Fairhaven store owner wowed by Toy Fair in New York

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDFebruary 23, 2014 

Going to Toy Fair in New York City in the middle of February is an adventure every year. The weather is often not the most favorable and on the first night it was snowing sideways when my assistant buyer, Robin Schwindt, and I walked from our hotel to eat dinner in Times Square. The streets were packed with people who did not even seem to notice it was snowing. I like that people expect to walk, rain or shine, in New York City. It is quite a contrast to hearing people in Bellingham complain that they could not find a parking place close enough to the store that they are visiting.

The show starts every year on a Sunday, so it gives us practice for walking the two short blocks and three long blocks through crowds of people to Jacob Javits Convention Center on a busy weekday. On Sunday we don't have to walk as fast and don't have to jostle for position at every street corner while waiting for the light to change and then play chicken with the oncoming crowd of people walking across the street at us. We can walk more leisurely and enjoy the excitement in the air that wafts around on the opening day of Toy Fair.

Alicia Keys cut the ribbon to open the gates, and there are celebrities walking around Toy Fair, like Power Rangers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but it was the real Grumpy Cat that stole the show. Gund has the license for Grumpy Cat stuffies and this unbelievably mellow kitty, whose name is actually Tartar Sauce, attended for a few hours to attract buyers. Their plan worked! The entrance to the Gund booth was clogged with people taking pictures, including us, and there was a line of people waiting to have their picture taken with this adorable cat. Her popularity also enticed me to order her stuffed animal look-a-like for my other store in Fairhaven, Bay to Baker Trading Company!

Our product mix at Fairhaven Toy Garden does not include most licensed products and we are light on plastic except in our outdoor and novelty sections. We also do not have many toys with batteries or electronics besides in our science section. Whenever possible, we try to stick to natural products and good quality wooden toys, games and art supplies. This makes it easier for us to walk by many Made in China plastic toy booths and navigate the aisles of 412,000 net square feet of products in just four days. We usually strategize beforehand which vendors we want to see while keeping an eye out for new ones. The aisles are packed with people and it seems like the New York street walking attitude has not changed much inside the convention center. Don't plan on texting while walking or stopping to look at a booth unless you have "pulled over" to the side of the aisle!

The booths range from giant to tiny, but we don't want to miss any because it could contain a winning product for us. Our large vendor booths to visit are Douglas, Haba, Hape, Plan Toys, Ravensburger, Reeves International, Schylling and Toysmith. These booths are mostly on the upper floor and usually have a check-in desk and a manufacturer's rep will give us a personal tour and offer purchasing incentives. Our most exciting deal of the fair was in the Schylling booth, where we were given sponsorship of our upcoming Trainfest by Brio.

The lower floor has most of the smaller and unknown companies. We like to start with this floor as it is the new companies that often have the unique finds that we would like to bring back to Bellingham. The atmosphere in the lower floor is also more entertaining as there are toy purveyors trying various tactics to try to attract you to their booth. Some are total failures and I feel bad for them, but some are so passionate about their inventions that they are flying, spinning, throwing or whatever it takes to get you to notice their products.

The game booths are mostly downstairs as well and it takes us a long time to get through these aisles because we like to stop and learn how to play as many games as our brains can process to find new ones to recommend to our customers. Asmodee and Blue Orange Games, both French companies, had the most new picks for us. We also chose a children's yoga game from an Argentinian company called Upside Games and one that involves using a wrecking ball from Mindware.

We also love finding Made in the USA vendors and Pure Play Toys from Tennessee continues to impress us with their wooden toddler toys finished with natural colored stains. One of our current art supply vendors, Eco-Kids, added wooden paint brushes and sturdy cardboard blocks and easels made in Portland, Maine. And on the last day, we discovered a musical instrument company called Zither Heaven that makes child size wooden banjos, ukuleles, mandolins, and harps in Rochester, N.Y.

This year, we were selected as one of 12 panelists in North America for TD Monthly Magazine to review about 10-12 assigned brands per day. So in addition to perusing the aisles of Toy Fair for our own benefit, we tweeted our comments on their webpage and reported any other exciting new products that we discovered. After four full days of walking, jostling, playing, thinking, deciding and reporting, we are exhausted, but excited to go back to Bellingham and wait for our new selections to arrive!

Tina Schwindt owns Fairhaven Toy Garden, 1147 11th St., Bellingham.

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