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Toy Soldiers

In changing times, toy stores fight to stay alive.

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The Enchanted Forest's finger puppets.  

On Sunday, May 23, the Enchanted Forest, a 24-year-old specialty toy shop on Mercer Street in Soho, officially went out of business. Empty stor-all cardboard boxes were piled up by the doorway. Handwritten price tags without SKU numbers or bar codes proclaimed markdowns in red ink. Everything was on super-sale: A life-size grizzly cub was going for $200 (down from $450); a giraffe, nearly six feet tall, was $400 (originally $1,100). The staff stood around looking dazed. “I don’t know what’s coming in after us,” lamented Anna Morgan, a salesperson for two and a half years. “Probably another Starbucks.”

Unlike mainstream toy stores, the Enchanted Forest had never been about pushing SpongeBob SquarePants or Spider-Man. Instead, owner David Wallace stocked imported toys handcrafted in fabulous detail (which often sold for jaw-dropping prices—some kaleidoscopes were as much as $2,500—though there was always something available for a quarter). The space, built by Icelandic painter and sculptor Vigner Johannsson, was reminiscent of a Rousseau jungle scene, with real trees growing inside and a bridge for children to run across. In 1989, this magazine named it Best Toy Store; by the late nineties, though, the neighborhood’s influx of “hyper-fashion stores,” as Wallace calls them, had made a quaint toy store an anachronism. “Soho itself started to be the problem,” Wallace says.

But the demise of the Enchanted Forest isn’t just another story of a small, independent business unable to meet rising costs (Wallace even praises his landlord for keeping the space fairly priced). The store is closing because of what the Toy Industry Association (TIA) dryly calls “inevitable retail consolidation”—a reality most of the industry is grappling with now, even behemoths like FAO Schwarz, which filed for bankruptcy last winter, and Toys ’R’ Us, which had shut down 36 of its Imaginarium stores by January, several of which were in the tri-state area. One problem, Wallace believes, is the extent to which children have gone digital. According to the TIA, 60 to 70 percent of toys today feature some kind of electronic component. Susan McLaughlin, director of corporate communications at Toys ’R’ Us, for one, doesn’t see the downside to the trend toward PlayStations and the like. “It’s a big business!” she says. “Up to 20 percent of our total U.S. sales.” And Dr. George Scarlett, of Tufts University’s child-development department, suggests that the shift in toy taste isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a child. “If you’re 12 and not playing video games, you’re apt to be isolated from your friends,” he says. “It’s a new medium for kids to relate to one another. The games offer a great deal in terms of both physical and cognitive challenges.”

Another problem for the toy business is the boom in online shopping, whose impact has been felt by retailers large and small. “Parents in two-income families shop online at night,” says Reyne Rice, a toy-trend specialist at TIA. “They’re looking for convenience. Shipping the toy directly to where you need it avoids a lot of headaches.”

Some Manhattan toy stores have been able to weather the challenges. When Alice Bergman, owner of the still-thriving, 23-year-old West Side Kids, discovered the Enchanted Forest was closing, she gasped. “Oh! I didn’t know!” That’s little consolation to Wallace. “We built this store from love, back in the early eighties, with just $4,000,” he says, adding that he’s worked with 900 talented craftspeople from Peru to the Czech Republic. “In the eighties, we had a Russian toy-maker show up at our door,” Wallace recalls. “He said, ‘I’ve come to America to become a toy-maker, and I have your name.’ ”


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