by Michael Nocella
If you happen to find yourself in Arizona’s second-largest city, be sure to stop in at Mildred & Dildred. It’s a toy store on Swan Street, a busy thoroughfare, but trust me – you can’t miss “Mil & Dil.” The bright blue building stands out against the desert landscape and is further amplified by bright red trim and a white picket fence.
Owner Autumn Ruhe, a Tucson native, earned a degree in art history before opening her store in 2007 when she was just 25. Since then, the alumna of legendary local shop Mrs. Tiggy Winkle’s Toys has been creating her own brand of whimsy and fun. The community loves it – Mil & Dil was voted “Best Toy Store” four times by the readers of Tucson Weekly.
But as all specialty toy retailers know, remaining number one requires work. That’s why Autumn took the plunge on a second location in 2019. Then the pandemic happened.
The original Mil & Dil opened at La Encantada, Tucson’s luxury outdoor shopping center. Right from the start, there was enough ricochet traffic from a nearby Apple Store to keep business steady.
A loan from Autumn’s grandfather funded the startup, and the store’s name pays homage to the stories he told about two mischievous sisters. Mildred and Dildred were always getting into trouble, but their grandfather always came to their rescue.
Autumn’s was the only toy store in La Encantada, but not the only one in the city. When the owners of Kid’s Center, a toy mainstay in midtown, retired in 2019, Autumn purchased their building and made plans for a second location. “We had been thinking about it, but we didn’t want to step on any retailers’ toes,” she told This Is Tucson, a local event app, that October. “Clearly, though, that part of town likes toy stores because Kid’s Center was open for 30 years!”
At 3,000 square feet, the space was twice the size of her shop at La Encantada. Autumn’s plans for it included more space for storage and a larger book section. The grand opening was scheduled for spring 2020.
“When COVID hit, we thought it was better to simplify, so we closed our original store and opened here, officially, in January 2021.
“I was scared to leave the mall,” she admits. “I wasn’t sure we would make it on our own, but it’s been great. We’re doing better here than we ever did at the mall because our new space is more central. And now, we’re the only toy store in town.”
Thinking back to her start 15 years ago, Autumn recalls not knowing what to order to stock the shelves. One of the first items she brought in, seemingly on a whim, was Kidoozie’s Hide N’ Squeak Eggs, “We’ve sold hundreds of them since we opened,” she said, proving that her gut instinct is spot on.
The same thing happened with Two Bros Bows. “They’ve been our top seller for the last two years. They’re not new and I’m always surprised by how well they do.”
Autumn credits her staff of six – four of whom are part-time – and toy reps for helping her curate her mix. She also spends a lot of time sifting through Instagram feeds for new product ideas. She is not a regular at the annual toy markets, but she is planning to attend Toy Fair this year.
“I have a pretty meandering approach at shows. It could use some improvement!” Autumn explains. “I like to keep in mind my personal blind spots. I’m not a sporty person, and I was never really into science stuff, so those sections of the store get a little neglected. I need to put my efforts into finding out what’s new and what’s selling in those categories, so talking to reps and seeing the products in person helps.”
The Mil & Dil in-store shopping experience is both fruitful and fun. “People like the expertise of the staff here. Amazon isn’t going to brainstorm with you for an hour to find the perfect gift for your 3-year-old granddaughter who loves dinosaurs and ballerinas … and then wrap it for free.”
The challenge during the pandemic was to make sure the same experience was had online. “Before COVID, our website was for information only, so we had to quickly load our product to give remote shoppers full access to our inventory,” explains Autumn. “We got creative and offered Pandemic Survival Kits for different age ranges – anything to make shopping online a little more fun.”
Today, mildredanddildred.com presents the store’s deep assortment under five headings, including “Holiday!”
Under “Play” for instance, there are 11 different categories ranging from classic toys (tiger-patterned marbles, Colorforms from Kahootz, Jellycat’s Cocoa Bear) to games & puzzles (Mexican train dominoes, Ravensburger jigsaws, Buildzi). Play also encompasses toys for infants & toddlers, travel toys, music & instruments, and “trucks, trains, and building.”
You can tell what the artistic storeowner loves best. The arts & crafts category includes 11 pages’ worth of big kid projects, little kid projects, stationery, colors and supplies. “Read” – a heading on its own – lists 13 different categories organized by age, plus bilingual books, Tonies, and graphic novels among others.
Under “Learn” is a category called Fuel for Change. The books it features (When You are Brave, Superheroes are Everywhere, Stories for Boys Who Dare to be Different) “highlight amazing people who have changed the world for the better, and inspire kids to do more of the same!”
“Fun Stuff” is just that: stickers, socks, sweets, cute things from Japan and a special category, Arizona Dreamin’. It features everything from horse figures from Schleich and plush cacti from Jellycat to collectible stickers from Tucson company Turtle’s Soup.
One employee has been with Mildred & Dildred since its start; another for 10 years. “People who work here tend to stick around for a while, which helps grow our identity, I think. Our customers always see the same faces.”
The joy in their work is evident, particularly in the look and feel of mildredanddildred.com. “Our employee Nikki Brzescinski put it all together, including how it looks,” says Autumn. “She did the illustrations. She did everything!
“I think that aspect of our business legitimizes us in people’s eyes,” she adds. “The website has become an amazing way for people to find us, and to also get a feel for who we are and what we carry.”
The efforts of individual staff members help create a toy menu that has something for everyone, and their changing “Staff Picks” create personality on the website. For instance, Faye’s posted choices include the Caldecott medalist Bear Island, about a little girl – and a bear – who come to terms with loss. Lindsey recommends Cat Parade Twist Up Watercolor Gel Crayons from Ooly and the Calico Critters Midnight Cat Family. Kristin lik Planters Gonna Plant Women’s Socks.
In 2022, she and her staff face two challenges, says Autumn. 1. Getting new product in. 2. Figuring out where to put said product.
“Sales have been great, but supply has been a challenge,” she said pre-Christmas. “I think we did a pretty good job staying ahead of it, but we’re still out of key items. Our dolls section, for example, is looking pretty slim, even though I placed orders a month ago.”
When they finally arrive, Mildred & Dildred’s new extra space may not be quite big enough. “We’re stockpiling toys. They’ve overflowed into my garage at home. It’s challenging keeping so much stuff organized.”
Autumn is hopeful that in 2022, she’ll be able to offer her popular in-store events again. “We used to have great story times before the pandemic happened and we haven’t been able to get back to them just yet. I would love to reintroduce them this year in our new space.”