Last year, while paying a visit to Sequoia National Park, Brian Volk-Weiss found inspiration when he was in a crowd among rugged canyons and some of the world’s largest trees. The setting sparked an idea to support independent toy stores worldwide.
In addition to producing Emmy and Grammy Award-winning series and comedy albums, Volk-Weiss, founder and CEO of The Nacelle Co., had spent the past few years creating toyetic content for the screen, including Netflix’s The Toys That Made Us and the multiplatform A Toy Store Near You. Now, the vintage toy collector is extending his business into making toys and launched an initiative to support specialty retailers.
“We were in production on A Toy Store Near You for two years, so doing something more to support those stores was always on my mind,” Volk-Weiss says. “When I was in Sequoia National Park, there was this line of at least 12-13 people that were all waiting to get their National Park Passports stamped. I was driving home and it hit me like a ton of bricks: Why isn’t there something like this for toy stores?”
By the end of 2021, the Toy Stores of the World Passport Program started taking shape. The Nacelle Co. enlisted around 100 international toy retailers for the program, starting with stores that were featured in episodes of A Toy Store Near You. The program offers authentic, stitched passport booklets and unique stamps for each store. After purchasing the $10 passport online or at a participating store, consumers can track their journeys in style by securing unique stamps from each store they visit.
The initial, diverse range of retailers spans both new and vintage specialty stores across the U.S., including Wonder Works (South Carolina), Toy de Jour (Illinois), Kokomo Toys (Indiana), and Billy Galaxy (Oregon). True to its name, Toy Stores of the World also includes an array of toy stores from Canada, Australia, Japan, the UK, and the Netherlands. And, the list is growing steadily alongside consumer excitement.
“We set the goal high, and what we wanted to have by the end of 2022, we could hit by the end of June,” Volk-Weiss says. “Passport sales have increased to the point where we’re now selling in a day what we were selling in five weeks, and the fourth printing of the passports has been ordered.”
As the program continues to evolve, feedback from retailers and consumers will shape its future. Since its formal launch in February, which included a humorous commercial starring actor Todd Bridges (Diff’rent Strokes, Everybody Hates Chris), the passport program has already been updated.
“We’ve done a significant overhaul and added pages and cool additional features based on notes from the public,” Volk-Weiss says, estimating that around 75% of the feedback has become reality. “The biggest issue was too few pages in each passport, so that has increased. And, every time we do a new printing, the quantity doubles — we’re up to 10,000 units this time around. At launch, we did not include a counter display for retailers, but now we’re manufacturing displays that we’re sending to current and future stores, free of charge.”
Creating a Network of Toy Stores
While the number of independent toy stores has grown in recent years, the struggles created by the COVID-19 pandemic and other factors have resulted in a challenging business environment. On top of that, it’s not always easy for families or collectors to find reliable information on the stores that are out there. Another effort, ToyStoreGuide, created a working database of active toy stores around the world.
“While buying toys off of websites like Amazon and eBay, we had the realization that if we don’t go and support our local toy shops, they won’t be around much longer,” says Dave Conca, lead toy store hunter at toystoreguide.com, who says that a 2019 road trip for work inspired a growing database for independent retailers in the U.S. and beyond. “We were excited to hunt for toy stores along the way, but we kept Googling ‘toy store’ and the only results were Target and Walmart locations. Since Google Maps wasn’t cutting it, and being that we have a background and resources in web development, we decided to take matters into our own hands.”
ToyStoreGuide officially launched in 2020 as a resource for consumers to get up-to-date information on toy stores in any geographical location they’re searching for. The website hit a milestone this April with participation from 365 toy stores. “Our goal is to add at least three stores a week, zig-zagging the U.S. and sprinkling in some international spots along the way,” Conca says.
Building Business from Cross-Generational Appeal
While both the Toy Stores of the World Passport Program and ToyStoreGuide have an enthusiastic following of vintage and retro toy enthusiasts — Volk-Weiss and Conca among them — each initiative is growing the number of vintage stores that are starting to stock new toys and the amount of specialty stores that are starting to cater to collectors.
“The passport program is such an amazing and unique idea,” says Todd Jordan, owner of Kokomo Toys. “We’ve seen quite a few passports come through the shop. Our favorites are when the parents and the kids both have them! I hope more shops get on board and people have to have two passports to track all of the toy stores involved.”
Conca says that the toy community’s inclusive nature supports ToyStoreGuide, which often receives tips about new stores to add from other store owners. “The best trend, in my opinion, is how many toy store owners support each other,” he says. “I get so many calls and messages from toy stores that are featured on our site letting me know about a new toy store that is opening in their area.” He says that Tons of Toys, which has four locations in New Jersey; Launching Success Learning Store in Bellingham, Washington; and Wonder Works in South Carolina are some of the most popular stores on the site.
“Treehouse Toys & Play opened at the beginning of this year in Aurora, Ohio. It has a curated selection of learning toys and an indoor playground,” he says, noting that diversification of assortment is popping up across the board, and even the recent resurgence of Pokémon and other trading cards is giving consumers more reasons to visit toy stores for adjacent products.
For The Nacelle Co., combining a modern and vintage assortment is becoming a first-hand affair as the company moves from creating content surrounding toys to making toys itself. And it’s doing it by tapping into retro brands.
Over the past year, Nacelle has acquired the Marx Toys brand, Revell’s Power Lords, and Ideal’s Robo Force, along with inking a licensing deal with Seven Towns to relaunch Sectaurs. Former Hasbro and Toy Biz designer and artist David Vonner is leading the charge at Nacelle Toys, which plans to offer its products to both big box and specialty retailers on a level playing field, starting with Robo Force.
“We’re treating all retailers the same. Right now, it’s 80% us reaching out and 20% stores getting in touch with us to order product,” Volk-Weiss says. “We’re even finding that museum shops are interested in increasing their toy selections in some locations.”
Of course, more places to buy toys can equal more places to collect a stamp for a passport. It’s a win-win situation, and at the end of the day, it’s all about getting great toys into the hands of the masses, whether its a fidget toy, a STEM kit, or a retro reboot that catches the eye of a parent who may have had it as a kid.
“With a bit of luck, the right toy will start a youngster on their toy journey, or maybe it will become the first piece for a new adult collector,” Conca says. “It always starts with just one!”
With new toy stores opening every week — from a new Camp in Los Angeles to Midco Toy Planet in the UK to Planet Happy and Back to the Toys in the Netherlands — the additional entries to the ToyStoreGuide and stamps for the Toy Stores of the World Passport will continue for many years to come.
This article was originally published in the June 2022 edition of the Toy Book. Click here to read the full issue!