By Jacob Berlin
Jack Cohen wasn’t happy with the monotony of his day-to-day lifestyle of numbers-crunching math and science. It was work, not play.
So he decided to open a toy store.
“I used to be an engineer. I hated my job,” Cohen says. “My wife felt that there was no place to buy toys for the kids. And we saw an empty storefront in Squirrel Hill on Forbes.”
The rest is history — a very hands-on, experimental, wacky and silly history.
Cohen’s shop, S.W. Randall Toyes and
There are a handful of other local outposts which encourage customers to shop small, be a kid again, and have fun. These stores have survived the tests of fluctuating real estate prices, waning consumer interest and an onslaught of competition from the internet. They include New Dimension Comics, Learning Express and Shadyside Variety Store.
Throughout all of it they stayed resilient, and their customers stayed loyal.
“People loved the Squirrel Hill store,” Cohen says. “We outgrew it and couldn’t make it bigger. So we opened this store next.”
“This” refers to the downtown location which Cohen currently oversees—a massive Smithfield Street structure which encompasses five floors. That’s a lot of toys — and wandering around these toy stores can introduce customers to new wonders.
Visitors are greeted by painted facades and murals as they approach the storefront. The label scars of business from the past are evident on neighboring buildings. There are masks and dolls in the window as customers pull open the large wooden door and ring the tiny bell upon arrival.
Inside is a dream for children and kids at heart. There are limited edition Looney Tunes figurines, Dicken’s Village Christmas model homes, six full shelves of playing cards, colorful bouncy balls and princess dresses. Customers can navigate the multiple floors of toys which are separated by theme — dolls, blocks, costumes, etc. The signs are handmade and the inventory is hand-picked.
“Metal wind-up toys that we have here, you can’t find them anywhere else,” Cohen says. “We try and sell stuff that is not typical. We don’t sell ‘TV stuff.’ We try and look for stuff that’s traditional toys that you can’t find anymore. We have all the stuff you grew up with. People love coming to the store. It puts them in a good mood. The adults like us just as much as the kids. We have a lot of adults that collect the tin toys, and stuff like that you can’t find anywhere.”
Brian Behm is a returning customer who came for a very particular item.
“They sell Halloween trains,” Behm says. “My wife and I collect trains, and you can’t get these anywhere else.”
Finding a special train, and especially one which is unusually decorated for Halloween, can be a challenge and require a little travel; Behm drove quite a distance to meet this challenge.
“We live 40 miles away,” he says. “We come in to visit the toy store twice a year.” Cohen says his store offers “WOW” brand trains in all themes and models, available for $39.95.
“What we have, it brings people back,” Cohen says. “People come in every day and say, ‘I can’t believe you’re still here.’ Because they see what’s going on.”
Even if the loss of Legos and board games at Toys “R” Us is what’s “going on” for corporations, Cohen’s offering of strange and unusual oddities has maintained a promising business model. For the holiday season, a “Lots of Lights” funky Christmas hat is selling for $9.95.
“It’s stupid, but the kids love it,” he says, holding up another toy which is hard to describe with words. It’s called “Squishy Ball” and is available for $3.95. It contains small rubber balls inside a larger ball, floating in gelatin and trapped inside a net. It doesn’t serve a purpose, except to amuse. That’s exactly the point; customers love the weird trinkets but would never know what to search to find them online. Being in the store is a learning experience in itself.
Learning is the motivation behind another one of Pittsburgh’s toy stores, Learning Express. Although it is a chain, it’s one of the last surviving companies to still maintain brick and mortar toy offerings in the city. They also offer gift wrapping and toy demos for customers.
A few blocks from Bakery Square’s Learning Express is a Walnut Street classic which mirrors the nostalgia of S.W. Randall but is built on all charm of its own.
Shadyside Variety Store has been in Sharon Maiorana’s family since 1947. It’s situated near high-profile shops, like Patagonia and Apple. The old awning welcomes customers to a treasure trove of magic which feels like an overstuffed closet inside. Shelves are filled to the brim with gadgets and grandeur. It’s a feast for the eyes and the hands.
“We’re the oldest on the street. Over 70 years,” Maiorana says. “My parents used to sell sewing and stationery supplies. Even a little bit of hardware, but of course toys.”
The makeup of the store has evolved over time as market demand has shifted. Papers and tools have gone to office supply stores and home improvement stores. No longer was Shadyside Variety Store a “true” variety store. But the variety of toys it offers has expanded as a result, and has given the business a renewed sense of purpose and community.
“Have you been up to Randall’s?” Maiorana asks, suggesting that local toy sellers are companions, not competitors. In an age of ruthless marketing and cutthroat advertising, it’s refreshing to see that small businesses remain unified in their mission to provide opportunities and guidance that big-budget stores don’t offer.
Don’t be mistaken—Maiorana is a salesperson at heart. But unlike a typical infomercial, it’s clear that she’s there to help, not just make a profit. She strolls around the store showing off all her funky gadgets and stocking stuffers for the upcoming holidays. The store is jam-packed but never overwhelming.
“The little robots that fly are fun,” she says. “It’s like a little inside drone. He crashes and then keeps going.” It’s called the Space Flyer Robot Brigade, and it’s available for $16.99. “This football is cool too,” she says — a “PassBack” toy which comes in different sizes and starts at $19.99. “And then these just came in for the holidays, these glasses — if you look at any lights or candles, you’ll see snowmen. Isn’t that cute?”
She also highlights a hot seller in the store: interactive blocks called LightStax, which start at $24.99, and can be tested out on the spot.
“People come in and they want to touch things. It’s a different experience than online,” she says. “I’ll let you feel this ball. I’ll let you play this game. If customers aren’t sure, then I’m here to advise them. Even if I’m busy with another customer, you can still have some fun and see how things work.”
The helping hand of a toy store owner or employee is one of the most important aspects that the internet can’t offer, and it’s free!
Customer service isn’t just a necessity for Maiorana, but a passion. She goes out of her way to find the next best toy for her store.
“I love to go on buy-in trips to New York,” she says. “We go to the International Toy Fair. It’s every February in New York City. It’s fun because you get to meet the people and play the games. I’m always trying to look for something new, which is hard after being in business this long. So I really enjoy those trips. And I also enjoy putting the merchandise on display and talking with the people.”
With this mentality, Susan Maiorana’s shop is sure to be around for yet another 70 years.
Asked what he envisions his store being 10 years from now, Jack Cohen says “just the way it is. It’s what has always worked.” Even if that means it doesn’t feel like work for him.