” she asked, holding up a pony that changes colors in the bath.

“This is fun. It’s much better than shopping online,” she said, “because I don’t know how to use the computer.”

Ella and Cora, it’s fair to say, are not Toys R Us kids.

Last week, the big-box toy retailer filed for bankruptcy protection after a long, losing battle to sell its own brand of fun. Competitors have pulled ahead with better customer service in stores and better shopping experiences, prices and selection online. Ultimately, though, it was a heap of $7.9 billion in debt – mostly dating to a 2005 leveraged buyout – that did it in.

If Toys R Us is a private-equity horror story (not one for the kids), then mom-and-pop neighborhood toy shops are more like a fairy tale.

Here at Child’s Play in Washington, D.C., annual sales have been climbing about 3 percent a year as parents eschew megastores and online options in favor of the company’s four locations, which together bring in millions in annual revenue.

On a recent weekday afternoon, the store bustled with children. Their parents in tow said they come to the store regularly because they like the carefully curated selection, helpful employees, Lego-building events and the gift wrapping, which can come in handy when you drop in on the way to a birthday party.

“On top of all that, it’s just an amazing place to hang out,” said Mary Freeland, whose 8-year-old son was finding his way around a colorful parking garage. “They let my son play.”

Throughout the country, experts say, independent toy stores are seeing a revival as parents – and their children – look for unique shopping…

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