by Maria Bucci
“Coolest” is just one of many superlatives people use to describe O.P. Taylor’s, the independent toy retail business established by John Taylor 30 years ago. Imagination rules at its three locations – in Brevard and in Asheville, North Carolina; and in Greenville, South Carolina. And when you talk to John, you can tell where the stores’ creative energy comes from.
“I’m an old school guy,” explains the man who wears a beanie with a propeller on top to work every day. “I sell thousands of toys and very few of them require batteries. People come in looking for the perfect toy and I often recommend a ball. They give me this look, but nothing can beat a ball for play.
“When you walk into O.P. Taylor’s, we want you to have fun – and an adventure!” he proclaims. “We have a lot of things that people can interact with. It’s as much a play space and destination as it is a toy store.”
Employees play tag, throw balls around the store, and encourage customers to try the hula hoop. Life-size toy soldiers stand at attention at every entrance. In Asheville, a minion greets customers. Stuffed animals line the stairwell, and cars zoom by on tracks that zigzag through the store.
The 6,000-square-foot, two-story flagship is in downtown Brevard, a once sleepy mountain town that has evolved into a tourist retreat and retirement destination where people can enjoy the surrounding natural beauty and locally-run small shops, restaurants, and galleries.
Taylor and his wife Susie have owned the building that houses O.P. Taylor’s since 1987, when Brevard was in the midst of an economic struggle. “Five major businesses left town, along with 2,000 jobs,” reports Taylor, who was running a successful restaurant at the time, and investing in other properties around town. “One day I eavesdropped on an architect talking about his plans to buy up and redevelop an entire downtown block. I wanted to get in ahead of that, so I bought the corner building on South Broad Street and renovated it. But the architect’s project never got off the ground, and I was stuck with an empty building.”
So Taylor and his wife sold their restaurant and filled the building with an outfitter store. “I never thought I’d be selling toys,” he says, “until a customer came in with her toddler one day. She went into the dressing room to try on clothes and the little boy ran right out of the store. His mother ran after him with nothing on but her underwear! After that, I decided I better get some toys in there to keep the kids busy.”
Taylor reached out to Brio and Playmobil, and soon the outfitter store was outfitted with toys. The transition to totally toys took about a year. “My first Toy Fair experience was a big deal,” remembers Taylor. “I visited FAO Schwarz and bought my first beanie.”
A memorable moniker
The name of the store was hatched when the Taylors were hanging out with friends one night at a bar. They wanted something that sounded happy and also included “Taylor” in some way. A friend suggested the name of the little boy in the classic “Andy Griffith Show,” which was set in the fictional, idealized town of Mayberry, North Carolina.
“I ran into Ron Howard, the actor who played Opie Taylor, at Toy Fair one year,” Taylor recalls. “I was worried he was going to make an issue out of the name. He’s cool with it, though, and even visited our store in Greenville when he was in town. He’s a great guy.”
After several years of success in Brevard, Taylor started looking to expand his business in other locations. He went north to Asheville and Waynesville, North Carolina, both about an hour’s drive from Brevard. When the Waynesville location didn’t perform as well as expected, he moved that store south to Greenville, South Carolina.
Asheville and Greenville are larger, more urban communities. “The markets are very different from Brevard’s,” he notes. The stores are smaller and shoppers don’t linger in them as long as they do in Brevard.
The general concepts of fun and imagination drive sales and product selection. Classic toys are everywhere. “I don’t keep stuff in a warehouse or back room. Everything we have is on a shelf in a store because if it’s not on a shelf, it won’t sell,” explains Taylor.
The stores are run by general managers. Taylor purchases merchandise and deals with manufacturers, but he’s also on the sales floor a lot. “I like to play all day, so this job suits me well,” he says.
At any given time, O.P. Taylor’s employs about 42 people; most are part-time. “I hire people who can juggle. Literally,” he says, and tells the story of a young man who came into the store looking for a job. “I asked him if he could juggle. He said no, but he showed up the next week and performed a juggling act for me. That kid really wanted the job and I hired him.”
Word of mouth and some radio advertising make up the marketing effort. Taylor and his employees also host events and stunts to draw customers in the door. “We set up giant chess sets for kids to play with. We stomp rockets on the sidewalk or play ping pong on the street.
“One year, in the middle of the night, we set up a huge blue plane on the top of my building in Brevard, along with a smoke machine. It got a lot of attention, but the town leaders didn’t like it too much.”
In recent years, mayors and other economic development folks from around the southeast have courted Taylor; inviting him to set up shop in their towns. But, he says, “It has to feel right, and I’m not as motivated to open new stores as I was 15 years ago.”
Taylor says selling toys is easy because “they never go out of style.” O.P. Taylor’s carries about 17,000 different types of toys. The top category is LEGO, which represents about 18 percent of annual sales. Open boxes of LEGO sets are always available on tables to play with. In 2014 O.P. Taylor’s was the LEGO retailer of the year. “We have built a top-class LEGO experience for our customers by carrying all the popular sets and the hard-to-find items, too.”
Other top sellers are games and puzzles, models and kits “We sell a ton of Scrabble games and Ravensburger puzzles,” reports Taylor. “Plastic models, along with the glue, paints, and brushes, are big, too, because nobody else is selling them.
“I like to see kids building things,” he adds. “At Toy Fair this year, I found a great workshop product called The Cool Tool made by an Austrian company. It’s not available in the U.S., but I was able to work out a deal to carry them at O.P. Taylor’s.”
The product is similar to a Kenner toy he played with as a boy. “Nostalgia is selling,” says Taylor. “Baby boomers are looking for toys they remember playing with. We’ve sold a ton of Slinkys, Magic 8 Balls, Rubix Cubes, and Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots.”
A few years ago, a customer came into the Brevard location and told Taylor that he heard the store was on a list of the top 10 toy stores in the world. “I said, ‘Wow! That’s great! But who is #1 and where did you read that?”
The story, published December 4, 2014, was a photo montage by Lydia Schrandt, photo editor and Readers’ Choice Production Manager for USA TODAY’s “10Best” series. Among the likes of Hamleys in London, the former FAO Schwarz in New York, and The LEGO Store in downtown Disney, O.P. Taylor’s appeared, along with another American independent, Lark Toys in Minnesota. The stores weren’t ranked, just grouped as the 10Best.
Taylor says he doesn’t pay a lot of attention to the media or those kinds of lists, but he works hard to make his store #1 in shoppers’ hearts. “My goal has always been to be known as the friendly store on the corner,” he says. “I would rather lose money than have a customer walk out unhappy.”