The Merchant of Venice

Sabine Hack
02/07/2020
by Claire Sykes

Venice, Florida, was aptly named for the floating city in northern Italy’s Veneto region. The two are similar in that the Sunshine State version, on the Gulf of Mexico, is also surrounded by water.

Its charming downtown shopping district, “Venice Island,” features boutiques and restaurants in Italianate buildings shaded by Canary Island palm trees.

For more than 30 years, Nana’s A Children’s Shop on W. Venice Ave. has been a favorite with townsfolk and tourists alike. Since 2003, it’s been owned by Sabine Hack, a former tennis pro from Germany. Play’s the thing at the 2,000-square-foot store. High-end children’s clothing mixes with imported, traditional toys that get kids away from electronic screens and plugged into their own imaginations. The store’s carefully handpicked mix is both cosmopolitan and all-American. It caters to snowbird grandparents, and is busiest from October to the end of April.

Last year Sabine bought a second store 15 storefronts away, closer to Venice Beach. It’s about half the size of Nana’s and called Things I Like. The shop carries home décor, apparel and gifts, many of which are handmade. Only some are geared toward children.

“People are really excited I opened it,” Sabine told me in a recent interview. “They think Venice needed a store like this, not another touristy one.”

Venice is a tourist hot spot; famous for the fossilized shark teeth that wash up on its beaches, and more. “We have everything here on the island – a yacht club, lots of bicyclists. Because of all the nature and how quiet it is here, more and more people are moving in, more young people, too.”

That’s good news for area merchants, especially the ones who sell toys. We talked about the opportunities – past present and future.

edplay: How did you end up in Florida from Germany?

Sabine Hack: I played tennis all over the world. Winters I’d practice at the tennis academy in Tampa, where I had a house. I retired from the game in 1988 and moved to Sarasota.

I became friends with a lady who opened a store on Venice Ave., and I thought I would do that, too, even though I had no retail experience! My kids were little at the time, so I started selling toys. My store, Just for Kids, stocked simple, wooden toys from Germany. At the time, Nana’s, a block down the street, was 95 percent children’s clothing, plus a few toys and jewelry. When it came up for sale, I sold my store and moved most of the merchandise to Nana’s.

Today, 60 percent of my store is toys, 25 percent is clothing, and 15 percent is gifts. You’ll find wonderful surprises here: kids’ accordions, kits for making paper airplanes, toddler aviation jackets, frilly dress-up clothes, unusual plush toys and books, and handmade fair trade dreamcatchers from Columbia.

“Baby” is a strong category here, along with children’s books. Usborne Books have been extremely strong, and they don’t sell on Amazon.

What inspires you to offer such a range of products?

I’m inspired by the grandparents who shop here, often looking for uncommon educational products, items for more than one grandchild, and for a variety of ages. They love a one-stop shop. Mine is the only children’s store this far south that carries such a variety of unique items.

I like to support European companies. From Germany, I like PlayableART, Ravensburger puzzles, HABA’s wooden toys and, especially, Steiff bears. I carry Corolle dolls and SentoSphère kits from France, and BRIO, which originated in Denmark. I also like Spooner Boards, made in California, and products from eeBoo, based in New York.

All of those companies make unique products that only some stores carry. That’s another reason why people come to Nana’s.

What are your bestsellers?

I’ve carried The Ball of Whacks for years, and it always sells. So does Crazy Aaron’s Thinking Putty. Plus-Plus construction toys, made in Denmark, also do well. Fat Brain Toys is another top seller, for sure. HABA toys sell very well because customers can see the quality in them.

Who are your competitors?

Competing with the internet has been my biggest challenge. But we’re very lucky – there’s no Walmart nearby. There is another toy store in town about a block down, but it’s half the size of Nana’s and it doesn’t have clothes or the selection I do. We cross over on some items, though, and because they have more plush toys, we are more of a complement to each other.

I focus on Nana’s being the best it can be – in terms of product selection, merchandising and customer service. I offer a frequent-buyer card, free giftwrap, and a free reusable Nana’s tote bag with a purchase of $50 or more.

You don’t sell products online.

I don’t, because if I did I would have to hire more people to keep the website up, especially with clothing. I don’t think people would go online to purchase from my store anyway. Social interaction is important to my customers, and to me. That’s what small, independent stores are all about.

How are Nana’s and your new store alike? How are they different, besides their product mix?

Both carry uncommon goods. You have to deliver that nowadays. And both have great customer service. Employees know the merchandise and we’re always ready to help someone find that unique gift. We can also wrap it for them and ship it. The employees enjoy interacting with customers. They keep coming back, so we get to know them. I see people at Nana’s who also shop at my other store and we’ve become friends.

What trade shows have the best selection for Nana’s mix?

ASTRA. I don’t go to the shows in New York because too many toys there are sold to the big-box stores. It’s too much walking to make it worth it. ASTRA and AmericasMart Atlanta are for smaller, independent stores and I can buy for all categories there. I love Sandy Ruben and Associates’ showroom in Atlanta. He has the best toys, and a really nice showroom where I can try them out. His staff is really knowledgeable. I buy a lot of my toys from him. He goes above and beyond.

What standards do products have to meet before you bring them? 

They have to be high-quality, durable products that foster imagination. Or, like our outdoor toys, help develop coordination. I look for educational and safe items, and, if possible, environmentally friendly. And they have to be more of a classic toy; simpler, so the child interacts with it to figure it out, and not just press buttons and it lights up.

Toys here also have to be exciting and fun, and maybe get the child outside and off screens. They also have to be unique. If I think they’re at Target or Walmart, I don’t bring them in.

What’s your forecast for five to 10 years from now?

More changes. I’ve got to keep changing to stay relevant. That means going to a lot of trade shows, and traveling to Europe. Summers I go back to Germany. Last year it was Italy, and the year before, England. I get so many new ideas when I travel.

What do you enjoy most about having two stores, and being a storeowner in general?

I enjoy interacting with my customers, and at Nana’s, seeing the kids grow up.

It’s that social aspect, for sure, and it’s why I’m present in both stores and in the front a lot. I want to keep listening to customers; I want to know what they’re looking for, what they like and what can be improved. When they get excited and I can help them find that unique item it’s really fun.

I like being an entrepreneur, being my own boss, working my own hours, making my own decisions and being creative. As owner of my stores, I’m part of a movement trying to save small shops from disappearing. Rent increases are a problem. The playing field needs to be leveled, because smaller retail businesses are a very important part of the economy.

Got a good toy stor(e)y to tell? We want to hear it! edplay has featured interviews with specialty toy retailers in each issue for more than 25 years. We talk about best practices, difficult challenges, what’s selling and what’s next. If we’ve missed talking about your store, contact Tina Manzer, tmanzer@fwpi.com.

For the stories behind the toys, told by toy manufacturers, watch for our next issue, InspiredPlay, coming in March. Hear more about play value, skill builders, sustainable features, and bestselling benefits.

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