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With New and Classic Toys, Kiddly Winks Makes Childhood Its Business

From books to balls; Curious George to First Communion dresses, Kiddly Winks is overflowing with toys, games, clothes, and crafts for kids. The quantity of wares alone speaks to the venture’s success, as do its three locations and brisk online sales. But as owner Joy Leavitt attests, it’s not how many toys you have to sell. It’s how many great toys you have in store.

“Do you remember me?”

Joy Leavitt, owner of Kiddly Winks, a specialty toy retailer based in Longmeadow, said this is a question she hears frequently in her store. It’s usually asked by the children of Baby Boomers, many of whom were her first customers.

“I think it’s the biggest change I’ve noticed over the years. Many of the children who used to come in here to play are now becoming mommies, and they’re coming back to a familiar place.”

It’s a trend that is also rewarding for Leavitt, who first entered the toy business in 1981, when she began a toy-party business (visiting homes with products for private shows) with a partner, Elaine Weiner.

The duo achieved a measure of success with that endeavor, which eventually began to swallow Leavitt’s home — she remembers a dining room table covered with children’s clothes and a basement that became a makeshift store, once clients began making appointments to stock up on some of their favorite playthings.

“Over five years, we grew a considerable clientele,” she said. “There soon came a point when I had to get out of the house — the business was literally taking it over.”

Leavitt and Weiner moved into their first location, a 750-square-foot storefront on Williams Street in Longmeadow, in 1986. Weiner left the business a year later in an amicable split, in order to return to school and begin a career in teaching.

Leavitt, who also taught before launching Kiddly Winks, said she found a passion in retail and in offering high-quality, specialty toys, and chose to stay with the business and gradually grow its stock and its reputation.

Everything’s A-OK

The venture has proven successful; after 25 years in business, Kiddly Winks’ flagship store has grown from one small storefront to the equivalent size of three smaller shops in the Williams Place plaza.

In addition, the company now has two other locations — one in West Hartford that is approaching a decade in business, and another in Canton, Conn., which opened just under three years ago. Kiddly Winks’ Web site also sees brisk business, including a high ratio of repeat customers.

The toys Kiddly Winks carries are carefully chosen, often by Leavitt herself, and merchandise spills off of every shelf and end-cap.

Some are new, innovative toys, such as the Ratz Fratz Running Bike, which uses a new method to teach children how to ride, and is Leavitt’s current pick for product of the month.

But others are classic toys, many of which help bring wide-eyed children (and nostalgic parents) back to the store again and again. An entire display of Curious George stuffed animals, toys, and books certainly hasn’t lost its appeal in nearly three decades, nor have the Erector Sets or rocking horses. It’s proof that, while toys evolve, many have staying power, and it’s that balance that Leavitt said she aims to strike.

“We really do approach this business with a strong belief,” she said, “and this is that good toys are always good toys, and good toys empower children.”

Every Door Will Open Wide

Along with her product list, Leavitt’s staff has also grown, from three employees in 1986 to 65 today, including her husband, Michael Leavitt, whom she recruited to serve as Kiddly Winks’ CFO just before their second location opened for business.

In addition to that growth, though, Leavitt has also become a pioneer of sorts in the industry of children’s merchandise. She was among the first few members of the American Specialty Toy Retailers Assoc., and served on its first board of directors. She’s a frequent traveler to trade shows, always in search of new, innovative toys, and has made research of those products a key part of her management style.

“We started initially because we could not find good toys in this area,” she said, “so researching products has always been a big part of what we do to bring those toys here. That process has changed considerably, though … 25 years ago I was researching by writing letters to companies and poring over microfiche at the library. Now, everything is at our fingertips.”

The research and procurement process has eased, but it hasn’t slowed with new technology. Leavitt’s product line has grown from quality, unique, and educational toys to include baby-care items, special-occasion children’s clothes, and a full children’s book section.

“The independent specialty toy industry has really changed,” she said. “Before, we were essentially helping to create it. Now, I feel as though we’re editing products down, in order to find and sell the best of the best.”

Leavitt said her business fills a need for such products, but beyond that, she sees filling that gap as important on a number of levels. For one, as both an educator and a retailer who has made it her life’s work to understand children’s development and how toys can augment it, she sees play as integral to creating what she calls “wholesome human beings.”

“There is so much age compression today,” she said. “Kids are put in front of televisions and computers way too soon, and I think many are not getting enough three-dimensional play or unstructured outdoor play.

“I worry that without that, they won’t be able to negotiate their way through things as well,” Leavitt continued. “All of our toys are chosen based on this belief.”
In addition, Kiddly Winks’ staff is also trained in childhood development and in the care and use of all of the stores’ products.

“Our knowledgeable staff is a very big part of our mission to create meaningful experiences,” said Leavitt, “and we simply don’t hire anyone unless we feel strongly that they’re on that same page.”

As Kiddly Winks continues to thrive, Leavitt said no firm plans are being mulled for another expansion, although she says she “keeps her ears open,” always willing to entertain an interesting idea.

“We produce two catalogs a year, five mailers, we’ve started E-mail blasts to our repeat customers, and we’re enjoying all three of the communities we serve,” she said. “There’s nothing new in the pot now, but I’m open to ideas. I have no plans of slowing down — I’m having fun, and I look forward to seeing this business continue to grow and become more vibrant.”

On My Way to Where the Air Is Sweet

To that end, Leavitt’s product lines continue to grow to meet the nearly year-round demand for birthday gifts, First Communion outfits, or holiday goodies. Her selection of baby goods is growing in particular, encompassing clothes, toys, stuffed animals, and the so-called ‘Rolls-Royce of strollers,’ the Bugaboo.

“We are very careful to key into special occasions and ensure we have products that reflect those times,” she said. “And there’s definitely a baby boom happening right now; it’s another one of those times.”

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]