Published: Nov/Dec 2003

The charming back room of The Little House toy shop in Baton Rouge, La., plays host to tea parties where children don silk dresses, boas and white gloves. /The Little House photo
Kaleidokites in Eureka Springs, Ark., specializes in every imaginable kite and kaleidoscope. Prices range from a few dollars to more than $1,000 for some of the items. /Larry Kelly photo
Little Rock’s Heights Toy Center is in its second generation of family ownership. The store not only carries dolls, trains, Lincoln Logs and Tinker Toys, but it also has little figurines of knights and maidens (above). /Larry Kelly photo.

Of dolls, blocks and wooden trains
Independent toy stores across the South offer a treasure trove of childhood delights

By Margaret Dornaus

Like fashion, toy trends tend to be as changeable as the times. But perennial staples–baby dolls, wooden building blocks and trains and tin soldiers–are as timeless as a child’s imagination.

Catering to a child’s imagination is what independent toy stores do best.
Here are a few imagination stations where you’ll find some of the South’s best toy chests for the young and young-at-heart.

Arkansas picks

Little Rock’s Heights Toy Center (501-663-8383) has been catering to the whims and whimsies of the state’s children for many years. Located in the capital city’s first suburban shopping center, the store, operated by Greg Bonner and his wife, Brenda, is currently in its second generation of family ownership. Bonner, whose parents bought the shop in 1966, grew up surrounded by many of the toys he currently stocks.

Madame Alexander dolls, Steiff stuffed animals, Brio wooden dollhouses and Thomas the Tank Engine trains are a few of the popular items in the inventory. They’re quality toys that, Bonner says, are virtually indestructible and can be passed down through the family.

“I look for the kind of toys I had as a child,” Bonner adds, “ones that encourage open-ended play.”

Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys and Legos fit Bonner’s criteria. While these traditional building sets are familiar to today’s parents, some current favorites–like Pixels (tiny translucent building blocks)–are reinventions of the old mainstays. Other favorites include die-cast cars, updated spy kits and microscopes.

For Christmas, Bonner is banking on this season’s new Dr. Seuss movie to help promote sales of his plush “Cat-in-the-Hat” toppers–extra-tall stovepipes that mimic the one worn by the infamous, eponymous character in Seuss’s now-classic book series.

In the northwest corner of the state, Melody’s Choices (1-800-918-3270) has given Santa and his reindeer a run for their money since 1976. That’s when owners Steve and Paula Melody set up shop in Fayetteville’s Northwest Arkansas Mall to give customers a range of toy and gift options in two stores, located across from each other. The Fun Store sports toys with a nostalgic twist. But many of those toys sport 21st-century design features, like an old-fashioned scooter updated with polished chrome wheels, or the brightly colored tricycles Melody buys from Germany.

Still, if Melody had to choose toys with annual appeal, his picks would be “knights and castles for boys, and wooden dollhouses and figurines for girls.” Educational toys, like radio kits and teaching globes, also are high on his list of recommendations.

Three noteworthy toy emporiums line the Victorian village of Eureka Springs’ main shopping district, aptly named Spring Street. Both Pastimes (479-253-7622) and Happy Things (479-253-8011) appeal to adults as well as children, with a range of collectibles, including Bette Boop and Elvis, as well as toys. Reproduced vintage paper dolls can be found at Happy Things.

Linda and Steve Rogers’ Kaleidokites (479-253-6596) also appeals to a range of ages, but the emphasis is kaleidoscopes and kites. Linda and her husband have operated their second-story Spring Street store for 13 years. Here, you’ll find every imaginable kaleidoscope: from small, cardboard toys to handmade works of art fashioned from polished wood filled with colored glass crystals. The changing patterns range from flowers to dinosaurs to Christmas trees, and are created when you turn the kaleidoscope.

Like its scopes, the store’s kites vary in price, size and sophistication. Stunt and static-line kites might be made of nylon or tissue paper. The latter is the material of choice for the store’s “fighter” kites, imported from China and India. Prices range from a few to a few thousand dollars.

Baton Rouge draws

Debi Grymes was drawn to The Little House (225-923-2000) a few years after returning home to Baton Rouge from New York City. Her distinctively “small-world” shop is filled with the traditional toys, but it’s the owner’s love of fashion that makes The Little House shine.

The whimsical back room is dedicated to tea parties, where children dress in everything from feathered boas to white gloves before sitting down to tables set up for petit fours and conversation.

Her fashion show birthday parties–complete with tips on hair, makeup and runway demeanor–are a hit with partygoers and their parents, who return later in the day to watch their budding models take center stage in the Bocage Village courtyard.

Originally located in a downtown train station, Victoria’s Toy Station (225-924-3632) now is housed in an eight-room Victorian residence filled to the rafters with toys suitable for newborns to ’tweens (10-to 12-year-olds).

“What sets us apart,” says owner Dee Dee Culotta, “is our gifts for kids. We have everything from pillows to picture frames and lamps for their room, as well as initial jewelry and costumes.”

One of her most popular items for girls and their moms, she says, is a personalized charm bracelet where items ranging from big bright dots to initials to sorority symbols can be interchanged to create a one-of-a-kind fashion statement. Anything with initials is hot, according to Culotta.

But Culotta’s passion for toys isn’t just frivolous.

“Toys are necessary. It’s important for kids to interact and use their imaginations. Too often, children are pushed to grow up before they should,” she says.

Mississippi mining

Maryalice Miner of Miner’s Doll & Toy Store (228-875-8697) echoes Culotta’s sentiment on the value of toys and adds her own observations. With more than 200 dolls in stock in the Ocean Springs store she and her husband, John, operate, she’s noticed an interesting resurgence in the popularity of “life-size” baby dolls in the past several years.

The dolls, weighted and typically bald, once were popular with only very young children, who, as they aged, turned in the stripped-down models for more fashionably dressed and coiffed dolls.

But Miner noticed a surprising trend in ’tween girls who seem to have a recurring preference for the bald-headed dolls, as well as the storied Madeline dolls.

For boys, Miner says that erector sets are now the leading project toy. Spy kits from Wild Planet’s expanded line of toys–ranging from invisible ink to high-tech wrist radios and night vision goggles–are sure to please. And because the store is propitiously poised on the Gulf Coast, the Miners stock plenty of kites and other items, like unicycles, that involve parents as well as children in outdoor play.

Miner joins the other storeowners in believing that having fun–like learning– should be a lifetime pursuit. So why not take the plunge? Go on; live it up a little–at least for the holidays.

Margaret Dornaus is a contributor from Ozark, Ark.

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