Betting on a dream, the owner of a Doylestown toy store survives and thrives
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Fresh out of school, the girls rushed into the Busy Bee Toys in Doylestown, laughed and laughed and ogled the wares. They talked about Pokemon cards and hugged some stuffed animals, then stood in front of the toy toy, for them anyway – a Lego princess castle.
âI want this one,â one said.
âI wish I could get them all,â said another.
They are gone but they will come back. Busy Bee is busy, especially around Christmas. How does a small local toy store thrive among Goliath and Amazon retailers?
âThe location,â said owner Nerice Kendter, standing outside the store on East State Street.
Doylestown is full of family shops. Lots of pedestrian crossings.
âIf we were in a mall or in the middle of nowhere, I don’t think we would have survived,â said Kendter, whose toy store celebrated its 15th anniversary in October.
It is not easy. Between big box retailers Amazon, the Great Recession and the pandemic, Busy Bee risked becoming Buried Bee as other local toy sellers retreated.
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How it survives, even how it was started, is an unlikely but encouraging story.
It started in the early 2000s. Kendter was a stay-at-home mom with a young son and a husband whose work regularly took her to Belgium.
âWe were able to accompany my husband on his travels a few times,â she said.
While he was working, she and her son explored.
âWe fell in love with a small independent toy store in Belgium,â she said. “I was bringing home these amazing toys and games that weren’t available in the stores here.”
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European toy stores, if you’ve never been there, are generally old school. The toys are simple, made of wood or pewter. Few are battery powered and windings are popular. Stuffed animals, dolls, puzzles, cars and trucks often look and feel of yesteryear.
âI had that bulb moment where I wanted to deliver the same feeling in my community that there was in this toy store in Belgium. It was my inspiration,â said Kendter.
But she never ran a business. She is a social worker by profession. Her research was done on instinct and she came up with a rough business plan. She composed questions to determine what interest there would be in a small toy store in Doylestown.
Then, son by her side, she went to the local parks.
âI just approached families with kids and, trying not to be scary, just told them that I was considering opening a toy store and that they would answer a few questions for me,â he said. she declared.
There was great interest in having a toy store in town. No one told him he preferred Walmart or Target.
She bought a small storefront on East State Street, which opened in the fall of 2006, as the Christmas shopping season approached.
âThis first year consisted of introducing myself to the community. I didn’t expect to hit big numbers. I was just happy to keep the doors open, âshe said.
She stocked the place with European lines, the same ones she and her son found in the toy store in Belgium – Bruder from Germany, Jellycats from London, Djeco from France. The store was a success. She had the secret sauce. The toys had a different look and feel that kids and parents alike loved. Few batteries required.
Besides, she had tapped into nostalgia for Doylestown.
“You talk to the old people in town and they tell you about Foster’s, which was a toy store around the corner for decades, and they have fond childhood memories of going there,” he said. she declared.
But then came Busy Bee’s first near-death experience. The Great Recession brought the economy down in 2008.
” It was scary. We were all in shock, âshe said. âWhen it hit, we were all like, ‘Oh my God, will we survive this? “”
The store has survived and thrived, thanks to loyal customers who kept it afloat.
She has outgrown her first location and has moved from a few doors to a larger location, where Busy Bee is staying. The extra room allowed her to increase her selection, and she also included toys made in the USA. But like Euro toys, they tend towards simpler items. Wood, magic tricks, dollhouses, board games.
âThey are timeless,â she says. âKids will always love these toys. Take a Slinky. It is a classic toy. Why? It’s just a simple spring. But when people see one, no matter how old or young they are, they want to play with it. Lite Brite is also a simple and classic toy.
Busy Bee experienced his second moment of near death last year when the pandemic struck. Pennsylvania. Governor Tom Wolf has ordered most businesses to shut down. She found a way around it.
âWe had no idea if we were going to survive. But maybe a week or two after it started I started getting calls from parents, âshe said.
They begged to provide them with toys to entertain their restless and homebound school children. She quickly adapted to the strangeness of life during a pandemic.
âI FaceTimed with clients,â she said. “I would take their call, then walk up and down the aisles with my phone, showing them toys.”
She used her skills as a social worker, asking probing questions and pairing each child with a toy, like a sommelier pairing wine with food. She would sell over the phone, set a pickup time, place the toy in a bag outside and wait for the customer to pick it up.
âOne thing I learned from being a business owner,â she said, âyou just have to do with it. ”
Running a toy store is no easy task.
Columnist JD Mullane can be reached at 215-949-5745 or [email protected]