Topsy Turvy Toys: Where Play Matters

by Tina Manzer

I love to play and I love overcoming a challenge. Currently I’m doing both,” laughed Cathi Hall, owner of multiple Topsy Turvy Toys (TTT) stores in Ohio. At the time, Hall was relocating her 6-year-old store in Tipp City. A local moving company had recently packed up two truckloads of merchandise from her main street location and then deposited them at the new site two blocks away.

“Right now, we’re unpacking boxes,” Hall explained. The activity marked the beginning of the end of a nearly year-long saga.


You can never have too many options

Hall’s store in Tipp City is the second of what will soon be three TTT locations. Last June, her landlord announced plans to expand his own business into her space. “I began negotiating with him to include TTT in his renovation, but by December 1, I felt I needed to consider other options.”

For the next 30 days (“Right in the middle of the holiday shopping season!” she noted), Hall met with leasing agents and toured properties within a 30-mile radius. She had no luck until early 2024. “I was chatting with a customer who said, ‘We wish you would come to Greenville. We have a 5,000-square-foot space available in June.’ It’s just 26 miles away and worth considering,” said Hall.

At about the same time, a storefront did become available in downtown Tipp City. It was smaller than her current space by 1,000 square feet, but Hall wanted to remain in the community for the sake of her customers. The problem was, the building’s owners were in negotiations with a large international chain and put Hall on hold for six weeks. She held her breath on that location but went ahead and signed a lease for Greenville. Then the Tipp City location became hers as well.

Today, Hall is juggling stores in various stages of operation: the original TTT in New Bremen, Tipp City’s transitioning TTT Squared and Greenville’s soon-to-be-opened TTT Cubed. “The names reflect our goal to create exponential fun,” she said.


Get a mentor

Before she became a retailer, Hall had a successful career as an educator. “I didn’t want to switch careers, necessarily,” she explained, “but when we moved to a rural village of less than 3,000 people, I felt if I wanted a certain job, I had to create it myself.”

Before that move, Hall had been spoiled as a customer of Blue Turtle Toys in Oakwood, Ohio. She and the owner Carolyn Meyer became good friends. After she moved to rural New Bremen an hour away, Hall wanted a specialty toy store like Blue Turtle for her family and community. With Meyer’s blessing and mentorship, Topsy Turvy Toys was born and will soon celebrate its 17th year in business.

“My biggest piece of advice to new retailers is to work with a mentor; someone with whom you enjoy both a personal relationship and a professional one,” said Hall. “Carolyn was my mentor for years. She and I shared inventory and bounced ideas back and forth. I learned so much from her.”

The New Bremen store is a destination location in a strip mall. Two thousand square feet are devoted to inventory and retail space and 400 square feet are dedicated to play. “My original vision for the business – and today it’s in everything we do – is to have authentic interactions. You can have them through play. Play is what I used in my teaching and what I do now every day. Toys are the tools of play.

“When I hire someone, I explain that we are not entertainers or clowns,” said Hall, who currently manages a team of 14 employees. “We do not perform for our customers. We model play.”


You can never play too much

The New Bremen store became famous for its weekly Toddler Time classes on Fridays. “I charge $5 per child and their caregiver, and for a half-hour to 45 minutes we play with different activities I’ve set up in the store. It’s my favorite thing; we’ll have room to do it in Greenville, too.”

Hall runs a similar, annual event in partnership with the community’s early intervention team. Play with a Purpose, a free event for toddlers, their siblings and caregivers, is held at the local YMCA. “I provide all the toys and games and we set up a variety of activities,” she explained. “I consider it a win/win because it provides exposure to my business, the Y, and the role of early intervention.”

Another win/win is the store’s ongoing support of the local library. “I sell them gift certificates at a 20 percent discount to use as rewards for their reading programs,” Hall said. “Community support efforts should also support your store. Otherwise, you could give away everything!”

Hall’s merchandise is targeted towards infants and toddlers through middle schoolers, although she carries games and puzzles for all ages; her Douglas plush is also a hit with adults. Seventy-five percent of the mix is core products; the rest is a variety, including local products based on the demand at each store.

“Best sellers in our infant category include Baby Paper and board books,” she noted. “The trend of bringing a book to a baby shower has us constantly reordering books.

“Our developmental toddler/imaginative play category includes two lines we have become known for: Corolle dolls and Douglas plush,” she continued. “Middle schoolers love the plush.’”

As a former intervention specialist at the middle-school level, Hall holds a special place in her heart for that age group. “In general, middle-schoolers are a little self-conscious, a little awkward. When they come into the Tipp City store, I get them playing together by handing them a timer and saying, ‘Go play with something before this runs out.’ They’ll often grab our Ollyball and play volleyball throughout the store and across the aisles.”

Topsy Turvy Toys also carries LEGO. “It has the lowest profit margin in the mix, but it sells consistently and gives us credibility.”

Each year Hall uses her wholesale access to the brand for a worthy cause. “I purchase $20,000-worth of LEGO that I sell at cost to a local family who lost their son to cancer. They, in turn, donate it to the oncology unit at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. I’m happy to facilitate it, the kids in the hospital love it and it honors a child who loved playing with LEGOs.”


Back to business

As TTT Squared settles into its new Tipp City location, Hall will compensate for its smaller size by providing stroller parking outside. She wants to use every extra inch for play. What Tipp City lacks in that regard, TTT Cubed in Greenville more than makes up for it. Hall is excited about the possibilities of double the space there, and empty fixtures are in place ready to be filled.

Hall says her biggest challenge going forward is access to capital. She’s not alone: it’s impacting small business around the country. “Based on what I’m hearing from the organizations I belong to, everyone is in the same boat. Interest rates remain high and many of us are still paying back the emergency loan we received during COVID.”

Her worry, though, is offset by daily on-the-job joys, “like when a toddler walks in the store, stops in their tracks and says ‘Wow.’”

Hall’s best advice for fledgling retailers is to work with a mentor. She considers it so important that she became a mentor herself. In 2022 Hall founded a consultancy called Topsy Turvy Toys – Creating Play to help aspiring toy-store owners start a business like hers.

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