Brandie Cardenas, store manager of Timbuk Toys in Highlands Ranch, shows off hot-ticket items of the 2010 holiday shopping season. The independent shop in Town Center North has been doing steady business, despite competition from larger retailers and online shoppers.
Photo by Courtney Kuhlen, Highlands Ranch Herald
Anna Kates, 3, plays with one of the toys on display at
Timbuk Toys in Highlands Ranch.
Photo by Courtney Kuhlen, Highlands Ranch Herald
Those who enter the wonderland that is Timbuk Toys are immediately greeted by mountains of colorful gadgets, stuffed animals and games. The sight is enough to bring out the kid in even the most refined adults.
The sound of children excitedly playing with a train set on display or pointing out their favorite toy elicits fond memories of youth for adults who visit the independent Highlands Ranch toy store. During the holiday season, the store on Dorchester Street, just around the corner from the Tattered Cover, is teeming with shoppers looking for the most popular toys around.
Holiday shopping got into full swing in late September at the shop and will steadily increase every week leading up to Christmas, said Brandie Cardenas, manager of Timbuk Toys, which has locations at University Hill and the Lowry Town Center.
The shelves are lined with classic toys such as yo-yos, Rubik’s cubes, magic crystal gardens, whoopie cushions and hand-buzzers, as well as new items like Squap, a popular pitch-and-catch game that uses a trampoline to spring the ball to your partner, and Bubber, a lightweight modeling compound that “feels like you’re playing with a cloud,” Cardenas said.
Cardenas said her job entails learning about and playing with the toys, something she doesn’t mind.
“You have to want to play and have a little bit of kid in you,” she said. “It definitely keeps you young.”
The employees’ expertise is what has customers coming back and steering clear of larger chain toy stores. The workers are required to know what Timbuk Toys sells and be aware of what each toy does and how it works. They often make recommendations to those who are shopping for a specific age-range and gender.
The news about hot toys typically spreads by word-of-mouth; Cardenas says once a toy becomes popular in a cul-de-sac, many of the parents will visit the store where it was purchased.
“We get first-hand and second-hand testimonials from parents and grandparents who come back and tell us how much their child loved the toy,” said Cardenas, who has worked for the company for six years.
The toy shop has products that don’t often appear in larger retail outlets, as well as bigger brand name items. But it’s niche is in finding those toys you can’t find everywhere, and the owner of Timbuk Toys scouts catalogs and the annual Toy Fair convention for unique and engaging merchandise. She has found a company that sells green-friendly toys — tea sets, boats and infant stackers — made entirely of recycled milk jugs, and a line of plush toys and blankets that are covered in tags for those children who make a habit of sucking on clothing tags.
The number of toy stores has dwindled over the years, yielding to the low prices from larger stores that have more buying power. Independent toy shops are working together more these days to ward off the effects of the mass market and online shopping, not to mention the economic downturn that was reflected in the stores sales.
But Timbuk Toys has maintained a stream of loyal customers and is once again thriving now that the economy is bouncing back. It’s first store at University Hill has been in existence for 17 years, lending validity to the argument that some consumers still prefer the experience of strolling the aisles of a toy store.
Timbuk Toys, a winner of Colorado Community Newspapers’ 2010 Best of the Best contest for businesses, will be abuzz until the end of the year, but it’s not long before holiday shopping begins for the next year. Of course, it also makes a steady year-round business from birthday shoppers.
Rushes during the holiday shopping season are difficult to predict, Cardenas says. But when the customers come in droves, it can become a chaotic scene in a short period of time. The place comes alive as phones ring, toddlers throw tantrums and tiny gadgets run non-stop until the batteries wear out.
“We definitely feel like Santa’s little elves in here sometimes. We’ll be all lined up along the table wrapping, the Christmas music is playing, people are asking questions and there are lines at the register,” she said.
Timbuk Toys heavily promotes the value of shopping local, pointing to the amount of money that comes back into the community. It has also become involved in local affairs by partnering with schools and nonprofit organizations for fundraising projects.
Aside from carrying specialty items and having a keen awareness of the ins and outs of each product, Timbuk Toys attempts to ease the burden on shoppers by offering complimentary gift-wrapping for the items it sells. It’s a free service that’s seems harder to find anywhere other than independent establishments. The store also affords teachers a 10-percent discount; senior discounts are available on Wednesdays.
The treasure trove of toys brings out the joy in kids and kids at heart, the latter of whom are assuredly there purely for the nostalgia factor, not to play.
Toying around with a great idea brings success
It is said that necessity is the mother of invention and gives birth to many wonderful ideas. About 10 years ago, Sallie Kashiwa, owner of Timbuk Toys, found herself frustrated that every time her children went to a birthday party, she had to jump into her car and drive to mall to find a present. She found that others in her Park Hill neighborhood shared the same frustration and thus one of Denver's most unique toy stores was born.
"We started in 1993 with a 600 sq. ft. store on Kearney Street called Presents of Mind," said Kashiwa. "I realized that I needed more traffic so I began scouting for a location that was close to a grocery store since picking up birthday presents was a regular need for families, just like shopping for groceries." The old University Hills Mall had been torn down and was being developed into a retail facility with a large grocery chain as one of the anchor stores. Kashiwa inquired if there was space available, secured a 1,000 sq. ft. storefront, and opened as Timbuk Toys in 1997.
"It was a great move for business, but it was a bit of a disappointment to me because I wanted to continue to serve my end of town, " said Kashiwa. "Our store was open during the height of Beanie BabyŽ madness. We had people standing in line to get in." Because the University Hills location had no back door, shipments would come through the front door and customers collecting the miniature stuffed animals would find themselves writing their checks for purchases on top of shipping boxes.
Realizing she needed even more room, Kashiwa approached her landlord to see if she could assume a space occupied by a restaurant in the shopping center that had gone out of business. It was three-and-ahalf-times larger than her current storefront. "I ended up taking the space, but had a feeling that what I was supposed to be doing was bring the store back to my part of town," she said. That opportunity would come with the development of Lowry Town Center.
"I had been watching the development of Lowry and a customer came in and asked me if I'd been to the information center. I got the name of the landlord who was building the retail space and in 1999, Timbuk Toys was the first business to have a letter of intent filed to occupy space in Lowry Town Center."
The store was supposed to open that same year, but construction delays kept the store from opening until October of 2002. According to Kashiwa, that was a good thing because her third child was born during delay.
"I didn't have any idea that we were going to grow in the way that we did. Many people think we are part of a national chain and are surprised that we don't have the resources of a business of that scope. For instance, our inventory is ordered directly from vendors in small amounts, just enough to fill our shelves. We always try to keep a good variety of popular things in stock, but we can't guarantee constant availability of everything we offer," she said.
The store carries gifts for babies, preschoolers and older children and prides itself on helping customers select the perfect gift for the recipient. "We'll ask whether they are into dinosaurs, or do they like vehicles, outdoor stuff, or brain teasers," said Kashiwa. Sales people then can come up with suggestions to help find a gift that matches the recipient's interests. Gifts are always wrapped for free.
"We are always working as hard as we can to figure out what needs to be improved and to make the most of things that are working," she said. "I would like people to know that we're here to serve the community and we're open to suggestions. Of course we'd like to hear the positives but want to hear the negatives as well," -- anything that will help Kashiwa's wonderful brainchild to continue to grow.
Visit Timbuk Toys online at www.timbuktoys.com or call the Lowry Town Center store at(303)366-1755.