The Big Idea

Fifteen years ago, Harold Herskowitz came up with a plan “to open the coolest toy store anyone had ever seen.” Why toys? The father of five, including a set of quadruplets, was going broke buying his kids playthings that, to him, had little play or skill-building value. What he needed were “toys for thought.”

“I also wanted to give a gift to my community,” adds Harold, a former real estate executive.

“I wanted my store to be the FAO Schwarz of New Jersey.”

His community – Lakewood, in central New Jersey – is a hub of Orthodox Judaism; home to one of the largest yeshivas in the world. About an hour away from Atlantic City, Lakewood was once known for its fine hotels. Today, its downtown is quaint but rundown, he laments, and “steps toward local development are just abandoned. People aren’t interested in coming to the area.”

Harold, however, is doing his part to revitalize Lakewood, beginning with transforming the worst eyesore in the neighborhood into a colorful, toy-filled funhouse.

Creating a local landmark

In 2002, the dilapidated, Victorian-era building – the store of Harold’s dreams – was not for sale. The four-story structure was being used by the “overflow” from the boarding house next door. “People were sleeping in the basement, drug paraphernalia was scattered on the floor, weeds in the yard were 10 feet high, and the front door always hung open,” he recalls. After begging the landlord to sell, Harold acquired the 1,200-square-foot building and started creating Toys for Thought.

He painted the outside in startling colors, complete with cheerful coordinating trim. The following year, he added 2,000 square feet and doubled that over the next three years. Today, the store is almost 12,000 square feet, including a 600-square-foot baby section. “I spent a fortune on crazy custom purple carpeting throughout the store,” Harold says. “It requires a cleaning crew twice a week to maintain, but I want the store to be warm and colorful.”

He estimates that 80 percent of his customers are Jewish. Parents don’t host lavish birthday parties, so the store doesn’t sell many birthday gifts, per se, and Toys for Thought is closed for the Sabbath every Saturday, a traditionally busy day for most stores. With 11,000 Jewish families, the large, booming Orthodox community is more than half the town’s population. “When Hanukkah and Christmas are far apart, we have two good seasons, but when they’re not … just watch out, it’s crazy!”

Shoppers also include families visiting the shore for the summer and young couples out on a date. The store’s recent Cable TV advertisements, aired throughout central New Jersey, have brought in more tourists. Harold believes that 40 percent of his customers travel 30 or 40 minutes to get there, “and they’re not coming all this way to look around,” he notes. “They’re coming to spend the day and spend money. Here, they find things they can’t get anywhere else.”

Harold’s got game(s)

Entire rooms are dedicated to specific toy categories. There’s a “cars, planes and trains” room; one for LEGOs and another for Playmobil. There’s a room for dolls, for Hello Kitty, and a store-within-a-store devoted to “brain candy.”

“Shopping here is an adventure,” Harold says. “It’s like a well-organized scavenger hunt, so it has to be packed.”

Other toy stores may be as big, he notes, but they take up the space with large fixtures or decorative elements/attractions. “Toys for Thought is just filled with toys. Some have been sitting on the shelf since the day we opened, but that’s how I want it – it helps make shopping the store an experience. Customers can discover things they would never see at Target.”

Puzzles and games take up one entire floor. On the shelves are everything from $2 card sets to expensive Euro and collector’s boards. It just keeps growing – more than 1,000 games are in stock at any one time. “I buy discontinued games just to keep them out there,” Harold says. “My staff wants me to get rid of the ones I don’t like, but I can’t find any! There’s a reason I bought each one.”

He recently placed an order for 24 games from Iello, a young European manufacturer new to the American market. “It’s important that manufacturers feel you believe in them,” he explains, “because they will return the favor.”

Toys for Thought was the first store in the U.S. to sell the popular magnetic game Bellz. “When it was still only available in Canada, I called and said I had to be the first to have it, and I got 60.

“I take chances,” he says. “Some retailers have to know if a toy’s performing before they buy it. I don’t. But I’ve learned to order smaller quantities.”

Other times, he’ll buy the whole company. Harold recently purchased Brooklyn-based Wowopolis, maker of Sushi Stax and the board game Sound It! Found It!

Putting the “fun” in functional

“Cover the slatwall I say! Put up 5,000 Silly Puttys if you have to,” Harold proclaims. “I just want candy and toys everywhere!”

In addition to products, his store is decorated with a custom wooden gumball maze, rubber band and magnet walls, and a bear that blows bubbles. The staircase is finished in electric-green rubber; the doors are covered in red fur. The giant illuminated light bulb and “thought bubbles” on the façade and in bay windows change colors at night.

It’s all for fun, and anything un-fun is hidden. When fire inspectors insisted the store have a visible fire extinguisher, Harold found a way to cleverly disguise it. POS computers are hidden
under counters. Storage and office space are in the attic.

But LEGO and Playmobil are showcased on two levels. “Those are our milk and eggs, what people come in looking for,” Harold explains. “They have to walk throughout the store to get to them.”

Store manager Connie and her staff of five handle most day-to-day operations – Harold prefers to stay in the background handling product research and purchasing. When he is on the floor, he doesn’t mind making recommendations. If a customer purchases something he suggests and then doesn’t like it, she can bring it back. And, “If someone asks, ‘Is this a good toy?’ and I think there’s something better, I won’t lie,” he says.

Always something new

Harold is an old-fashioned merchant, so for him, the store’s e-commerce site “is not fun, but it’s the future. My heart’s just not in it. I can’t know if an item’s been heavily discounted somewhere in the online marketplace, and I feel guilty making a customer pay more if they can get it cheaper,” he explains.

Instead, he would rather sell the retro version of games like Monopoly, not the generic one found everywhere. “If I see Jenga on Amazon for $7, I tell customers not to buy it from me for $14,” he adds. “There’s a good chance they’ll realize it for themselves, and it’s more important that they trust me and come back.”

The site and POS system are linked, so inventory and price changes are automatically updated in the system. Although they’re integrated, there’s still room for human error, Harold admits. He makes all purchases on one credit card, which helps him streamline the process and keep track of orders.

Keeping Toys for Thought fresh and exciting is a priority, so every year they make a change. In 2015, it was a 4000-square-foot addition, “essentially another store,” Harold says. “We went crazy trying to stock it. Now we’re full of stuff. The staff will say, ‘This isn’t selling, we need to get rid of it for space,’ but I say no – there’s room for everything!”

Coming up, an old basement office is being turned into a party-toy room, where teachers or parents looking for a bulk order – like 50 spin tops for a party favor – can shop.

The store is teeming with toys, but it’s not just about making a sale, Harold says. “We have to be special. If we can’t make money and be special, then I will close the doors.

“People question why I buy or keep so many things,” he adds. “For example, we have this random talking parrot. But then a customer comes in and says, ‘We have a kid that won’t talk,’ I can say ‘I have the perfect toy for you – I bought this parrot for kids with selective mutism.’ When that works – wow.

I know I really did my job.”

by Jenn Bergin

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