Amid the frenzied crowds of anonymous shoppers, “help” can amount to a nod in the direction of the right aisle. Boxes are broken and pieces missing. Queues at the cash register tax any patience that is left.
Holiday time in the big box toy stores can be less than festive.
But two Evanston toy stores, Becky & Me Toys, 620 Grove St., and Toys Et Cetera, 711 Main St., offer a happy alternative. Talking about her store, owner Peggy Sebert (the “me” of Becky & Me), sums up the allure: “Great product, service and presentation.”
Though each store is a link in a chain – chains just two and four stores long, respectively – both are essentially “local.”
They enhance community. “We’re the meeting place on Saturday mornings,” says Valerie Lehnhard, longtime manager of Toys Et Cetera. “Neighbors come with their coffee. They’re all on the way to the same birthday party.”
And while customers are unlikely to find the mass-market sensation of the moment here, the stores send a message that rings true in a bleak economy: Quality and longevity are worth paying for.
Ms. Sebert recommends “toys with staying power.” Among them are some old favorites Ms. Lehnhard calls “tried and true” – the rock tumblers, potholder looms and Madame Alexander baby dolls she says “have stood the test of time.” But customers will also find plenty of new classics in the making.
It is “unstructured” or “open-ended” toys that are more likely to last, says Ms. Sebert. Sturdy building blocks and wooden train sets – powered by imagination and creativity – can see children through several stages of development, outlasting toys with short-lived batteries and entertainment value. “We look for toys that are real, not virtual,” says Ms. Sebert. “Our toys don’t have as many lights and sounds. We prefer the kids making the sounds.”
Nancy Stanek, owner of Toys Et Cetera, puts it another way in their holiday catalogue. “Our toys are full of possibilities, challenging children to inquire, invent, imagine, laugh and have fun,” she writes.
The two owners share a background in teaching that shows in their selection of educational toys, books and games.
Ms. Sebert says she and her daughter Becky, also a teacher, read every book they buy. And at Toys Et Cetera, says Ms. Lehnhard, “Books are one of [store owner] Nancy’s passions.” Well-loved favorites are on the shelves. But customers will also find Tomie de Paola’s extravagant new pop-up, “Brava Strega Nona!,” which Ms. Lehnhard says is flying off the shelves.
Both stores have taken note of Evanston’s environmental consciousness. Toys Et Cetera has “Go Green E-Racers,” cars made of bamboo for the 3-and-up set, as well as Sprigwood cars, trucks and figures that are “totally recycled, including the package,” says Ms. Lehnhard.
Each store has an impressive display of Plan Toys, among them the large dollhouses Ms. Lehnhard says “always seem like Christmas to me.” Sky-lit and open-sided, they are made in Thailand of eco-friendly rubberwood that has been recycled and kiln-dried.
Becky & Me is “selling more natural wooden toys,” says Ms. Sebert. “In Evanston people are conscious of how things are made.” A group of irresistible wooden animals is doing especially well, she says.
Some of the loveliest of the stores’ wooden toys are made in the U.S.A. Maple Landmark makes baby rattles and the game Mankala sold at Becky & Me. Minnesota-based Beka creates building blocks of unfinished maple that develop a patina when little hands hold them. “The more you play, the nicer [the blocks] become,” says Ms. Lehnhard.
In a season of giving back, customers will find interesting options here. Becky & Me has felt puppets handmade by impoverished, unskilled Nepalese women who benefit from training as well as pay. The multicultural Karito kid dolls at Toys Et Cetera invite their owners to log onto their website and choose a charity that helps children in another country.
But it is service that really sets these stores apart. They know their merchandise and take pleasure in assisting customers. That includes directing them to age-appropriate toys. No matter how bright a 4-year-old, Ms. Sebert says she tries to an overall picture for customers that includes factors such as fine-motor-skill development.
The whole staff brainstormed and succeeded in helping a mother who came to Becky & Me recently to find toys for her special-needs child, says Ms. Sebert. And Toys Et Cetera has such high regard for small customers that they have set aside an area for those with a dollar or two to spend. “It is just as important,” says Ms. Lehnhard of the assembled stickers, whistles, small slinkies – and light-up eyeballs.
Complimentary gift-wrapping is icing on the cake.