Empowering Kids Through Play

Theresa Duncan, owner of Villa Villakulla toy store on Amelia Island in Florida.
by Michael Nocella

Pippi Longstocking, the nine-year-old adventurer in Astrid Lindgren’s beloved books, has inspired pretend play for more than 75 years. From her home base of “Villa Villakulla,” Pippi cooks up daring escapades, fun-filled celebrations, and delicious treats that include buns, cakes, and a kind of swedish cookie called pepparkakor.

Theresa Duncan, owner of a toy store in Florida called Villa Villakulla, could be Pippi grown up. They have more than the red hair in common. As a developer and implementer of afterschool programs, Theresa created adventures for at-risk youth. She marvels at the power of play for teaching kids of all ages, and loves the ways quality toys support learning.

“Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a toy store here?” was a question she and her dad Todd Duncan asked – and answered – one day over lunch. “By the time we finished, we had plans to open one here on Amelia Island,” she told us.

The 1988 film, “The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking” was filmed on the island, in Fernandina Beach’s Old Town neighborhood. “We try to embody Pippi’s courage, open-mindedness and playful spirit every day,” says Theresa, an ASTRA-certified Play Expert. “We are really passionate about providing quality playthings to the kids in our community, and about promoting the importance of play in general.”

Here’s how they do it.

Edplay: How would you describe your product mix?

Theresa: It’s “classic” and “unique.” We have toys for all ages – from teethers and loveys for infants to complex puzzles and games for adults. We lean toward the quirky and distinctive, and only a few of our items are battery powered.

After Christmas our shelves were bare, but I went to the January Gift Market in Atlanta and restocked with lots of fresh, new items. Many of our backorders from last year came in also, so at this point we are in a good place with our inventory.

We do very little in the way of TV and movie licenses – one of our main goals is to provide screen-free play opportunities. That being said, we took a risk on carrying a tech toy with licensed products, and it became a best seller. Tonies have been a huge hit for us! Spooner Boards are also popular – they give little surfers something to do when it’s too cold to get out on the water.

Amelia Island is one of Florida’s barrier islands on the Atlantic Coast. Downtown Fernandina Beach, where the store is located, is absolutely magical. We have the most beautiful sunsets on the East Coast, over the Amelia River. It is a well-preserved Victorian railroad town full of little locally-owned shops and restaurants. We share an entrance with one of the neighborhood’s many awesome art galleries, and are perfectly placed near a beer garden and the three best restaurants in town.

Tell us about your location.

It was built as a grocery store in the 1880s. Over the years it’s been everything from a car repair garage to an Italian restaurant. It has its fair share of quirks and complication. It’s slightly off the beaten path, but gets a lot of foot traffic. We have about 1,000 usable square feet, and big, bright windows that used to be garage bays!

We want our store to be accessible to all, so we have big wide aisles for wheelchairs and strollers – a rarity in an historic downtown. The space is sunny and colorful, and we tend to organize our inventory by age group. We have lots of demos everywhere and we encourage our customers and employees to play.

How do you curate your selection?

First, we try to work only with companies who are doing good in the world. We love a great toy story so we want to know if their toys represent all children, or if sales benefit someone in need. Are they taking measures to lessen their environmental impact? Are they a small company? Who makes the toys and are employees compensated fairly?

It’s also important to support the brands that support us; brands that take care of their small independent accounts by enforcing MAP, supporting marketing, and offering specialty-only SKUs. Those companies will always get our shelf space first.

For finding new toys to bring in, we love ASTRA Marketplace. If a brand is exhibiting at ASTRA, we already know that it supports independents like us. The game and craft nights ASTRA hosts are a great opportunity to get hands-on experience with new products – we’ve often discovered items there that we overlooked on the trade show floor.

At the end of the day, we want a store that’s filled with great toys we are proud to carry.

What’s “new” that you’re excited about?

We don’t think fidgets are going anywhere, but we do think pop-its are a bit saturated. As a result, we are looking for new and interesting fidget toys. And birthday parties are back! We are stocking up on lots of fun new things at the birthday-gift price-point.

We just brought in a line of USA-made, all-natural bath bombs from Musee, a company that aims to lift people out of poverty through meaningful employment. We love that! We are also really excited about the Wild Republic Ecokins line of plush, made from recycled water bottles. And, Playmobil has some really fun new beach-themed products that we love – including a swimmer that sun burns when exposed to sunlight! 

Are there other toy stores on Amelia Island?

A few other shops carry some children’s items, but they don’t feel like competitors. We believe a rising tide lifts all boats so if we can support other small businesses, we love to do that. In fact, I am pretty passionate about it. I could talk all day about the many ways small businesses make the world a better place.

Our biggest competitor is screen time, so we spend a lot of time educating our customers and the public about the importance of screen-free play.

What long-lasting lessons did you learn from the pandemic?

We learned that community involvement makes a difference when times are tough. Our customers went out of their way to make sure we were okay.

The pandemic showed us how resilient and creative we really are. Customers appreciated the new services we offered, which included private shopping, curbside pickup, local delivery, and our wildly popular, custom-curated Easter baskets. We introduced them in 2020 and got a great response. Last year they were even more popular.

We realized how much we missed in-store events, and will never take one for granted.

Like many other stores, we also shifted focus to e-commerce. It remains just a small portion of our total business, but by improving the user experience it’s grown – from not always paying for itself to about 5 percent of our revenue. Our strong web presence really helps to bring shoppers to the store.

What are you most excited about right now?

We are looking forward to growing our Easter basket business. We all enjoy using our Play Expert skills to put together a special selection for each individual kid.

One of our biggest challenges has been making strategic purchases while also dealing with supply chain disruptions. We are learning how to plan and budget without always knowing which products are going to come in. We chose to increase the amount of inventory we have on hand, and while the initial financial outlay was a bit scary, it has proven to be a good choice.

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