When You’ve Got Mail was filming on the Upper West Side, Doris Basner and her family accidentally wandered onto the set, and “we got treated like garbage,” she said. So when the movie was released, she refused to go see it.
But now Ms. Basner has a better reason to avoid You’ve Got Mail . The plot-in which a conglomerate bookseller opens a megastore in the neighborhood and drives a mom-and-pop bookstore out of business-may strike a little too close for comfort.
Ms. Basner is the manager of My Favorite Place, a charmingly cluttered toy store on West 87th Street, between Broadway and West End Avenue. Since its 1995 opening, My Favorite Place has been thronged with intense neighborhood moms and dads piloting their “Boo”s and “Tooshie-Wooshie”s in overladen MacLaren strollers. But this past June 6, the Long Island toy chain Noodle Kidoodle opened an imposing 5,500-square-foot outpost in a former Sloan’s supermarket just two blocks north, with an in-store appearance by Peter Pan ‘s Cathy Rigby.
And suddenly My Favorite Place-like several of its boutiquey brethren-is sweating.
Noodle Kidoodle is attempting to be the toy store equivalent of Barnes & Noble, providing volume and hangouts that space-challenged local competitors can’t match. Whereas My Favorite Place’s selling floor barely squeezes in a wooden train play table, Noodle Kidoodle has two of them, not to mention three hands-on computers loaded with video games, several benches in front of nine TV screens playing kiddie movies, a reading table, an electric Rokenbok truck display table and walls and walls teeming with kids’ merchandise, from stickers to toys to books to dress-up-including, it should be noted, the video of You’ve Got Mail .
“They’ve definitely cut into our business,” said Ms. Basner ruefully. “Even my own kids hang out there, but they know the rules: They can’t buy anything.”
Since Noodle Kidoodle opened, the revenues of My Favorite Place and similar neighborhood toy shops have suffered. Jennifer Bergman, owner of West Side Kids on Amsterdam Avenue and West 84th Street, reports that her June sales were down 23 percent from a year ago. Laura Pintchik, owner of the Children’s General Store on West 92nd and Broadway, puts her hit at between 10 and 12 percent-and adds that Noodle Kidoodle hired three of her employees. Only Penny Whistle, a safe hike away at West 82nd and Columbus Avenue, has seen an upturn compared with last summer.
Ms. Bergman of West Side Kids recalled when Noodle Kidoodle first opened: “The manager came over once to introduce herself, saying, ‘We’re your new neighbor, we hope you send people to us and we’ll send people to you.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, sure!’”
My Favorite Place owner Godwyn Morris said: “It’s a little hard to be friendly with an elephant who’s trying to step on you.”
Noodle Kidoodle’s manager, Margaret Murphy, directed all inquiries to the home office, which did not return phone calls. When asked about her visits to the other stores, she snorted derisively,”We were recruiting!”
In the past few decades, the neighborhood still caricatured in some quarters as a hothouse of liberal politics has metamorphosed into ground zero of conspicuous child-rearing. Among the new West Side demographic, the phrase “party affiliation” doesn’t conjure up the question of Democrat or Republican, but which space you’ll be renting for your kid’s birthday bash (at $300 to $750 a pop). The talk in the local Starbucks is not of Trump’s latest atrocity, but battle plans for admissions to private preschools and kindergartens that charge upward of $15,000 a year. Since cars are mostly hidden away in garages, status is measured by brand of stroller. The cause célèbre has been the upgrading of the Riverside Park playgrounds to include foam flooring, play fountains and safer equipment. And if someone mentions “going to the new exhibit at the museum,” it’s not about “Fame After Photography” at MoMA, but to “Body Odyssey” at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan, where little Zoe and Henry can slide down a replica of the human tongue.
For that same demographic, the specialty toy stores have become just as emblematic of the neighborhood as the specialty food troika of Zabar’s, Fairway and Citarella. With so many birthday parties to attend, there’s been a lot of room for reliable sources of quality gifts costing $15 to-well, in My Favorite Place one recent day, I saw a woman looking to spend $150 for “a 2-year-old who already has everything.”
Five years ago, the only toy stores on the Upper West Side were West Side Kids, then 900 square feet, opened in 1981 by Ms. Bergman’s mother as a kids clothing consignment and handcrafted toy shop; and the slightly larger Penny Whistle, also opened in 1981 by Tom Brokaw’s wife Meredith as a sister store to her Madison Avenue boutique.
Now, in addition to those two, the neighborhood has the Children’s General Store and My Favorite Place.Toys are also sold at many other establishments in the neighborhood, including the Cozy’s Cuts for Kids haircutting salon, the Kids Are Magic clothing store, the Children’s Museum of Manhattan, the trendy Alphabets boutique and any number of card and gift and drug stores. Also in the mix, starting late in 1998, is the chain Kay Bee, which turned an out-of-business Boston Market restaurant into a temporary Christmas store; it did so well it has stayed open.
But the neighborhood toy specialists are a different breed, one of the nicer aspects of raising kids in New York: They offer carefully edited merchandise sold by experienced employees with a lot of knowledge (and patience), wrapped elaborately.
“I just moved here from Minneapolis,” said one woman toting a My Favorite Place bag as she shopped in Penny Whistle with her 1-year-old, “and the toy stores there aren’t as unique or original. Here each has its own flavor.”
The owners, city residents themselves, know their customer: the ultra-busy, price-conscious, educationally pushy, yet fun-seeking parent. Each boutique’s identity is as shaped by what they won’t carry (e.g., Pokémon products, guns, TV characters) as what they do.
The West Side Kids philosophy, said Ms. Bergman, is this: “Play is a child’s form of work, and toys are the tools we use. They should stimulate the imagination, creativity, open-ended play. So we don’t carry talking dolls, or Barbies, which aren’t good for little girls’ body images.”
“I don’t base my selection on what I think will sell,” said Children’s General’s Ms. Pintchik, “but my personal reaction and what I think a child will get from it.”
The workers in Children’s General Store pride themselves on not carrying anything from “that space movie”-indeed, not even knowing its name. Its best sellers include the upscale Muffy Vander Bears and science items like a butterfly garden; Penny Whistle’s is a wooden scooter skateboard painted the colors of a city taxi; West Side Kids sells a lot of games, crafts and infant toys; My Favorite Place, less specialized, sells games, Playmobil and Brio items and party favors. (To hedge her bets, Ms. Morris set up a party space and a classroom, so toys are 60 percent of her business.)
Until the arrival of Noodle Kidoodle, those stores were all thriving. Kay Bee’s arrival last fall didn’t affect them, because it is their antithesis, selling movie tie-ins, video games and plastic guns, and having a staff with no discernible interest in their jobs.
“Kay Bee can get crowded,” said Ms. Basner, “but with people we don’t recognize.”
Noodle Kidoodle, however, poses a real threat. Its bright yellow awning announces “Kids Learn Best When They’re Having Fun.” And it claims to have a similar point of view about what it will carry-there are supposedly no genre or action figures, no water guns or violent toys-though a lot of Star Wars merchandise seems to have gotten past the gatekeepers. (“No Darth Maul, the bad guy,” pointed out one assistant manager.)
As soon as it opened, the neighborhood stores started seeing longtime customers coming in with bright yellow Noodle Kidoodle bags. West Side’s Ms. Bergman said, “People tell me, ‘We’ll buy our staples at Noodle Kidoodle and get specialty things here.’ And I tell them, ‘If you do that, we’ll be out of business.’”
General Store’s Ms. Pintchik said, “If people aren’t careful, it’s just a matter of time before New York City becomes Route 35 in New Jersey.”
The shops have already rejiggered their stock and methods. My Favorite Place has doubled its paper and party goods, added candy and started putting fliers in other neighborhood stores. West Side Kids started a frequent-buyer program, in which customers who spend more than $750 get a 10 percent discount, free delivery and assembly.
They’re hoping their know-how and personability will win out over Noodle’s shopping carts, headphone-wearing employees, buyers based on Long Island, and impersonality. During a recent trip to Noodle Kidoodle, I saw people more hanging out than actually purchasing things: A mother was nursing an infant on the bench in front of the TV screens, another was changing a diaper in the nook of science toys and a baby-sitter was sitting at a computer playing a video game, her toddler strapped into a stroller looking on.
“Noodle Kidoodle is more like an entertainment, a mall store,” said commercial real estate specialist Faith Hope Consolo of Garrick-Aug Associates Store Leasing Inc. “People go to play and hang out.” Since summer is usually a slow time, anyway, the fall and Christmas seasons will determine how the small stores will fare.
“There are so many kids in this neighborhood,” said Ms. Bergman, who recently opened a gift and furniture boutique nearby called Kids Down the Block. “Today, I had four pregnant women in the store at the same time.”
Ultimately, their biggest challenge might not be Noodle Kidoodle as much as plain old kids. One afternoon, Betty Saltzman, a 13-year Upper West Side resident, was shopping at My Favorite Place, carrying bags from Noodle Kidoodle and Kaybee. “I shop at a lot of the stores,” said Ms. Saltzman, “But I find them too educational. You want stuff they can really play with.” She picked up something called a Disc Shooter. “Like this kind of junk. Kids just want junk. You get enough of the other stuff at school.”