by Tina Manzer
Heather Rasmussen’s toy store in Long Beach, California, began as just four IKEA shelves-worth of toys set up in a local yarn studio. Over the years she slowly grew Pixie Toys into a busy 1,100-square-foot storefront filled with plush, toys, science kits, books, children’s clothing and baby-shower gifts. It’s the only toy store in Long Beach; in the city’s Bixby Knolls neighborhood a few miles from downtown.
It’s the perfect place for an independent store. Citizens of this tight-knit, local-business-supporting community are committed to their independent shops and restaurants. “If people had to choose between buying a birthday present from Target and buying it from me, they would choose me for a lot of different reasons, including my free gift wrap,” Heather explains. “But first and foremost, it’s because they believe in supporting independent businesses.”
She recalled an evening not long after she opened, when 20 or so people of all ages walked in on a mission – to spend money there, $20 each. It was the Long Beach Cash Mob, “a group of people who assemble at a local small business and all buy items from that business,” says its Facebook page. “The purpose is to support our local businesses and the overall community.”
Heather has felt the love ever since.
Once upon a time
Pixie Toy Store was born in 2007. “I was 20 years old and going to college for early childhood education. I knew I wanted to work with kids. My goal was to be a kindergarten teacher,” explains Heather. “At a certain point I realized I just wasn’t happy with the path I was taking. I joked with my mother, ‘Maybe I should open a toy store,’ and she said, ‘Do it.’”
Rents are high in Hermosa Beach where Heather grew up; thus the shared space in the knitting studio. Her father bought her the shelves and matched her $500 initial investment. “I paid a percentage of my profits to the owner of the knitting studio, and the rest I put right back into my business. I never used credit cards, always cash.”
Her selection attracted shoppers, and the studio owner allowed her to expand to 200-square-feet. The studio grew, too, adding a children’s clothing corner, a children’s art studio, and a children’s photographer. And then it closed.
“So the children’s photographer and I rented space together in another shop – this time in Bixby Knolls – and split the expenses. Pixie Toys became more and more popular, so I kept taking up more and more space.”
When that shop closed, she struck out on her own. Rents in the up-and-coming neighborhood were decidedly lower than in other spots in Los Angeles County. “I got here at the right time,” says Heather, whose storefront is now one of many independent shops and restaurants lining the street.
By all accounts, Bixby Knolls is an exceptionally family-friendly neighborhood. It has embraced special neighborhood events like the cleverly named Kidical Mass bike ride, Concerts in the Park(ing Lot), and Knights of the Round (Turn)Table. There’s even a literary society.
“What makes it really special are its First Fridays,” says Heather. “Literally thousands of people come and basically hang out with their families and listen to live music. Businesses stay open late, and everyone strolls Atlantic Avenue with stops at the shops and restaurants.” (At least 23 of them offer outdoor patio dining, according to the bixbyknollsinfo.com.)
Says visitlongbeach.com: “Neighborhood pride is strong in this community and the area has been undergoing a true renaissance, thanks to many great partnerships with the City of Long Beach, city council offices, homeowner and neighborhood associations, and other community groups.”
Local shoppers keep Pixie Toys busy, “but as the word spreads about wonderful Bixby Knolls, we are seeing more visitors from outside Long Beach,” explains Heather. “There are 12 hospitals in Long Beach, and we serve people from out of town who come to visit patients – particularly the families of children who have been hospitalized for an extended time.”
A spritely mix
The store is organized thematically. “People seem to shop for gifts within themes, so I have all my ‘outer space’ items together; the same with my ‘dinosaur’ items, and so on,” says Heather. She focused on toys exclusively until she noticed more and more customers coming in for baby shower gifts. “That’s when I started adding kids’ clothing and infant toys. As time went on, I noticed how well my books were selling. Today I have a wide selection – probably more than other specialty toy stores my size. I love them and if I don’t watch out, they tend to take over the place. I homeschool my kids, ages 8 and 10, so I know what good learning tools books can be. There are a lot of homeschooling families here.”
That’s why “toys” – the all-encompassing category in her store covering craft kits, art supplies, puzzles and playthings – also includes a healthy number of STEM and STEAM items. Construction sets from Smart Max are big sellers, as are Ravensburger’s puzzles, and Brio and Gravitrax lines. “Everyone wanted puzzles during COVID, and I received a huge shipment from Ravensburger just before we closed. I was ready to go when the demand increased, which helped me get through the shutdown.
“Besides the fact that Ravensburger’s products are amazing, I really do love the company,” Heather adds. “Their extended dating terms are unique in the industry, I think. I use them to buy deep and in huge amounts throughout the year. I’m proud of the great selection I can create for my customers.”
Dealing with the real world
Pixie Toy Store does not have a website, and about that Heather is unapologetic. She admits it would have helped during the pandemic and yes, it would contribute to the growth of her business now, but she’s figuring out other ways to make her business strong. “When we were closed during COVID, people called and we delivered their purchase right to their door. When they wanted ideas, I texted them pictures. A lot of them simply trust our judgment. A typical text might say, ‘8-year-old, $25, I’ll be there in a half-hour. Will that work?’
“So I’m okay with it. Not having a website is not my biggest challenge right now. The supply chain is. Merchandise shows up so sporadically, so I can’t plan for it. I don’t have a lot of storage, and my store is small, so when a bunch of boxes are delivered on the same day, conducting business is difficult. To get everything put away takes time and meanwhile, they’re in the way. And since prices have increased, logging items into my system takes more time.
“It’s May, and I just got a shipment of Easter items.”
Other than dealing with an issue that’s plaguing everyone right now, Heather is grateful for her business, her two part-time employees, and “the right kind of people in the beginning who helped me grow my business.” Her mom, Robin Daykin, is one of them. A former toy-store owner, Robin is a sales rep with Toyology.
“The toy business has been part of my life since I was born,” says Heather. “I remember taking naps in my mom’s store, and going there after school. Growing up, I went to gift/toy shows at the LA Gift Mart. Later, I was my mom’s demonstrator when she called on toy stores. I recall she sold a lot of Klutz products that way.”
Heather plans on attending Marketplace & Academy in June. Say hi when you see her.
Pixie Toy Store is located at 3914 Atlantic Ave. in Long Beach, 90807. It’s about a 15-minute drive from the Long Beach Convention Center.