By Natalie Hope McDonald

Tt’s not unusual to see kids playing at Rhen’s Nest, a toy store in Atlanta. That’s because it’s more than simply a shop. Rhen’s Nest has become a popular destination for parents to bring their kids to not only browse some of the newest must-have merchandise, but also to enjoy a hands-on experience where kids can create, explore, and linger. 

Christina Bonaccorse, owner of the shop, said that she wanted to create a space where families would feel welcome, and where no question was too impossible to answer. Both she and the staff share a mutual appreciation for the sometimes lost art of imaginary play where kids can take some time from their hectic schedules (and digital devices) to simply make believe, maybe share in story time or learn a new art or craft with others. 

Top Ten Toys Playday Host and Storyteller Jade Likkel and Juggling Club and Game Night Master Justin Adams. This Seattle, Wash., store offers a wide array of events for the community.

“Community is everything for us,” said Bonaccorse. “We host special events whenever possible.”  

The shop recently participated in Parkside Elementary’s 5K by donating items for their goodie bags. Being engaged in the community has been a successful way toward reaching families who may not know about or think to visit the shop. 

“We give donations to various charities,” she said, “and, in fact, we’re planning a spring event for late April for the surrounding communities.” 

In addition to hosting events in the store and participating in charities, she also encourages outside groups to use the shop as a meeting space whenever applicable. 

“Our doors are always open to mommy and daddy play groups to come in and hang out if they are looking for a change of environment,” said Bonaccorse. “We also host story times, local author book signings, play date events with specific products, and of course just all around maintain an inviting place for kids and adults to come in, touch and play with our toys.”

As a busy mom who lives in nearby Cabbagetown, Bonaccorse admitted she wanted to be able to create a space that encourages creativity in a communal way. As a parent, she also seems to know what other parents expect from a local toy store and the merchandise and sense of community they find there. 

“As a mom, design is very important to me,” she said. “Most of our customer base feels the same way. We try to provide our customers with the highest quality toys on the market.”

Materials are also important to this mom and her customer base. “We typically try to carry a balance of plastic and wooden toys to satisfy our customers needs and wants,” she explained. 

By embracing both the forward thinkers and traditionalists, she tends to attract a variety of customers to the shop, which has become a authentic hub for families in East Atlanta.

Customer Service Shapes the Overall Experience 
Meanwhile at Tons of Toys, with several locations throughout New  Jersey, President and Buyer Ken Maietta said that being a small business has its advantages. Not only can he plan creative special events, he can also craft the inventory to meet the demands of the local communities the shops serve, notably Wyckoff, Madison, Bernardsville and Westwood.

“We definitely do whatever we can to become part of the community,” he said, “because it creates loyalty.”

As such, Maietta said the shops regularly host events, even play days that encourage the community to show up, have some fun and get to know the staff and each other. 

“We also do a lot of donating to local causes,” he explained, because it, too, provides an opportunity to meet new parents, kids and families. He also likes to give back to the community that supports his independent business. 

Despite hosting events in-house and participating in community experience, Maietta said one important aspect of building trust and loyalty comes down to something beyond the scope of free events: customer service.

“We offer the best customer service around,” he said, “and the most lenient exchange policy in order to make things as easy as possible to our customers.”

Special Events and Much More 
At Top Ten Toys in Seattle, it’s all about community. A glimpse at the shop’s website showcases a variety of events on the main page, from a jewelry-making workshop and art classes to talent shows, baby socials and game nights. For independent shops like this one, events have been an important way to differentiate from big chain stores that can sometimes feel impersonal.

“In terms of store events, we’ve tried different things over the years to attract new and returning customers to our store in Greenwood,” explained Owner Liza Jolley. “For almost three years now we’ve had weekly free in-store events.”

Among the more popular event is the Juggling Club on Monday nights where a staff member demonstrates and teaches different juggling and skill toys. 

“The club is open to all skill levels so that everyone can feel like they can participate in learning as well as teaching others,” said Jolley. “Some of the items that he concentrates on are the yoyo and diabolo (a Chinese yoyo), as well as juggling scarves and balls.”

The shop also hosts Storytime every Wednesday morning that’s open to all ages, and a Playday on Thursday afternoon in which the store offers a craft, toy building or kit building demonstration.  

“More recently,” she said, “we’ve also added Game Night on Tuesday evenings and Baby is Social on Tuesday mornings where parents and babies under 18 months can play and enjoy a story together.” 

She admitted that the Baby is Social event isn’t proving to be as successful as she expected, so there might be changes coming to encourage more parents and babies to join in the fun.  Sometimes finding the right timing for an event makes all the difference. Mornings, for example, are often most successful.

Reading is another important connection that can exist between customers and the shop. On Thursday mornings someone from the Jewish Federation’s PJ Library program tells stories and sings songs with her ukulele and egg shakers in a variety of languages, including English, Hebrew and Spanish. It’s been a great way to become more inclusive to different cultures. 

“We also host yearly events such as Neighborhood Toy Store Day and Neighborhood Art Walks,” said Jolley. “Our events usually attract returning customers because they live in the neighborhood or near us and like having a free, comfortable place to bring their children to in their community.”

She said the Storytime event has been especially popular – and has brought together a lot of great people. 

“It has definitely brought new customers to our store,” said Jolley. “The events we have do maintain a great relationship between the store and our clientele and community. The events help with the overall atmosphere of the store. That helps our customers tell their friends and families to visit us and experience the store as well.”

Social Media and Local Theatre 
In-store events are a staple at Tomfoolery Toys and Books in Houston. Throughout the week the shop hosts a range of events, including book signings and workshops that often coincide with the launch of new titles. 

Carol Staley, owner of Tomfoolery, said that the events are designed for people of all ages. “We have been intentional in scheduling events with non-profits in our immediate area,” she explained. “We have had the local nature center in to lead story time and to bring their resident rabbit.” The shop has also worked with the local theater company. 

“The largest thing that we do that I believe builds a sense of community is to include children and their families in our social media,” explained Staley. “None of our pictures or videos is staged. We always ask for permission. We believe in the importance of play and by showcasing our neighbors engaged in our store and [through our] product offerings, [we] build a sense of community.”