An Ohio toy-store owner and Comedian Dave Chappelle team up to promote community and small businesses
by Melody Burri
When it comes to Yellow Springs Toy Company in western Ohio, retailer Jamie Sharp isn’t playing around. She’s warm, quick to smile, loves her community, but make no mistake – when it comes to her business, she means business.
Just two years after her shop’s 2018 launch, it was named “Best Toy Store in Dayton” twice by two different publications – a stellar achievement, to be sure. But it’s exponentially greater when a worldwide pandemic and year-long halt to non-essential business are added to the mix.
Over the last 16 months, Jamie has leveraged her graphic design, creative management and marketing expertise to keep Yellow Springs Toy Company afloat, foster a supportive network of area business owners, champion small business needs to local officials, secure emergency funding, crowdsource financial support and renew customer loyalty from residents.
On a grander scale, she also caught the attention of three notable Yellow Springs residents – comedian Dave Chappelle and Oscar-winning filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert – who teamed up to raise awareness about the challenges facing a rural village in Ohio during the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Jamie’s voice on behalf of local businesses in Yellow Springs played such a significant enough role in the documentary, “Dave Chappelle: This Time This Place,” that she was invited to its debut at the Tribeca Film Festival in June.
New business, new vibe
While YSTC is still a relatively young enterprise, it fills a void left by a beloved hometown toy store that lived in the same space for 38 years – Mr. Fubs Party. So how is Jamie honoring the Mr. Fubs legacy while creating her own new vision?
“I try to provide an experience for people, rather than a shopping destination,” she said. “I pay attention to everything, from thoughtful displays to beautiful packaging, from scent to music. This tiny 600-square-foot space has required me to painfully edit orders to preserve only the things that make the most sense.”
Jamie believes that her toys have the power to shape future generations, and she takes that responsibility seriously, providing “quality tools to explore visual art, music and performing arts.”
“I also do not carry any doll lines that do not reflect the complete range of skin tones,” she said. “I lean toward packaging that reflects diversity, and I carry books about social responsibility, feminism, racism, death, and LGBTQ subjects.”
Surprisingly, YSTC’s marketing is aimed at adults, with a goal of building life-long relationships with customers.
“I learned that most people age out of toy stores at age 10,” she said. “My sense is that the kids are a built-in market and don’t need convincing to visit us. People are adults much longer than they are children and I want to continue to be relevant to people as they age, throughout their lives.”
Millennials and Gen Z are predicted to reject big-business and online shopping in favor of a return to small businesses whose core goals and mission are in alignment with their values, she said.
“I use my marketing to condition people to come in with no expectations and be open to finding something they never dreamed of,” said Jamie.
Since 600 square feet doesn’t allow space for public events, YSTC connects with customers in other ways.
“I started putting a bi-weekly puzzle in our local newspaper, holding Earth-Day scavenger hunts, putting coupons in Easter eggs for the community Easter egg hunt (and two golden tickets that got them HABA tents), hosting trick-or-treating in front of the store – things that engage and build positive associations while staying true to the core of our business,” she said.
YSTC was just two years old when the pandemic hit. Jamie said she had no idea if she’d survive the mandated closure and was extremely stressed. “Within two weeks, I had a website up and was providing local delivery, safe pickup, and U.S. shipping,” she said.
Fortunately, puzzles, games, and art and science activities became popular, and the website helped her survive shutdown. “It continues to be a work in progress,” said Jamie. “For me, getting a website up was like starting a whole new business. And then, when I reopened, integrating the POS and online presence was challenging, too. It has been a high learning curve from the beginning and it hasn’t let up. I learned the value of B complex vitamins during this time!”
A community in crisis
Beyond her own front door, Jamie also noticed a major COVID-related disconnect between business owners and local officials. “Officials didn’t understand the crisis we were facing or the importance of a thriving downtown business district to the future of our town,” she said.
So Jamie and a handful of other business owners organized meetings with them to increase dialog, and to release two small pots of funding to aid local businesses. Armed with her strong creative marketing experience, Jamie also spearheaded a viral fundraising initiative called UPLIFT Yellow Springs. Promoting the effort was a short video featuring participating stores, restaurants and lodging establishments. Fueled entirely by volunteers, UPLIFT Yellow Springs, rolled out in multiple stages, raised roughly $70k, with $30k going directly to businesses, $20k going to a COVID relief fund for small businesses, and $20k going into a rainy-day fund for businesses.
“It wasn’t a fortune, but when none of us had unemployment or any income, it helped us piece it together,” Jamie said. “It helped to raise awareness and fuel the ‘shop local’ movement here, and helped people build an emotional connection and investment in us surviving.”
As the pandemic raged on, a second disconnect was revealed: the one among the business owners themselves.
“We all tend to keep our heads down and work to keep our own businesses going,” said Jamie. “So another local business owner and I established a private Facebook group for downtown business owners. It provided up-to-date information, and links to COVID-19 Economic Injury Disaster Loan funding and Paycheck Protection Program information, and other local and national grants.”
The Facebook group also provided meetings with accountants and business advisors, and offered a way for business owners to get to know each other and share concerns and plans for masking, safety precautions and support.
Still, there was a further fracture between business owners and the local Chamber of Commerce, Jamie said. COVID had “gutted its leadership,” and “significant decisions were being made on behalf of local businesses by people who didn’t understand our businesses,” she said. “The need to establish a solid avenue for communicating the needs and concerns of downtown business, as well as creating a channel of accountability regarding these decisions, has become apparent,” says Jamie. “I maintain it is our responsibility as business owners to build these channels and provide access to our businesses.”
Cue Dave Chappelle
Chappelle’s childhood home was in Yellow Springs, and now it’s where he and his wife have chosen to raise their family. “This is still the kind of town where everyone looks out for each other and if your kid is misbehaving, word of it will reach you before your kid gets home,” said Jamie. “This has been a safe and protective community for them.”
It’s also where the comedian plans to open a 6,000-square-foot comedy club with performance space and a restaurant, and where his production office is headquartered.
“I expressed my desire to pull together the downtown businesses to begin to form a supportive community and potentially a new downtown business association to service us,” said Jamie. “He bought into the idea whole-heartedly and offered to host the event at the pavilion where the ‘Summer Camp’ performances have been happening.”
So on June 14, Jamie and Dave Chappelle hosted a meeting of downtown merchants to “determine a voice for our future,” she said. “The meeting was a roaring success, attended by 68 downtown business owners, most of whom were excited and committed to begin working together for the greater good of us all,” said Jamie. “I look forward to having him be an active participant in the discussion as we envision our future.”
About the documentary
“Dave Chappelle: This Time This Place” was co-directed by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, the duo behind Netflix’s Oscar-winning documentary “American Factory.”
The film was shot in summer 2020 in Yellow Springs, where Chappelle hosted his “Summer Camp,” a series of socially distanced shows at an outdoor pavilion lined by trees and cornfields. Celebrities included David Letterman, Sarah Silverman, Chelsea Handler, Kevin Hart, Trevor Noah, Jon Stewart and Michael Che.
The documentary closed out this year’s Tribeca Film Festival and marked the first time in more than a year that Radio City Music Hall welcomed a crowd.
“It’s a snapshot,” Jamie said, “of what happened during COVID in our small town from three perspectives: ‘Summer Camp,’ the Black Lives Matter protests and social justice movements that sprung up in response to the George Floyd murder. It shows how our small-town businesses fared during this unprecedented time.”
Chappelle worked with Ohio governor Michael DeWine and local zoning officials to provide safe performances in a small pavilion on the outskirts of town.
“It was a star-studded summer around here and who’s who from the world of comedy and music,” said Jamie. “The Summer Camp activity helped tremendously to bolster our local, regional and state economy – from hotel stays, to eating out, to a local private airport’s business, to shopping, to increasing our town’s reputation and visibility on a national level.”
The events channeled millions of dollars to the Ohio economy, much of that landing in downtown Yellow Springs, she said.
“Attendees frequented our restaurants and shops, helping to boost our sales figures during a time when most of the country was looking at bleak sales,” she said.
Jamie has not yet seen the documentary – her travel plans to attend Tribeca were cancelled due to a family emergency. But she’s optimistic it is “a sensitive telling of our experience as small retailers struggling to survive the grim shutdown days.”
“It is my highest hope that this exposure will shine a positive light on my business and our industry,” she said. “Yellow Springs is small town living at its best. One of the things I love most about being here is the way the community comes together and supports each other during times like this. The Yellow Springs downtown merchants have the ingenuity, the stick-to-itiveness, the resilience, the creativity and the energy to come through on the other side of this.”