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Playing the Game

Independent toy stores are competing against the big boys by finding a niche.

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Diana Camden, several blocks up at Carytown Dolls & Bears, says Richmond has been good to her shop this year, too — that silken Steiff terriers and pandas are moving well despite a nervous economy and growing levels of big-retail bullying. Not to worry: Her punk designer dolls with embroidered fishnets and glitter combat boots are prized by certain teenage collectors and their moms. And even though they sell at $225 and up, dust is not gathering in Camden's upstairs gallery. The place is a retail catwalk for fashion dolls — a far cry from the fluorescent frenzy of discount Barbies stacked in the big-box stores on the turnpikes.

Local, independent toy merchants say they're holding on because they fill a niche. People shop in their stores for the experience, not just a price point. For these family-owned businesses, Christmas sales are usually one-third of the year's revenue, and if toys don't move now, it's a lost cause. "Do or die," as Harvey puts it. "But I'm not intimidated because I see business validity to what we offer."

"Really, it's tough for small operators because they're getting it from both ends," says David Urban, professor of marketing at Virginia Commonwealth University's School of Business. "They have to separate from big-box stores and compete with Internet retailers and catalogs. ... They have to differentiate themselves. They need to be attractive to people looking for something different and looking for an experiential aspect, a tactile environment where they can see and feel the merchandise."

Camden recalls growing up in Germany, "a toy kingdom," she says. "And we're trying to achieve the atmosphere of an Old World toy shop here. A lot of people come in and remember playing with these things. We want to revisit and replace those memories." This is her hard-earned fantasy, Camden says — her lifelong affection for fine toys expressed inside a cozy row house with a sentimental clientele.

Carytown's supportiveness makes it work, she adds: "How many cities have a shopping district that evolved like this, on its own? We all have a unique identity," and merchandise to match.

At The Toymaker of Williamsburg, identity is classically defined, and kitchen sets and baby grand pianos are hot sellers. "It's a great season," manager Marie Baldwin-Brown says of her store's holiday revenues, which are up from last year's. "Wal-Mart matters not a great deal to us because we focus on quality. We don't stock fad toys."

Toys that offer teachable moments are universally popular, merchants say. These include marble race sets and dollhouses at Wizzywigs, the shop at the Children's Museum of Richmond, where manager Linda Sauvé says her hands-on displays show how durable their merchandise must be to stand up to thousands of kids each year. The goods are tested to be safe, she says, "rather than those squishy yo-yos that they put on the market and then discovered were quite dangerous." She's big on water flutes and bathtub drums and notices that everyone seems to want "a bag of rocks."

Rocks or rag dolls, customers are touching and then buying. "We'll definitely meet our December goal and be a little bit up from that," Sauvé says. "Sometimes people think that this shop is run by a big company and that the money goes into some mogul's pocket, but whatever we net goes into programs for the museum. Costs may be higher, but quality is better," she contends, recognizing that sticker shock sometimes hits browsers at specialty stores. "But you can pass quality toys down among generations," she says.

VCU's Urban agrees. "To some extent, these retailers are trying to present themselves as a better value for customers over the long haul. In the scheme of things, what you pay is what you get."

And if what you're paying for is a hundred-dollar stuffed pony, or even that bubbling gnome, you won't be crashing into some street-clothes Santa with a shopping cart and a greenish glow in Aisle 30 who's frantically grabbing the last Robosapiens and a box of D-cells. This is a different pole altogether. S

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