Kiddly Winks - 25 years of 'helping kids play'
By Debbie Gardner
Assistant Managing Editor
LONGMEADOW -- There's a poster on the door of Kiddly Winks owner Joy Leavitt's office that shows a drawing of a woman with children popping out of her hair.
The legend below the graphic reads, "My head is full of children."
"That's me. That's always been me," this former preschool and grade school teacher-turned entrepreneur told Reminder Publications
"I think what we try to do is inspire families to play with their children," Leavitt said of her staff and her stores' selection of merchandise -- which runs the gamut from simple infant playthings to books, games, arts and crafts kits, toys and brain teasers for children up to age 14. "Play is a powerful, important and basic element in developing happy, healthy children."
It was the desire to play with her own children that Leavitt said led her into the toy business in the first place. In the early 1980s, frustrated with the selection of toys found locally, she and a friend, Elaine Weiner, started searching out what they considered better playthings. They also began sharing what they discovered with other mothers.
"We couldn't find [good] toys for our own children," Leavitt said. "So we started the parties as a service to the community."
Within five years, her inventory had outgrown her basement and Leavitt said she "needed to go retail." Her first store was "a 750-square-foot space ... filled to the gills with toys" located where Escentials is at Williams Place on Williams Street.
As soon as she was able to add more space, Leavitt added books to her store's offerings.
"People came to us to help their children expand their reading," she said. "It's a passion of all of us [at Kiddly Winks], to help children with their reading."
Her Longmeadow store now dedicates a full quarter of its space to an extensive selection of children's and young adult books and Leavitt said she even carries a selection of the high school's summer reading list titles every year.
"The kids come here for their summer reading books," she said.
From that initial expansion, Leavitt said her business shortly grew to include "a front store that carried toys and books," and what she called "a back store" -- a second space at Williams Place devoted to "dresses and dolls."
In the early 1990s, the two stores combined in the current, spacious location at Williams Place. In 1998 she opened a second location at Bishop's Corner in West Hartford, Conn., and in 2003, a third in Canton, Conn.
Leavitt said the West Hartford store closed last year after 12 years in business, but not for economic reasons.
"Our lease was up, and the building was falling apart. It was just time to be out of that space," Leavitt said. "We had a great run, and a lot of our clients still shop at Canton" -- a larger location she said is "just seven miles down the road" from the Bishop's Corner store.
As her business has grown, so has it changed over the past 25 years. "There's so much more electronics now than were out there 25 or 30 years ago," she said of the way the toy market has changed. "But the positive thing is how many more laws are now in place. We've always been so careful to carry products that weren't dangerous, but now there are so many more laws to protect consumers."
She said the way people shop for toys has also changed, thanks in part to the Internet, and she recently redesigned the store's Web site - adding a personal blog -- to keep up with the market shift.
"We get a lot more inquiries by phone and email than we did before," she said, adding that shipments "all over the country" are increasing.
But she and her staff are finding that, despite the ease of Internet shopping, clients are still looking for the local toy store experience. "They want to walk in and look and touch; they want personal attention; they want their gifts wrapped beautifully. I love that people still want a neighborhood store that children can grow up in," Leavitt said.
Leavitt praises her staff -- "there are 30 people who work at Kiddly Winks between the warehouse, the Internet and the two stores" -- and her husband, Michael, who has been her partner for the past 12 years, for the continued success of her business.
"There's no way I could ever do this without the amazing staff that is part of this company," Leavitt said. "I'm honored that they work her and feel the way I do about children and about our customers." It takes a lot of time to learn about the products and the developmental stages of childhood."
She also credits the emphasis she's put on in-store events, such as Groovy Girls nights, Lego days, Arthur and Madeline costume nights, the store's annual Art show of works by local children and author book signings as ways Kiddly Winks has continued to bring parents and children together -- and into the store -- for fun over the years.
"My favorite part of the business is watching kids grow up here," she said. "I'm so honored that so many parents come in [now] who were children here. They show me their babies and ask, 'Do you remember me?'"
"We're still the quintessential toy store," Leavitt said. "It's nice to be that in a marketplace that's so diverse we still find the best and we have a very educated staff. We know what works best for children from birth ... to adults."
Upcoming events at Kiddly winks include an anniversary sale Sept. 23 to 26, in-store silhouette portraiture Oct, 7 and 8, an adults-only talk on "Play in the Lives of Children" with Deb McCollister, founding member of the American Specialty Toy Retailers Association on Oct. 12, and a book signing with author Anna Dewdney on Oct. 23.
For more information on these events, visit the store's Web site at www.kiddlywinks.com
or call 877-567-0688.