By Jonathan Alexandratos
In late 2019, I was in Nashville, Tennessee to write and work for a theatre company there that I love. One morning, I decided to escape my writerly duties and flee to a toy shop. A friend had recommended Totally Rad Toyhouse, and I had been following their vibrant Instagram (@totallyradtoyhouse) for months. Under the cover of Uber, I absconded to the small, Mom & Pop toy shop on a strip all its own. By the time I left, M.A.S.K. and Jem toys in hand, I knew I had experienced something I would never forget.
Totally Rad Toyhouse is more than a toy store; it’s an experience. The walls are ’90s electric blue and green. Saturday Morning Cartoons play on the TV. And, above all, the owners care, not just about toys, but about you. When you leave, you have the option to selfie by their store sign and appear on their ever-popular Instagram. (You bet I did.)
When I heard that owners L.J. Landrum and Matthew Powell were going to be at Toy Fair, I sent them a message, hoping I could find out more about their legacy, and their goals for the trade show. They graciously accepted, and it’s my pleasure to offer you a little bit of what I learned.
Totally Rad Toyhouse began four years ago as an Ebay shop. Landrum and Powell would pick through estate sales for toys, and then post them online for collectors everywhere. But, as they travelled to brick-and-mortar shops in places like Chicago, their dreams grew. “There’s nothing like walking into a dedicated toy store,” said Powell. Knowing that Nashville lacked such a place, the couple set their sights on opening a physical shop.
Two years later, after saving money and taking stock of all their toys, they opened the only vintage store in Nashville that was exclusively for toys. They did it all themselves: no outside investors, no online money drives, just two people and their love of collecting. Thankfully, Nashville was hospitable to their new small business. The city didn’t give them issues with the building sale or make unreasonable demands. They knew Powell was a life-long Tennessean, and that having businesses by and for locals was a good thing. This was August 2019.
Now, they’re attending their first Toy Fair. It was a Super7 representative who gave them the idea by asking if they were coming up to New York for the annual show. Knowing that seeing upcoming toys could be invaluable to hyping the products to new customers, they made the decision to go.
Appointments were scheduled, a hotel room was booked, and the weekend was planned, mostly by L.J. Some retailers immediately demonstrated that they were welcoming of small business owners. Bluefin offered to send them standees for their Gundam products. NECA talked to them about their small shop-only figures, like the Turtles in Time Ninja Turtles pieces that can’t be found in big box stores. Super7, the company that they networked with first, was open-armed. Companies like these, that are friendly to mom-and-pop stores, set low order minimums, or won’t require order minimums at all, as a prerequisite for entrance into their booths.
Larger companies like Mattel need order commitments of $10,000 or more before showing their wares to buyers. This will work for Walmart or Target, but it boxes out people like Powell and Landrum, who just want to bring local collectors a good product at a reasonable price. Personally, I think it’s a shame that big companies operate this way. While I understand the need to make money, I could not help but think of models that film studios use to work with independent creators. Fox Searchlight or Sony Pictures Classics offer a place for smaller creators within big studios (though it is debatable whether they are currently accomplishing that well-intentioned goal). Could Mattel and Hasbro have a similar division in their sales areas? Something like a “Mattel Mom & Pop” or a “Hasbro Small Business” that could cater to hyperlocal spots that have different needs than, say, Amazon? I’m a reporter, not a corporate policy maker, and I’ll be the first to admit I’m overlooking procedures hidden from me by my own ignorance, but, if I’m speaking as an outsider, this feels like common sense.
Because of this, Landrum and Powell’s first Toy Fair was a mixed bag, with some toymakers being incredibly small business-friendly, and others, less so. However, Powell and Landrum did talk about a Toy Fair experience that warmed my heart, and made their entire weekend. It had to do with a chance meeting with an inspirational children’s organization.
Magic Wheelchair is a non-profit that produces costumes for children in wheelchairs. They had a booth on the lower level of the Javits Center. As the Totally Rad Toyhouse pair was wandering, they noticed Magic Wheelchair revealing a new costume to be given to a child on-site. It was a Marvel superhero/supervillain mash-up that could fit around the young Avenger-in-training’s wheelchair. Powell told me you could see the child’s face light up with joy.
It’s moments like these that remind us why small business owners step into the ring with Mattel, Hasbro, and MGA. They know that toys can change lives. They know that some people aren’t fortunate enough to have entire wings of their homes dedicated to Hot Toys dolls. They know that, for some, a beat-up, vintage Lion-O is all they need.
I asked L.J. and Matthew if they had any advice for future small business owners who might attend Toy Fair. “Plan,” said L.J., “Plan everything.” “And don’t be discouraged if a distributor shuns you,” said Matthew. They both explained that talking to people can go a long way. Sometimes, the most productive thing you can do is drift through the aisles without an appointment. That way, you’ll be open to all the products that catch your attention without the stress of making a meeting, and you might just find a toy that you had never heard of, but that your customers will love.
Totally Rad Toyhouse, which works with Entertainment Earth distributors, will push more modern toys this year, per lessons from their first months of business, but they’re not forgetting their identity. They’re a human-centered shop. Powell said that he has a customer who comes by weekly and spends serious money in their shop. It was that customer’s birthday recently, and Matthew gifted him an $80 toy as thanks for the patronage. And I know the heart of this business first-hand. Recently, I mentioned to L.J. and Matthew that I’m gender non-binary, part of the LGBTQ+ community, and their response was nothing but love. Sometimes, people discount how much that matters: knowing that the place they care so much about also sees and cares about them, too. Totally Rad Toyhouse is totally rad, but it’s also safe, warm, kind, generous – all adjectives that are not as easily applied to big corporations.
Profits and easy money come second to the human element in mom-and-pop toy stores like this one. We need places like that now more than ever. That’s why I hope not just the toy-buying public, but the toymaking giants, rally to support small shops like Totally Rad Toyhouse.
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