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Plush mustaches sprout in Logan Square at *play
A pile of plush mustaches and puppet royalty have captured the attention of a group of discerning customers, not one of whom stands knee-high to a grasshopper. Ann Kienzle, owner of *play, *play, a specialty toy store in Logan Square, is proving that toys don’t need to beep or flash to hold an audience.
Kienzle decided to open *play in 2010 after reaching the end of the road as a toy consultant for boutiques. “The store was my back-up plan to transition out of living out of a suitcase,” she says.
Opening a business in 2010 was no mean feat. Credit was still tight, and small business loans were hard to come by. Kienzle shouldered the startup costs herself, along with a small loan from her sister. Playing with her own chips–and her sister’s–raised the stakes. “It was frightening. You’re thinking, is it going to work? Is the neighborhood going to respond? Is anyone going to come on the first day? And they did.”
Kienzle might have been jittery about her prospects, but she had enough faith in her model to sign a ten-year lease. As the Logan Square neighborhood has caught fire, her long-term rent agreement has started to look better and better. Located directly on the Square, Kienzle picks up plenty of foot traffic from the brunch crowds at Lula and Longman & Eagle. In the warmer months, families walk across the street from popular farmer’s market to her store.
Kienzle uses a slew of resources to source the sock monkeys and slightly sardonic children’s books that populate her shelves. “Tradeshows, research, catalogues. I visit other cute little shops and we do get approached by local people and nationwide, just people who have heard of the store or know me through the industry,” she says.
Kienzle distances herself from her larger competitors the old-fashioned way. “We greet customers by name. We know their kids and we know their birthdays. I think that kind of hometown atmosphere can’t be replicated in a big box store and people really like that,” she says.
Regular events add to the neighborhood vibe. Story time is held twice a week, and once a month *play hosts a workshop to give parents ideas on family-friendly activities to do in the city. Next month Kienzle will hold a four-week art therapy course that’s free other than the cost of supplies. Such doorbusters are an important part of Kienzle’s model. “For us, it’s about connecting with the community,” she says.
The localism emphasis is a big part of how Kienzle does business, but she’s also willing to cater to customers who are in a hurry. She’ll deliver gifts free within five miles, and she offers a registry to cut down on re-gifting. Services like that attract crowds during the holidays, Kienzle’s busiest season. Kienzle doubles the number of her employees after Thanksgiving, and estimates that a third of her sales for the year happen in the four weeks leading up to Christmas. Birthday gifts account for about a quarter of the remaining sales.
As she looks to build her customer base, Kienzle has debated offering some of her toys for sale online. But the massive competition and fierce pricing has kept her out of the pool. “I’m not quite at that stage,” she says. “If I can’t compete with them, then I’m not going to worry about that right now.”