by Jenn Bergin
Faith and Walter Gil love welcoming kids into Lollipop Station, their toy and candy store in Culpeper, Virginia. And they sure know what kids like – the couple has a blended family with six children between them.
So when Walter, a former maintenance director, originally from Guatemala, decided to realize his dream of owning a business, they knew it had to be kid-related. Still, Faith says she shot down all his ideas. “I put up roadblock after roadblock, and finally agreed. But we did everything backwards.”
They picked out a location for their business, before they had decided what the business would be. “I knew it had to be in downtown Culpeper on Davis Street,” says Faith, a lifelong resident of the southern small town. “And I knew the perfect building.” They signed a lease on the town’s historic Armory building before they even knew what they would put there.
Faith and Walter did their research. They visited other small town Main Streets across the country and noticed what theirs was missing – a toy store. They turned the Armory’s 3,000-square-foot main floor into Lollipop Station in May of 2014. At first “we didn’t have enough money to fill it!” Faith admits. So, they designated 300 square feet for storage and turned 600 square feet into a party room.
Neither Faith, a former school counselor, nor Walter had any retail experience. “We just like to goof around and have fun – so that’s what we did,” Faith explains. “Hard work and long hours, with some silliness mixed in! And we both love to chitchat and hob knob with people, so customer interaction is where we excel.
“Our store’s personality is fun-loving and whimsical. And our prime location and building make us unique.”
The sweet spot
Lollipop Station is an adventure, Faith says. “We use a winding flow that makes customers want to walk around. There are no straight lines here. Everything’s arranged in a way that’s exploratory and allows children to touch, feel and play for themselves.”
Ultimately, their goal is to make learning fun and encourage families to spend more time together. “We love when we have a quick game to play with our customers at our front counter; or something for parents and kids to touch or try together.”
Their shelves are stocked with toys that are cooperative, open-ended and education-based for various developmental stages, and trend toward STEM and arts learning. “We choose products that we can touch, feel, hold and that make us laugh or say ‘ah, that’s cool!’ We rarely buy something that we’ve never personally experienced.”
Product is sometimes arranged by age; other times by categories like dolls, construction, puzzles, baby … but they like to change things up. “I get the urge to rearrange or redecorate about every three weeks, but as we know – it’s time consuming and exhausting,” Faith says. “So when we’re slow we tell the staff: Just change something! Move something! Do something! And clean!”
Everything about Lollipop Station is bright and colorful, she says. There’s a lime-green painted wall in the party room, and a rainbow of colors from the candy buffet brighten another wall. About 10 percent of the store’s sales are candy, which kids can mix and match for .62 cents an ounce. There’s also an old-school freestanding soda machine and a cotton candy machine.
“We spin fresh cotton candy on Saturdays in the busy season. It’s a hilarious, hot, sticky mess that leaves you covered in sugar from head to toe, but kids love to watch us make it, and the smell is amazing.”
A 3-foot giraffe statue welcomes customers on the sidewalk in front of the store, and purchases are brought up to a light-up cash counter on the way out. Walter made the round cash wrap and most of the store’s wooden fixtures himself, including a drywall archway toward the back of the store that’s covered in faux wallpaper for an exposed-brick look. Customers walk under the archway to get to the store’s party room, but the brightness of the back room’s florescent wall can still be seen from the front of the store.
In-store events take center stage
Lollipop Station employs five “Creativity Specialists,” in addition to Faith and Walter, plus they hire part-time help for the holidays. “We try to hire magnetic personalities who leave customers with a feeling of unexpected fun,” Faith says. “We’re not just selling shelves of toys, we’re selling an experience.
“It’s like hiring for Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. This is an entertainment position first, a sales position second, and that’s counterintuitive for a lot of people.”
In-store events are like executing a show, she adds. “Everything has timing and purpose, to ultimately offer a memorable experience.”
Since day one, Lollipop Station has hosted Puppet Storytime on Saturdays, on a small stage in the store. It’s a free event and they keep attendance – when children attend 10 sessions, they get to pick out a free book from the store.
“Kids like to go, do and eat,” Faith says. “So we make our events inclusive of those three things.” For example, Pizza & Painting events include a painting activity, drinks and pizza from a nearby pizza shop, and a sugary treat. “What kid doesn’t love that? Then we clean it all up, and pray they buy a toy on their way out. Normally they do, or they beg to come back!”
Lollipop Station also has great birthday party business. They open five, two-hour time slots each weekend in their private party room – and space fills up fast. Parents can choose from tons of themes and craft activities. There’s traditional, like Superhero or Princess; character-centric featuring Mickey Mouse, Hulk or Frozen; “Yucky Gross,” where kids make bug bath gel; a slumber party, where they decorate their own pillowcase; a spa day, where kids make lotion or lip gloss; and more.
The store charges $225 to host a birthday party which includes: a party leader and “creativity assistant,” pizza and drinks, fresh-spun cotton candy, rub-on tattoos, a game, a craft and decorations. Parents can add on a character visit for $25, and goodie bags for $6 each.
Kids can also build a Birthday Bucket gift registry. Before their birthday, they pick out toys they like, and the store sets them on a shelf behind the register in a clear bucket with the child’s name on it. All purchases from the bucket receive a 10 percent discount. “It saves customers money, time and frustration,” Faith explains. “Plus, children don’t get something parents don’t want them to have. And we package it for them for free!”
“If I could find another community as charming as ours I would open a second store, but there just isn’t one!” Faith says.
The small town of Culpeper is rich with history and southern charm. Located just over an hour outside of Washington, D.C., it’s become a tourist destination and weekend getaway for city dwellers.
“We have great dining, shopping, scenery and some nightlife. It’s safe and clean, far away from the big-city ‘rat race.’ There’s culture and lots of events, plus trendy microbreweries, wedding venues, theater … it’s a great balance of everything.”
It hasn’t always been that way. When Faith was growing up in the area, it was “scary,” she says. “You didn’t come down here where the ‘train tracks’ were.” But things have changed. Ten years ago, Culpeper was designated as a Main Street community, recognized for its “down-home hospitality, locally-owned businesses, family-style eateries, small town heritage events and unique outdoor attractions.”
The Culpeper community is supportive of each other and progressive, Faith says, and Lollipop Station does what it can to be a part of that. “If it’s Martin Luther King Day, we’ll read a story to children about love and equality, and hand out coloring pages; for Domestic Violence Month we tie a purple ribbon around our sidewalk giraffe and give out free purple ribbon glitter tattoos. For Dr. Seuss’s birthday we throw a party!”
During Christmas, they partner with the local police officers to wrap presents and collect money for the Special Olympics. And when it snows, which is rare – and not welcome – in Virginia, they make the most of it by delivering sleds to kids at home.
“Customers become like family,” Faith says. The store offers free pictures with Santa mid-November through December, and women have brought in ultrasound photos of babies they’ve lost to be photographed with Santa. “We’ve become a safe haven at times, in spite of all the fun. That’s something we cherish and find humbling. We must be doing something right.”
The town of Culpeper agrees. Faith and Walter were recognized as “Entrepreneurs of the Year” in 2015, just a year after they opened Lollipop Station.
“Business may be slightly down this year, but who knows,” Faith says. She admits that “the numbers” are more of Walter’s strong suite. “As long as we have what we need at the store and at home, I try not to worry too much. That might scare me and take the fun out of it!”
Past and Present
Lollipop Station is located in “The Armory,” a historic building last used as a banquet hall. “The space is amazing, it’s mind-blowing really,” Faith says. “It has such a story, even people who aren’t interested in our toys come to see it.”
The three-story building is 3,000 square feet on each floor, and Lollipop Station is located on the main level. Built in the mid-1800s, it’s called the Armory because during the Civil War military weapons were housed there. Today, visitors can still see the original bandstand on the third floor, where a military band played to soldiers as they cleaned their weapons. (Faith and Walter recently purchased the building outright from their original landlord, and plan to eventually use the third floor as their family home. Right now, they offer private tours of the space, by appointment.)
A local architect helped Faith and Walter design the store and party room, but they took measures to keep the space as authentic as possible, like leaving the original brick exposed. Except on the basement level – which they remodeled and now rent out to a local company. It needed some work. Rumor is, the basement was used as a jail during the Civil War, and 2-feet wide stone slabs line still the floor!