A Blossoming Business

Learning Sprout Toys Celebrates 20 Years

 

by Jenn Bergin

 

Rose Calvin is in the business of making kids happy, and she’s a busy lady. She’s the owner of Learning Sprout, a 20-year-old toy store in Tacoma, Washington; as well as Rainbow Connection Childcare, a chain of six early-learning centers located in and around the Tacoma area. Plus, she has 12 grandchildren of her own.

“Rose is really great with kids,” says her daughter-in-law Angel Bennett, who has been Learning Sprout’s store manager for almost five years. “The store’s success stems from Rose’s passion and determination. She may be my mother-in-law, but everyone calls her mom.”

It all started in 1996, when Rose was running a busy in-home daycare. She needed access to better learning tools for kids, and originally opened Learning Sprout as an educational supply store. It specialized in curriculum-based products for the classroom, that parents and care providers could also use at home. As teacher funding for extras like borders and bulletin board sets was cut, the store’s focus transitioned to toys. Despite the shift, Angel says, “Ninety-nine percent of what we sell in the store has educational merit.”

Creating a special work+shop experience

Learning Sprout celebrates its 20th anniversary this year; an occasion that Rose hardly noticed, but Angel will make sure to commemorate. “We’re a small business, but we’re really more like a small family,” Angel says. “It works because we all have a passion for what we do. We genuinely care about each other, and our customers.”

The close-knit staff of four employees helps families, therapists, counselors and state organizations find creative ways to encourage learning through play. “Creative learning is easy with great toys, “Angel says. “As a brick-and-mortar store, we can take chances with unique, fun products from small or local vendors – and we try to think outside the box.”

For example, if a mom is struggling to get her nonverbal 3-year-old to talk, Angel suggests coloring on the wall with bath crayons to encourage conversation. “Our goal is to help prepare children for the next step,” she adds. “And I’m always down for a good treasure hunt around the store for the perfect product to do that!”

That hunt can take awhile, because Learning Sprout is located in a three-story, century-old landmark building, a former florist shop. Its exposed brick, winding staircase and 6,000 square feet of retail space filled with toys reminds many customers of a real-life Santa’s workshop. At Christmas, it’s where kids drop off their letters to Santa– and the store makes sure that “Santa” sends them a reply.

Learning Sprout is situated in Tacoma’s historic district; close to “old downtown” and the Puget Sound waterfront, with views of Mount Rainier. There’s not much other retail in the neighborhood, but plenty of restaurants; an antique store; an old-school video arcade; and small parks. The suburbs are 15 minutes away, and locals visit downtown often for festivals, parades and special events. Learning Sprout joins in on the fun, hosting its own events or organizing kid-friendly activities like crafts for the local New Year’s Eve celebration.

A welcoming place for party guests

You’re not a customer there, you’re a guest, Angel explains. That’s because, often times, visitors are there for a party.

The store’s second floor was once used for retail (the third floor is warehouse space), but it was turned into a 4,000-square-foot event space a few years ago. Since then, in-store events have tripled in size. Once held in a small backroom that fit 20 people, a recent Fancy Nancy tea party in the new space drew interest from more than 350 kids over two days.

The open event floor is separated only by some flat wall, a few dividers, and two cubbies used as photo booths. Some space remains for retail. “If we have a toy for kids to play with upstairs, we make sure it’s also right there in-the-box if parents want to buy it,” Angel says.

In-store events are a team effort, she adds. “Everyone offers their own personal touch. Rose brainstorms new ideas, I organize, and our assistant manager, Nancy, hosts the events. We’re very hands-on and can get crafty.” For a pirate-themed party, they built a papiermâché castle and made costumes – the staff takes dress-up seriously. Angel says, “If you’re gonna be a pirate, you better be a convincing pirate!”

Large-scale events, like tea parties, are $10 per child, $2 for adults, and include refreshments like root beer floats and mini parfaits. They make an effort to keep things gender neutral. For an upcoming event, “Tea for Two – Teddy and You,” kids will wear their favorite “fancy” clothes, make headbands or bow ties for their stuffed animal “special guest,” receive glitter tattoos and have a tea party. “The idea is to have fun with whatever ‘fancy’ is to you,” Angel says. “I dress up as a teddy bear with a big bow tie, my son wears his Easter suit and a fedora, and Miss Nancy wears pearls and a big sun hat!”

The store also hosts skill-based workshops for $10, which covers the cost of play-day kits. For Father’s Day, there’s a wood-working workshop where kids can build wooden airplanes and derby cars, and make medals for dad. For Earth Day, kids decorated mini-planters and planted seeds. Learning Sprout also hosts five free play days annually.

Rose’s daycare business is a great way to promote in-store events, and daycare families receive discounts in the store. “Because we’ve been here so long, people know us,” Angel says, “and they ask us what we’re up to.” The store doesn’t rely much on advertising.

“We post our events on Facebook, and our long-time customers tag their friends with younger kids in the posts. That word-of-mouth marketing is the most helpful.

“I always keep my business cards or fliers on hand,” she adds. “If I get talking to someone at the grocery store or in line at the bank, I hand them out. We all do, even if we’re still in our costumes!”

Sections of adventure

Learning Sprout feels more like a boutique than a traditional toy store, Angel says. “We take toys right out of the box so kids can see, feel and play with them.”

They sell some big-ticket items like toy chests, vanities, tables and chairs, and kid-kitchens, which are set up around the store as places to play, or rest.

The store is arranged by “sections of adventure,” Angel explains. For example, the “fantasy world” area is decorated with papiermâché mushrooms hanging from the ceiling, faux greenery and a 3-foot T-Rex. Each shelf has a different theme: unicorns, safari, dinosaurs … and includes a range of products from finger puppets and plush to 3D puzzles.

There’s an “express who you are” art area; and a science, building and engineering section with products for home and the classroom like K’Nex and magnetic toys. There’s also a tweens section with bedroom décor like duct tape art, light-up shadow boxes and chandeliers; and an infant section with mobiles, wall decals, light fixtures, butterfly nets and princess canopies.

Rose is an experienced buyer and a veteran of New York Toy Fair and the Seattle Gift Show. “She knows what works, and makes the ultimate call based on our budget,” Angel says. “But everyone has a different perspective and that’s important. If I only brought in stuff that I like, it wouldn’t work.”

They look for toys that are eco-friendly, made in the USA or meet high European standards. “We have only a very small selection of Barbie and LEGOs,” she adds. “We want our customers to find things that they never even knew existed, and definitely haven’t seen before.”

“Happy employees are productive employees,” Angel says. “We bring in treats for special occasions, and give employees their kids’ birthdays off. We care about everyone that works here. I believe in the store, and that we’re doing great things.”

That passion is contagious, she says. “Even if it’s a slow day, our goal is to make it fun. We’ll have impromptu game training, fly helicopters outside or have friendly open warfare with Zing launchers! We get creative and have fun, while also learning about the products so we can better assist our customers.”

With 20 years of success to be proud of, and a great staff, is Rose thinking about retirement? “No way,” she says, “there’s still too much to do!”

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