I have a little secret to tell anyone over the age of 16 who claims not to enjoy visiting toy shops: You may not admit it, you may not even know it, but you’re lying.
The simplistic happy faces of dolls and figures beaming out at you with innocent joy, the gaudy primary colours deliciously clashing with one another, the toys of every shape and size jostling for your attention and the knowledge that all this, everything around you, from the stock on the shelves to the paint on the walls, is here for one reason and one reason alone: fun.
Carey and Carmel Horner have been in the business of selling fun for the last 17 years, although their oldest child is only 9. Hmmm, sounds like somebody didn’t want to grow up! Owners of the Lismore Toy Kingdom, the pair have recently expanded their realm, acquiring the Byron Bay store in July of this year. But the Newrybar-based couple hasn’t simply taken over the leasehold on a franchise, the Toy Kingdom name far more than just a cookie-cutter mould for toy shops across the nation.
“Toy Kingdom is a part of Associated Retailers, a large, independent buying group,” co-owner, Carmel informs us. “That affords us the luxury of buying power, which means we can provide a wider range of products at a better price, as well as retaining independence over what we stock. We’re not locked into a certain product or range.”
This also allows Carey and Carmel to create a store with personality and aligned to their personal ideals, both as parents themselves and as retailers.
Both Carey and Carmel’s children, Sunney, 6 and Miles, 9, attend St. Finbarr’s Primary School in the heart of Byron and this has helped enhance their understanding of the local market. We parents all love the idea of organic, wooden toys that will last for years and hold a rustic charm of nostalgia and environmentalism. But the truth, however much it breaks our hearts to admit it, is that kids just aren’t always into the boutique timber gifts we would have them play with. Balance is key, but in that balance, value for money and longevity are the underpinning tick-boxes with which the duo select their range.
“High value is really important to us,” shares Carmel. “We want parents to feel that when they’re choosing a product, they’re getting the most value for both the money and in terms of the child’s play. Toys need to stimulate a child’s imagination and assist with development, but they’ve also got to have a fun factor. If a product is missing that, then you lose both the kids’ interest and the learning value as well. With the exception of some small, impulse lines that only cost a couple of dollars, the longevity of a toy is really important to us. When people are purchasing toys, we want them to feel they are going to have them for a lifetime, not just for the life of the child’s interest.”
Entering the new-look Toy Kingdom is to breathe a sigh of relief as a parent. Plastic toys with fleeting novelty account for the bare minimum of shelf space, board games are neatly accommodated along one entire wall, wooden gifts, craft kits, magic sets and scientific gadgets are in far more abundance than the heavily marketed, overly plasticised gimmicks all too often flooding the market and somehow you can tell that genuine thought and a heartfelt care and understanding have gone into each and every item. There are, of course, several of those high-demand toys available – it is very much a part of Carey and Carmel’s belief to cater to everyone – but the pair actively encourage their more diminutive clientele towards the alternatives.
“What we notice in Byron was that there wasn’t really anyone offering all the big brands, such as Lego and the Mattel board games, as well as the ‘un-plastic’ more boutique toys all in one place. We’ve found that toy stores in general can either be one way or the other – plastic fantastic or beautiful wooden products – but they don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
“We have tried to bridge the gap and give people the best of both worlds. We’ve already found is that Byron parents are fantastically open-minded and accepting of both the boutique, wooden toys and the plastic toys and that there can be a balance between the two. They ask for our feedback, they want our advice and are open to lots of options.”
Living in the environment we are blessed with, we are afforded the luxury of an outdoors lifestyle, and Carey and Carmel cater to this perfectly. Pool toys in the summer, skateboards and scooters through the winter and all manner of kites, frisbees and outdoor playthings to encourage the next generation away from screens and back into the real world. In this age of technology and computers, tactile toys and interaction with a more tangible, less digital playmate is becoming a rare experience. The pair are very aware of this and are very keen to facilitate a balance, allowing parents and grandparents to supplement those technological toys with more traditional items, especially outdoors equipment such as bikes, scooters, kites and trampolines.
But there is a serious side to everything, and for the ever-conscientious Carey and Carmel, an educational aspect is a vital component of much of their stock.
“We supply pre-schools, family daycare centres and so on. We’re very conscious of the learning outcomes stipulated for family daycare centres and provide products both to those centres,and to parents that tick those boxes, especially for literacy and numeracy, fine motor skills and so on.” But shhh – don’t tell the kids!
Only in their fifth month, Carey and Carmel are already both thrilled and grateful for the local response. The store is booming, the feedback is superb and thoughts of future expansion are already formulating. But their first area of expansion, and the focus of their attention into next year, will be to create a digital kingdom.
“When we took over the Byron store, we were also intending to launch our online store,” says Carmel, “but Byron has taken off so fantastically that it has left us no time to do that, so that will be our project of 2014. People visiting Byron are constantly asking, ‘are you guys online?’, so that’s definitely a huge consideration for us.”
Toy Kingdom Woodlark Street, Lismore and Carlyle Street, Byron Bay are stocked up and busy helping Santa fill his sacks. But, between stocking-stuffing and gift wrapping, Carey and Carmel always love a chat and to share their expert knowledge, whatever your age. They even encourage you – oh, err, I mean encourage your kids – to have a play!
So admit it to yourself and go have some fun.
Photo’s by Kirra Pendergast