by Jenn Bergin
Overflowing with toys and trinkets, 35-year-old Calico Toy Shoppe is considered a community gem. Located on Bainbridge Island in Puget Sound, the family-owned business has been there for generations.
Current owner Elisabeth Dahl once ran a local bookkeeping business. The specialty toy store was one of her clients. In 2007, she made the leap from bookkeeper to boss when the store’s previous owners decided to sell.
“They offered me the business for a nickel,” she recalls, “and I pulled one out of my pocket on the spot! Clearly, it ended up costing way more, but it’s been worth every penny.”
In the past 10 years, Elisabeth hasn’t simply rested on the store’s laurels. Under her ownership, change has been good. She expanded after two years, by purchasing the 1,000-square-foot building next door. “We needed more room, but we couldn’t tear down the wall separating the two storefronts,” she explains. “Instead, we moved our puzzles and games into the new space and opened Calico Games & Puzzles Etc.”
In 2014, she expanded again; adding 700 square feet to the original 1,000 square-foot store, but it just wasn’t enough. In 2016, Elisabeth began looking for a bigger location. She found one – the old drugstore downtown – and after six months of planning and construction, the newly renovated, 4,100-square-foot Calico Toy Shoppe opened on Black Friday, just in time for the busiest selling season of the year. Although Elisabeth, her husband Tim, daughter Cydney, and loyal staff volunteers were still scrambling on Thanksgiving Day to get ready, sales from Black Friday and Small Business Saturday doubled from the previous year. When I talked to Elisabeth afterward, she reported that sales were still climbing.
Shoppers by the boatload
Bainbridge Island is a 35-minute ferry ride from downtown Seattle. The island spans 27 square miles, roughly the same size as Manhattan, but with a lot fewer residents – just over 23,000. In the summer, however, it swells with tourists who travel to Seattle’s ports to catch a cruise to Alaska. A side trip to Bainbridge Island – rich in natural beauty and culture, with quaint shops, farms, wineries, hiking trails, scenic vistas and local arts – occurs often. Edplay first heard about Calico Toy Shoppe from a specialty toy retailer on her way to Alaska. She noticed the new location under construction, and emailed us to check out what was “coming soon.” At the time, brown paper covered the storefront windows, but pieces were slowly being ripped away to reveal the friendly faces of giant plush animals.
In 2005, CNN/Money named Bainbridge Island the second-best place to live in the United States. Elisabeth moved there from Seattle when she married Tim, a fourth-generation islander. Both agree there’s no better place for a specialty toy store.
“This is an affluent bedroom community with a strong school district,” Tim explains. “The locals really seek and appreciate specialty toys.” With no big-box stores on the island – and just one Starbucks, McDonalds, and a locally-owned Ace Hardware – it’s a great place to run a small business.
“We just got a Walgreens,” Tim adds, “but no one will shop there.” Locals preferred to shop at the old drugstore downtown, in the Winslow Green shopping area. When it closed after 60 years, it became the new Calico Toy Shoppe.
Some people in the close-knit community were resistant to the change, Elisabeth says, “but once we opened our doors, they couldn’t believe it. One customer told us it was the best toy store in the world! Even if it wasn’t mine, I would have to say it feels really good in the store. I would want to be here.”
Opening up an old space
The old building hadn’t changed in decades. It was time for an overhaul, and they hired an architect to help with the design. The result is British-inspired, complete with a red “London” phone booth out front.
“We took down the ceiling, took up the tile floor and replaced it with polished concrete, and put in a 400-square-foot storage room and a small office,” says Tim, a full-time firefighter. “We kept everything else open with exposed rafters, and added track lighting. Our goal was to keep the space bright and airy.”
He built brightly-colored pillars of building blocks that frame the outside of the store. Decorative fixtures inside include a photo booth and giant light-up gumball machines. Train tracks will eventually be suspended from the ceiling. “There’s a lot to see, from oversized plush and play tables to big toys and lots of color,” Elisabeth says.
“I studied pictures of toy stores online,” she adds, “and I read about Giggles in Baton Rouge in edplay. I loved the brightness of their store, so we kept everything white and added pops of color.”
Room for more
The former Calico Toy Shoppe’s puzzle and game store featured a game library of more than 50 games. Kids loved to come in after school and borrow them, and nannies often brought children in during the day to play. But when the store hosted game night on Friday nights, there was never enough room to accommodate everyone who wanted to come. The problem has been solved at the new location – it has an even bigger game library, and seating for 30-plus people on game nights.
The larger location also allows Elisabeth to expand her product mix. She’s added a wider selection of novelty items for older kids, and local T-shirts and souvenirs for tourists. Green Toys’ ferry boats are best sellers – they have become the store’s unofficial must-have souvenir.
“If more than six people were shopping at the same time in our old space, they’d be bumping into each other.”
Tim says. “The weekend we opened the new location, I was up on a ladder hanging something. I turned around and counted more than 30 people shopping, and they were flowing through the aisles, out of each other’s way!”
Most of Calico Toy Shoppe’s employees have worked at the store for at least 20 years, seeing it through every transition. Elisabeth valued their input and involvement on every decision she made for the new location. “They even helped pick out the colors of the ceiling!” she says. “One gal, in her 70s, who’s seen this store through decades of changes, can’t stop smiling. She said this is the best the store’s ever been.”
“For us, it’s all about the community,” Elisabeth says, “whether it’s finding what our customers want, hosting game night at schools, or playing ‘Elf on the Shop Shelf’ with local stores. It’s the best job, even on the worst days.”
Calico Toy Shoppe is so deeply rooted in the island community that it’s become a holiday and birthday tradition for generations of local families. “It’s not about us, it’s about them,” Elisabeth says. “We are stewards of the store.”
She and her employees know every customer by name. In fact, most of the customers know each other, too. “It’s such a tight community that when we designed the new floor plan, I knew we had to designate space for people to gather,” Elisabeth says. “We call those our chatting areas.”
There’s an online shopping cart but “online sales simply don’t work for us,” Elisabeth says. “Our bread-and-butter is brick-and-mortar. It’s the parents who rush in on Saturday morning to buy a gift for a birthday party, and then rush off about their day.” Calico Toy Shoppe gifts are known around town for their simple, brown kraft wrapping adorned with “spectacular,” colorful bows.
When it comes to buying a birthday gift, there’s really no competition, Elisabeth says. There is no other toy or even big-box store on the island. To build upon their birthday gift services, the store has plans for a gift registry and birthday club, plus a reserved parking spot for “Emergency Birthday Gift” shoppers, although Elisabeth says “it will be filled all the time!”
Taking chances in 2017
Looking at the new year in the new store, Elisabeth plans to add in-store events like art classes and birthday parties. She keeps a list of customer requests, and based on that she’s expanding the store’s selection of art and party supplies.
The store opening was delayed because of a sprinkler system install, and then rushed, in time for the holidays, so they’re still adding finishing touches. “I still have a folding table for a desk!” she says. “Now that we’re open, I can strive for perfection down the road.”
As a store owner, she’s learned to let things go – and to delegate. “I can’t do it alone, it’s a team effort,” she says. “I focus on my employees’ strengths, and use those to the max.” A receiving clerk now helps with buying, for example, and another employee manages merchandising.
Elisabeth also allows herself to make mistakes. “If you’re not making purchasing mistakes, you’re not moving forward in your buying – you’re not taking any chances,” she explains. Her daughter, Cydney, works for Fairhaven Toy Garden in Bellingham, Washington, while in school at Western Washington University. She has been going to tradeshows with Elisabeth since she was 10 years old, and helps make many of the store’s purchasing decisions.
“Sometimes Cydney pushes for something and I shake my head, and then it flies out the door. I was very against Pusheen and emoji plush, for example, but customers love them.”
Tim adds, “Our job as specialty retailers is to capture the next ‘big thing.’ It’s like mining for gold – we need to take chances to succeed.”
Elisabeth and Tim start each new year with a thorough inventory analysis, then move product out to make room for new purchases and tradeshow finds. “It always feels like a fresh start. We plan out our months and features, take a deep breath, and dive back in again!”
This year, they’ll do so in a brand new store, with plenty of room for new merchandise. “It’s been an overwhelmingly emotional and exciting time,” Elisabeth says. “I feel like I’m experiencing it with our entire town. One little boy came in so excited and squealed, ‘It’s finally open!’ That’s what makes it all worth it.”