Reason prevails amidst toy industry turmoil
Updated 5:24 pm, Friday, October 13, 2017
WESTPORT — In 1983 Westport resident Dina Berger had a change in plans. As she recounts, “My husband and I had put aside money to renovate a kitchen and we just decided, we’ll open a store.”
Inspired by her lifelong love of learning and finding things that help people learn, she opened “Age of Reason,” a toy store, in November 1983 at 21 Post Road West in Westport and remained there until May of this year, when the store appeared closed. On his town blog 06880, Dan Woog pronounced “The End of Reason” from the store’s sale sign, cleared out interior, and unanswered phone calls.
Berger had been toying with the idea of closing the store for a while due to the challenges of retail. “It is the internet,” she said. “People will come to the store and they’ll say to me, ‘I love that, I’ll buy it online.”
“Rent is high in Westport and this is not an ideal location because parking is a little difficult,” Berger added.
Despite the challenges, Reason resurrected in a smaller property a few doors down from its previous location at the beginning of October. “The bridesmaid story [Bella Bridesmaid] wanted my big space and so I made a deal with the landlord.” The store’s swapped properties.
Reason’s survival stands amidst turmoil in the toy industry. Crippled by competition and debt, Toys ‘R’ Us filed for bankruptcy Sept. 19. As Bloomberg News reported, chains like Toys ‘R’ Us are suffering from, “store closures, sluggish mall traffic and the gravitational pull of Amazon.com Inc.’s lower costs and global home delivery.”
Overall the toy industry doesn’t seem to be faring quite as bad as Toys ‘R’ Us. Year ends sales data for 2016 shows a 5 percent increase in domestic toy sales from 2015, according to The Toy Association.
Yet, Alice Marks, the previous owner of Westport’s Learning Express toy store also singled out Amazon as the culprit responsible for her store’s closure last November. “Basically it was difficult to pay the high Westport rents with the loss of business, specifically to Amazon,” she said.
The Westport-Weston Chamber of Commerce Executive Director and President Matthew Mandell laments the loss of retail to online vendors. “There’s no experience online. It’s just click and buy,” he said.
Mandell said the loss of small, locally-owned stores is especially frustrating to the Chamber: “The mom and pop is better because there’s no corporate structure. It’s more of a one-on-one relationship [than larger retail chains] and so we end up doing more with them.”
Nonetheless, Mandell noted the Chamber has no policies in place to help single-owner businesses and made clear, “We do not discriminate against any business that’s a member in town. Big, small, 100 person or 1.”
Berger attributes her store’s success to its science and education-oriented niche and “definite point of view.” “People come here and find stuff they could never find in Toys ‘R’ Us. Even if everything we have is on the internet they can’t necessarily find it easily. We’ve sort of pulled it all together.” Overall the
The store’s science focus stemmed from Berger’s personal curiosity. She worked as an environmental lawyer before moving full time to work at Reason and, “felt very much that my personal education — I was a liberal arts major — was very one-sided and I just felt that to be a modern person you should know a little more about science.”
In the days before The Nature Company stores, which were later bought by the Discovery Channel, Berger said she, “used to enjoy going with my children to science museums and always found wonderful things in the stores that were not generally available.”
Around that time she went to a craft fair in Reinbeck and found someone selling reproductions of scientific instruments and became inspired to sell them at the local level. “I just started writing to all kinds of companies and knew nothing about retail. So I’d order stuff and fill shelves and then decided I needed to order more. I didn’t know what I was doing. That was how we opened it. It was just feeling like there was this void in the market and just talking about it a lot because we were interested and then just deciding, oh, we’ll do it.”
Berger eventually opened a branch of Age of Reason at one of those children’s museums she loved so much—Norwalk’s Stepping Stone’s museum, but the outpost closed in September after 17 years in business.
“They decided no longer to have a retail store. They wanted the space to expand their nursery.” It was a friendly, mutual decision to close the store at the museum, she said.
Bill Jensen opened the Darien Toy Box in 2008 and agreed specialized toy store’s endure despite the failure of more big box store’s, such as Toy’s ‘R’ Us, because “people want the personalized service.” “There’s been a resurgence of ‘I want something different,” he said, and likened the persistence of specialized toy store’s to that of independent bookstores.”
Indeed, specialized toy store’s, such as Age of Reason and Darien Toy Box appear to prevail not because they have adapted to big box and online vendors but because they serve as an anecdote to more behemoth-like stores. Both Berger and Jensen stray from the kind of tech-oriented products that dominate Toys ‘R’ Us.
Jensen emphasized, “I don’t sell battery operated gizmos. Period. There’s no place for them in my store and I just don’t agree with some of them.”
Darien resident and Toy Box customer Julie Kettell is part of the go-local movement and said she avoids big box store’s because she finds them “overwhelming” and enjoys that the Toy Box is “nicely curated.” “It has everything you would want but on a smaller scale.”
Community ties have also allowed specialized toy stores to remain strong in Darien and Westport. “A lot of us are part of the community, we live in the community, we want to see the community survive,” Jensen said.
Berger also noted the community bond. “I just had a guy come in yesterday who was telling me he used to come here as a little boy. There are people in the community who’ve grown up here. At Christmas time when kids come back from school or they’re married with children and come back to visit their parents, they’ll come in the store and bring their children.”
In looking to the future, Berger says, “we don’t have much storage space and don’t know whether we can do everything we need to be successful,” but says she hopes it’ll work well.
As for now, the jury’s still out whether Age of Reason, and other local businesses, will last for another generation.