story by Maria Bucci
photos by Cisco Gamez
It’s been 40 years since Rinalda and Charles Edwards opened Terra Toys in Austin, Texas. When asked to name the secret behind the store’s longevity, their daughter Sylvia, general manager, replied, “We have a consistent buying policy that places a high value on toys that are classic, fun, and beautiful. Plus, we work our butts off!
“My parents are the hardest-working people I know – it’s a delightful thing to watch,” she adds. “It’s not easy but they make it look easy. They are great partners and have made good choices along the way.”
Play is a priority
“We sell toys that are an anchor for what play means to a child: a colorful spinning top, a bouncy ball, building blocks, puppets. This is what defines our store,” Sylvia explains. “Kids need toys to practice for real life. Playing with toys fosters imagination and creative expression, and builds important skills they need as adults.
“Parents have asked me to direct them to the hottest toy for a 2-year-old. I tell them that 2-year-olds think everything is interesting, so start them off with a spinning top. It will be as novel to them as it was to a 2-year-old 100 years ago. Our philosophy is to get them to touch and experience as many magical things as they can.”
To that end, the store features 373 different puppets for children from 18 months to 5 years old. “Puppets offer kids a chance to role play, learn empathy, and discover their place in the world,” Sylvia continues. “Balls, science kits, and baby dolls are also popular.”
Current top sellers include family games. “Playing board games is just a great way to get to know your kids,” she says.
Stay with what works
“Everything at Terra Toys meets the same basic criteria. Some toys may not be beautiful but they are classic or fun. This is our compass even when trends come along.”
Sylvia’s mother has been the buyer since the beginning. To fill the store’s 12,000 square feet of display space, she works with more than 2,000 vendors and buys thousands of toys each year. There is a lot of variety, but her approach has remained the same for 40 years. “She buys toys that are classic, timeless and fun. This has kept Terra Toys in the middle of the pendulum during economic swings and trends that come and go,” says Sylvia.
Sometimes the Edwards’ watch a trend and wait to see if it becomes a staple. “Generally, we do not dedicate space or money to trendy things,” she explains, “but we do take into consideration customer requests and special items that have a classic twist.” One example is a Batmobile car made from die-cast metal from YW Toys. “It’s a great little car and it comes with a Batman doll. There aren’t that many dolls for boys and so we went for it. Plus, Batman is a classic superhero, so it does fall into the buying policy.”
Merchandise is organized by theme rather than age. “Our toys are arranged based on a child’s interest. It’s a labyrinth of cars and trucks, fairies and pirates, dinosaurs, arts and crafts, outdoor games, and puzzles. Age is relative.”
This philosophy comes through in the way toys are displayed and employees are trained. There is an “open” version of every packaged toy, and items to demo are placed all over the store. “When a customer is interested in a particular toy, they can try it out here. It mitigates the returns,” laughs Sylvia.
Rinalda and Charles met as students at the University of Texas. “Even before they met they were collecting toys, so that was a shared interest,” their daughter explains. They didn’t want to work for anyone, so when they graduated, the two established a snow-cone business, and they built their stand themselves. When sales slowed during the winter, Charles made wooden animals using scrap wood and his band saw. “Everything they made came from wood, from the earth, so they called the business Terra [Latin for “earth”] Toys.”
In 1976 they were wholesaling their wares. Their specialty was pull toys, and the most popular item was a wobbly dinosaur with asymmetrical wheels. “My parents made all sorts of toys and their catalog was hand-drawn by my mother,” recalls Sylvia.
Two years later in Austin’s up-and-coming SoCo district, they opened a storefront. Everything in it was handmade. Soon they added products from other vendors; Steiff and Madame Alexander were among the first.
In 2004, rising rents pushed Terra Toys to Allendale in the north-central part of the city. The established neighborhood is safe, quiet and suburban – perfect for families with small children, with parks and schools. “It was a good move for us,” says Sylvia. “There is good parking, and good visibility.”
To meet the needs of its shoppers, the Edwards’ added a children’s clothing store-within-a-store to Terra Toys called Dragon Snap. Later, they added Kiddo Shoes. In 2015, they opened a coffee bar and art gallery next door.
“Our goal is to accommodate our customers and keep them shopping,” explains Sylvia. “We are big supporters of the organic movement and local products: we feature the work of local artists in the gallery, Fair Trade coffee from beans roasted here in Austin, and American-made clothing and shoes.”
Despite competition from Amazon and big box stores, the business is doing well. “We are at an interesting phase of growth right now,” reports Sylvia. “We could open up more stores or streamline what we do here.”
Sylvia Edwards was born and raised at Terra Toys. Literally. She was delivered by a midwife in the back of the store, and lived there with her parents and sisters for much of her childhood. “I got to sleep in a toy store!” she laughs.
As the oldest of three girls, Sylvia was the hustler; the daughter most interested in the family business. Her sisters, both artists, live in other cities.
“I like to think of Terra Toys as my older sister,” she laughs. “And my goal is to keep her going for another 40 years!”