On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
The pandemic has upended our social lives, changing the ways we have fun and prompting many of us to pick up new hobbies.
In fact, the Kojo Team won first place in the group costume category at WAMU’s virtual Halloween party, with each of us going as a hobby acquired during the pandemic.
So, what hobbies have you taken up this year? And what gifts are on your holiday lists? We talk to toy and game store owners who offer up suggestions for presents and pastimes.
Produced by Kurt Gardinier
SASHA-ANN SIMONSYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show. I'm Sasha-Ann Simons sitting in for Kojo. Welcome. Later in the broadcast we'll speak with Author Kwame Alexander about his latest book of poetry and the poems that he calls "psalms and balms for the soul." But first the pandemic has affected virtually everything in our lives and it's certainly affected our social lives leading us to come up with new and creative ways to entertain ourselves with many picking up new hobbies. My new hobby, for instance, has been coloring and I'm on my third adult coloring book. Yeah. That's because I find it calming.
SASHA-ANN SIMONSSo what hobbies have you picked up? What gifts are on your holiday list this year and where do you plan on shopping? Joining me now to discuss is Steven Aarons. He's the Owner and Chief Play Officer at Child's Play Toys and Books with locations in Chevy Chase, Arlington and McLain. Hi, Steven. Welcome to the show.
STEVEN AARONSHi. How are you?
SIMONSGood. Thanks for joining us. And Kathleen Donahue is here. She is the Owner of Labyrinth Games and Puzzles on Capitol Hill. Hi, Kathleen.
KATHLEEN DONAHUEHi, Sasha. Thanks for having me.
SIMONSSteven, I'll start with you. Tell us more about Child's Play Toys and Books and why you decided to open it and how it's different from your typical toy store.
AARONSWhy I decided to open it goes back a long time ago and was talking with friends and it was the idea of children being a blank canvas. And that I think that the materials that you put them in their hands very much have outcomes on how their development goes. And many years later, I actually believe this so much more.
SIMONSWhy do you say that?
AARONSBecause you can see just by giving kids something as simple as giving items at a young age, which help develop finger strength. That can increase the child's ability to draw and write. Kids, who have poor finger strength are usually going to have to do occupational therapy for writing at a certain age. But beyond that they're probably not going to be willing to draw, because whatever they go to draw does not look like what they were picturing it to look like.
AARONSAnd if their confidence isn't there then that stops everything right on in the tracks.
SIMONSSo tell me how your store is different from the typical toy store, because I know some of our producers here at The Kojo Nnamdi Show were super excited that you were going to be on today, the ones who are parents and are familiar with your store. But if you can describe to our listeners who might not be familiar with the experience at Child's Play.
AARONSWell, thank you very much so saying that. I think what we do really well, you know, it's one of the things we hear from manufacturer's all the time is we do a great job of training our staff. And trying to also make sure that we have staff that really cares about what they're selling somebody. The idea not being just to sell people more things, but what's going to be developmentally helpful for the child.
SIMONSHow have your toy stores faired throughout this pandemic and what's shopping there like now today?
AARONSSo I mean, obviously, for bricks and mortar we're not doing as well as we would normally do. On the other hand, I don't feel like we have anything to complain about. We also have made choices as to how many people we're limiting in the store at a single time, which can impact that too, but that's a choice that we're making about safety.
AARONSFortunately, customers have been very supportive through our website and making choices to make purchases there versus obviously doing much larger places that they could choose. I feel like what is different is that the website has never been a big focus for us, because you can't totally refine someone's choices and make sure that you feel like 95 percent sure that most of this is going to get really used, and that hurts a little bit.
SIMONSYeah. Of course, it's a very different experience. Kathleen, let's bring you into the conversation. I want to hear more about Labyrinth Games and Puzzles. You don't just sell board games and puzzles, right? What's the philosophy behind your shop?
DONAHUEWell, our philosophy is generally more about bringing people together to enjoy one another through games and puzzles. We also sell Lego and some building toys, but mostly we're not really a toy store. We are a game and puzzle store for all ages. So we have as many adult customers as we have children.
SIMONSNice. You've also got these virtual afterschool events on your calendar now. Tell us more about that and how has it been going?
DONAHUEWe, do unfortunately -- one of the really horrible things about COVID is that we've had to stop most of our events. Normally during the year we ran over 700 events including game nights every night in the store and after school board game clubs. We have transitioned some of those onto virtual online. And we've also even been holding some online like corporate development or fun team building kind of activities online through games like Code Names and other things like that. So we're doing a lot of Dungeons and Dragons online. We're doing some Magic the Gathering online. And we've been having Pokémon classes online and the kids really love that.
SIMONSAwesome. I understand Black Friday was also a special day for Labyrinth. How so?
DONAHUEIt was. It was our 10th anniversary.
DONAHUEThank you. It's not exactly the way I wanted to spend the 10th anniversary, but we made it work. We kind of had a celebration online all month long and had special people saying Happy Birthday to Labyrinth. So that was fun.
SIMONSOh, that's cool. So tell me how the pandemic has been for you guys there, Kathleen. You know, what's it been like shopping in your store now?
DONAHUEIt's a lot different. Usually our store is very much about the play experience and normally there's a lot of stuff out to play with and we usually have over 600 demo games and people can come in and try out the game before they buy it. We've had to kind of close all of that down. But that's given us more room for jigsaw puzzles, which have been crazy popular. So we now have thousands of jigsaw puzzles filling up the play space. But, you know, it's been positive or negative. We were pretty much closed down for a couple of months, and now we are limiting people in store to make sure that all of the staff stay safe and the customers. And it's been a hard year, but it's also been a great year.
DONAHUEOur customers -- like Steve said, our customers have been amazing and we made an online store, which we didn't have before, and that's been huge. We've gotten orders from all over the country and even outside the country. All of our state department workers have been ordering things.
SIMONSOh, excellent. Let's jump to the phone line. Charlotte has been waiting. She's calling from Falls Church. Hi, Charlotte.
SIMONSHi, what's your question?
CHARLOTTEI have a question for Steven. I was wondering, Steven, what you think about big box toy stores like Walmart and Target and how they've hurt local businesses like yours.
SIMONSGood question, Charlotte. Thanks.
AARONSI don't really think about that that much. I think that if a local toy store is really good at customer service, I don't think that can be replicated. There are products that I can sell that they would never be able to sell. Many years ago, one of our customers for many years was the daughter -- actually she still comes in now for grandkids, of the person who began Toys R Us. And Charles Lazarus was in with her one time and he and I had a great conversation. And it was about products that a big mass chain can't sell that are really good products, but without explanation they'll never get there. And there are certain products, which I'm sure you see now, which 10 years ago you would have never seen. But that the small mom and pop stores with really good service have introduced the consumer to it.
SIMONSYou mention making modifications, Steven, you know, as far like how many people are allowed in the store at a given time. So make that clear for us. How many are you allowing and how many are you allowing in?
AARONSSo our store is 5600 feet. We are maximum at 20 people not including our staff. So that's much lower than I think the guidelines. Right now I haven't looked at them, because I know we're so far below. But it's like one per 100 square feet.
SIMONSRight. What about you, Kathleen?
DONAHUEWe are currently allowing eight people in at a time. And we're really pushing, Please, shop online and do express door pickup or we're shipping all over the country. But we have -- so far it's been working out really well. We had pretty long lines last Saturday, but everybody was so incredibly patient. And we're getting people in and out as fast as we possibly can. But like Steve said, it's all about -- with small mom and pop stores it's all about the customer experience. So we started a gift assist form online where people can fill it out and put their entire list in there. And then all of my staff is writing -- like handwriting personalized recommendations and stuff. And that's been really popular.
SIMONSThat's great. And now, Kathleen, you mentioned moving your sales online at Labyrinth. Tell us about how that's been working for you? Now your customers can purchase these puzzles and games, you know, without having to come in.
DONAHUEYeah. It was a little bit crazy. We had never wanted to do online, because my entire point of the store was an in-person experience. And we really always focused on our events and our events at local schools. But when all of this happened we very very quickly in about two weeks we got a webstore up. And we've now gotten most of our products on it and I think it's pretty good. We even had a game schooling filter where people can go and look at educational needs and find games and puzzles that will work specifically with those educational needs. And right now about 50 percent of our revenue is coming through the webstore.
SIMONSWere you forced to lay off any of your staff, Kathleen?
DONAHUEI have not. I have made a very, very big effort. My staff is the store and I love my staff more than anything in the whole world. So I've actually been paying them full wages through the entire thing. In July, two of my staff decided they wanted to be laid off. I didn't lay them off, because they didn't want to come in and work in the store, but they're still working from home as much as possible running virtual events.
SIMONSSteven, not only have you not laid any employees off. But you hired unemployed restaurant workers to help with deliveries. Tell us briefly how that worked out.
AARONSSo back at the beginning of March we started setting up concierge calls creating a schedule and everything. And we closed before the District closed -- told stores to shut down. And at that point we had our concierge calls up right away. And we had employees on their cell phones taking customers through using FaceTime, texting images, whatever it required, which we're still doing. But we -- all of a sudden when everything closed, we also needed deliveries.
AARONSAnd so we -- we went to the restaurant next door and hired some waiters that were out of work.
SIMONSThat's awesome. Lauren says -- she sent us a tweet and says, "Last week Steven Aarons found me a Lego set that is sold out on lego.com." We're going to continue our conversation after a short break. Stay with us. It's The Kojo Nnamdi Show.
SIMONSWelcome back. I'm Sasha-Ann Simons in for Kojo Nnamdi. We are talking with Steven Aarons. He's the Owner and Chief Play Officer at Child's Play Toys and Books. It's got locations in Chevy Chase, Arlington and McLain. And Kathleen Donahue is here too. She is the Owner of Labyrinth Games and Puzzles on Capitol Hill. Steven, let's talk toys. What sort of toys do you sell at Child's Play stores and have there been toys that have sold particularly well throughout the pandemic?
AARONSWell, we sell everything from infant toys up to building toys, art supplies, even art supplies that would be aimed potentially at adults. We sell books. We have a teen book section. Things that have done exceptionally well during COVID have been a lot of project type things. Legos have done incredibly well. Games -- I'm sure Kathleen would shout out that Wingspan is probably amongst one of her best ones right now as well Ticket to Ride. Building toys like GraviTrax, which is a really open ended building toy.
AARONSSo when I say open ended, I mean, something that's not directing towards a single project. And the idea being that you can take it apart and build it in many different ways, which allows for a child to have more time with this toy. Also another toy that's done really well with younger kids, Crazy Fort.
SIMONSInteresting. Kathleen, what items have been selling well at Labyrinth?
DONAHUEWell, as Steve said Wingspan, obviously. Wingspan is an absolutely, spectacularly gorgeous adult -- mostly adult although older kids could probably play it as well, game about birds that was designed by a local game designer Elizabeth Hargrave. We've also had a big hit of Taco Cat Goat Cheese Pizza and I always say that name wrong and I'm really bad at it. But people love it. And, of course, as sick as this may sound Pandemic has been one of our best sellers during this time.
DONAHUEBoth the base game, but there's also a new legacy version of Pandemic Legacy Season 0, which is the third in the installments. But you can play it by itself and it's more a historical version where you're in the Cold War and it's kind of a spy thriller than you're trying to stop a horrible bioweapon from getting released on the world, but all of them have been great. And, obviously, jigsaw puzzles. We have sold so many jigsaw puzzles. You couldn't possibly imagine the number of jigsaw puzzles we've sold since March.
SIMONSOh, yeah, I'm sure it's out of control. That's great. Mep tweeted us and said, "So glad you're featuring these two awesome local stores. I plan on making gifts or buying from both of these stores. Plus arts' walk in Brooklyn, artists at the downtown holiday market and other local makers, and my hobby, gardening." Thanks for sharing that, Mep. Let's jump to the phone. Susan has been waiting. She's calling from Fairfax. Hi, Susan.
SIMONSWhat's your comment?
SUSANI have adopted sort of a different sort of hobby over the pandemic. I joined my local buy nothing group on Fairfax. And although I love those two stores that you're featuring today, I've had a really fun time going through my house and finding items that my family doesn't need any more and offering them to people, who are really local to me. And it's so fun to find new homes for a sweater that my child outgrew five years ago or a once loved toy and to know that it's really appreciated by another family.
SIMONSOh, that's wonderful.
SUSANBut at the same time I've been able to post wishes for things that I've wanted and get lots of great tips and ideas and connect with people who I otherwise might not have any connection with whatsoever.
SIMONSOh, that's so great. Thanks for sharing that, Susan. Let's jump to Lucia who's on the phone from Annapolis. Hi, Lucia.
LUCIAHi. Can you hear me?
SIMONSYes. We can hear you. Go ahead.
LUCIAI'm calling in because we are huge fans of Steven and we owe him a lot. We no longer live in the D.C. area, but we -- when we did, our kids were little and we started going to Steven for game recommendations. And they were just so incredible and spot on. And we have a fully stocked game cabinet thanks to Steven. And we've traveled the world with them. My kids are teenagers now. They host their own game nights. We still do a lot of games, but small games like these beautiful German games and Go Splits and Word Round and tons of word games. And we just really owe Steven a lot. That's an amazing, amazing talent that he's got for game recommendations.
SIMONSThanks for your call, Lucia. That's wonderful to hear. Steven, we hear that a lot because, you know, one thing that a lot of customers really appreciate is that your staff at Child's Play, they really know their stuff. So tell us how you train them and why that knowledge is so important.
AARONSCan I first just say thank you to, Lucia.
AARONSThat is -- for me doing this, the most fulfilling thing is when I hear from somebody something like that. Since that's been basically the most fulfilling part of having this business. Anyway we spend easily I think about three months training staff. The first full month is spent intensely with different people taking them through sections and trying to teach them also about child development too, because that way they can understand why different things work in different situations, and then preparing them also for questions that a parent might ask. And after they go through that, we start to go through them preparing lists. And trying to come up with lists really quick just so they're able to make the customer feel that they understand what they're doing.
SIMONSYeah. Kathleen, I hear chess sets are selling out everywhere because of a certain period drama on Netflix. It's called "The Queen's Gambit" for those who aren't aware. Are you seeing the same thing at Labyrinth?
DONAHUEYeah. We've started about a week or two ago. All of a sudden people starting coming in with chess sets. And I'm like, oh, I didn't think about that. It was really funny, because I watched the "Queen's Gambit" as soon as it came on because I'm like, ooh, chess. And I loved it. But I didn't make the connection that, oh my gosh, I should really stock up on chess. Luckily we always stock up before the holidays. So we still have some chess. But, yeah, it's been selling like crazy.
SIMONSNice. Ashley is on the line waiting to talk to you guys as well. I think she also wants to talk about chess. Hi, Ashley.
ASHLEYHi. How are you?
SIMONSGood. What's your comment?
ASHLEYI'm calling in from Pittsburgh. And I'm actually a landscape architect academic, but have kind of shifted to teaching kids about ecology. And I have been making fairy houses and doing ecological lessons. But I also have been interested in "The Queen's Gambit." So I started making chess pieces and make things with kids. So I'm wondering how an individual artist could get handmade games and products to your two stores.
SIMONSGood question. Steven, you want to take that one?
AARONSSo people send us emails all the time with images of products. We have to make sure that whenever anything is sold for a certain age that it passes the proper testing standards. And that's actually where we start first unless they're aging directly for 14 and up.
SIMONSKathleen, how would Ashley go about getting that to your store?
DONAHUEShe can certainly email me. We have a contact form on the website. We normally -- we have worked with a lot of small artists in the past. And I love supporting local designers and local artists and even Pittsburgh that's fine. I have a local artist that does a lot of our wooden puzzles from Florida. The biggest problem that I found with it is whether or not they can do it at a price that works in a retail environment. Most of the time local artists spend a lot of time on it and they cost of the materials and time does not necessarily transition to a retail environment as well. But I'm always happy to look at it and try and support people as much as possible.
SIMONSGot just about 30 seconds before we've got to wrap. Steven, but, you know, your store seems certainly like more than just a toy store. Was that your intent?
AARONSIt was my hope. You can't imagine the feeling that you get especially in a year like this where as I said earlier customers have been so supportive. And, you know, during something like this we're all in this together. And to feel like our community is so wrapped around us is just a great feeling.
SIMONSI want to mention that Daniel is on the line, of course, no time to take his call, but he is giving a shout out to Labyrinth saying, "Customer service really is number one there. We love it." So I just wanted to squeeze that in. Our thanks to Kathleen Donahue. She's the Owner of Labyrinth Games and Puzzles on Capitol Hill. And Steven Aarons, the Owner and Chief Play Officer at Child's Play Toys and Books. We appreciate your time. You're listening to The Kojo Nnamdi Show. I'm Sasha-Ann Simons sitting in for Kojo, more to come when we return.
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