“I really want families to play together. That’s my goal in the store, ” said Christina Clark, who has been wowing parents, grandparents, and, most importantly, children for decades with her wonderland of toys and games. Christina worked in a toy store as a young mother and realized she had found her calling. She opened Kidding Around on Bleecker Street, followed by several other locations. Today, it is the 15th Street shop that has survived throughout the years. “I love going to work every day, so it was a good choice for me. ”In the shop’s beginnings, its selection of toys and games leaned toward the traditional — “no batteries, no remote controls, and everything that just uses your imagination. ” Over the years, however, Christina chose to grow with the times and introduce more modern, automated items into her inventory. Her own children later helped her bring new options into the store. Today, Christina feels lucky to work with her daughter, Kasey Coyle, who uses her background in applied behavioral analysis to stock plenty of books and toys for younger children and those with special needs. Interestingly, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Christina found that her clientele went back to the basics — the demand for puzzles and classic board games was revived. “I hope that trend continues, ” she said earnestly. “I hope that people remember how much fun they had playing games with their family so it brings us together and off our devices. ”
After over forty years of being the iconic toy store on Amsterdam Avenue, West Side Kids has moved into a space right around the corner allowing it to join our illustrious group of side street businesses. It’s wonderful to see the family friendly business is staying within the neighborhood that is sadly now full of chain stores. Along with the move comes a rebrand for the charming shop to a more modern brand identity but inside the shop are still the many familiar shelves of goodies. Now owned by Jennifer Bergman, the West Side Kids was founded by her mother, Alice, in 1981. “Every toy is chosen for its educational value, ” explained Jennifer. Not only are educational toys available but fun kits to make treats and explore whimsical hobbies are equally front and center. As you walk around the store seasonal items like pool floats can be found near seaside and pool play accessories. A table with chairs for pintsize patrons sits close to books about famous women icons – singers, politicians and lawyers. Various items to ease the transition back to school also stand out to shoppers of various age groups. Whether you’re looking for a small toy, a statement shirt or a pair of fun socks, the helpful staff is ready to assist you or leave you to wander around the comprehensive selection of reasonably priced items and find things on your own. One of the standouts of the shop is the fact they are inclusive in their offerings; from dolls with assistive chairs to storybooks focusing on people of different backgrounds. West Side Kids continues to be toy experts for children of all ages.
It does not matter what I am looking for, I always stop by Stationery and Toys first, certain that I will find what I need. Sometimes I find myself laughing out loud when I ask either of the owners of this fantastic old world shop, a father and daughter, for the item that I am in search of that day, and they answer "of course we have it. " With its simple name and treasure trove of items for children and adults alike, it is one of the last of its kind, and it makes me happy simply to wander the aisles. "I used to sell wholesale to Hallmark stores, " Larry Gomez, the founder, shared with me one day. "Now there aren't places like this anymore. " On the day that I visited with the Manhattan Sideways team, Larry took the time, in between ringing customers up for paper, pens, puzzles and party supplies, to tell us how the store began. He said that his daughter, Donna Schofield, came home from college to help him in the wholesale business. As Larry tells it, Donna said, "Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, I don't want to sit in a warehouse anymore. I want to work in retail. " Donna, when I spoke to her, tells it a little differently. She says, "I was talking to the same people every day with very little sight of daylight. I wanted to work in a store. "Either way, the outcome was a positive one. Larry gave Donna her wish in 1988 by opening Stationery and Toys. One day, I asked her what it was like having children while working around toys. She said, "My son thought the warehouse was Santa Claus's section. " The boy, who is now fully grown, knew to stay away. His younger sister, though, needed more convincing not to play with the toys. Donna gave the keys to the store to her brother-in-law for a while in order to spend more time with her family, but in 2009, she returned. "She's the big cheese, now, " Larry declared. Today, during the week, when a customer walks into the store, they will see Donna behind the counter and on the weekends it is Larry who is there, allowing his daughter to remain at home. "I'm the Saturday Sunday man! " he said with a grin. Donna's son, however, has started coming in on weekends to work with his grandfather, while he studies to become an electrician. It is this sense of family that Larry believes has saved their store. Donna and Larry form a friendly pair of faces for neighbors to recognize from year to year. He says that they still see many regulars from when the store first opened, though as Larry put it sadly, "there are many that we've lost. " He brightened, however, when he told me about the men and women who come in with their children. Larry recognizes many as having been frequent shoppers when they were kids themselves. He considers himself quite fortunate to have stayed in business through the years. When he first started, he explained, the area was known as "Needle Park" and in order to stay out of danger, people got out of the neighborhood by six in the evening. Now, Larry embraces the fact that the street is a place where families can safely thrive. When speaking with Gary - a sales assistant who has been with the store "for a long time" - I asked him how they decide what to stock, since the inventory seems to be infinite. He replied, "Donna gets it word of mouth, through the kids. The best thing to do is to listen to them. " Donna agreed, saying "If I get asked for an item three times, I get it. " Just before we were leaving, we witnessed a beautiful yet typical moment when Donna noticed a little boy eying a batman figurine on the counter while his mother was making a purchase. Donna sweetly handed the toy to him and told him that it was now his. Neighborhood kindness and generosity is alive and well at Stationery and Toys.
With Dinosaur Hill a few doors down and Pink Olive a block away, 9th Street is one of the few streets in New York that caters to children. An. Me is a quirky and stylish boutique for newborns up through kids size 12. The store also carries unique toys and accessories for small shoppers and their families. Their fun, creative clothes include shirts that feature both the cartoon front and back of animals, articles with big patchwork pockets, and tiny handkerchiefs made of organic materials. The clever toys that line the walls capture an identical sense of whimsy, and will delight kids and parents alike.
People do not only stop into Grandma's Place to pick up a gift for a birthday party, or something special for their own child. During my visits, on several occasions, it seemed that the entire neighborhood was dropping by simply to receive a warm hug from Dawn Harris-Martine, and possibly sticking around a bit longer to entertain their little ones, or share some local gossip with the owner of this remarkable staple on 120th Street. Without a doubt, Dawn has earned the beloved title of "Grandmother of the neighborhood. "Discovering this children's educational toy and book shop, was totally unexpected. There was nothing to indicate that tucked away, just off Lenox Avenue, I was about to come upon this incredible Harlem hidden gem. Being a grandmother of three, myself, was enough to make me want to venture in, but having also owned my own children's book store, I was absolutely thrilled to look through every inch of space in this welcoming, well-curated collection of items for children of all ages. Kids are encouraged to play, to look through the books, and little ones are enthralled by being able to take the mini shopping cart and fill it up with different items that they can reach and take for a whirl through the space. Dawn and her pleasant staff never seem to mind and parents, in turn, are respectful of their child's play. From board books, to picture books, beginning readers and chapter books, there is something for every child at Grandma's - with a strong representation of both current and classic multi-cultural titles. There is also a wonderful section of non-book items. The shelves are filled with dolls, stuffed animals, puzzles, craft kits, bath toys and a selection for babies. Dawn told me that she is constantly on the lookout for things that are not sold in the big chains. "Since I opened, I have always felt that I must have a reason for my customer to want to shop in my store. "Right next door to the shop, Dawn owns the brownstone where children's books are wall-to-wall including the bathrooms. On February 28th, 1982, Dawn "won" the brownstone where she resides - in the first New York City lottery. She paid $5000 for what she described as just a shell with no roof. "But I had a vision. " Partially funded with a loan from the City, Dawn made it into a duplex. "Since this was a gift to me, I had to give back. " Today, she continues to donate to shelters and to give books to local day care centers. Originally, in 1999, Dawn used the space next door to her home as a literacy center. She stayed with this concept for five years and then transitioned into a children's book store. "I was doing this as a school teacher and I realized that I could not stay in business this way. " In 2006, she made the decision to add toys and dolls. "My thing was ethnic dolls, and I found a woman in Florida who made them based on the picture of a child. " Dawn has watched the business continue to grow the last few years as the area has become more gentrified. There have been more and more people moving uptown and they have helped her to stay in business. Sitting in her 100 year old rocking chair, during the winter of 2016, Dawn revealed endless stories of her own childhood and those who impacted her seventy-seven years. She was born and raised in Harlem. "Every phase of my life I believe influenced me in so many ways. "As a child, Dawn never had toys of her own. "Each holiday, I got a piece of clothing and fruit - I was never given a toy in my life. " When she was twenty-one, however, she bought herself a GI Joe doll. She then became hooked on collecting toys. "I always wanted a toy store in the back of my head, but I never really intended on doing it. "Listening to the description of her childhood, I learned that Dawn taught herself to read. In fact, she said that she raised herself, for her mom had three jobs. "My babysitter was the public library. " It was Dawn's older sister who dropped her off each day at the library where Dawn read until her sister returned for her. "I read every children's book and then the librarian allowed me to move onto the adult section... I raised myself through parenting books, including Dr. Spock. " Books became her best friends. If she read about skiing, she figured out how to get on a bus and try it. As Dawn got older, if she read about Puerto Rico, she managed to find the money to get on a plane and visit there. "I went on my own and just met people wherever I went. I didn't know that I wasn't allowed to do the things that I did, so I just did them. "Dawn was the first in her family to go to college, "My mother was a chamber maid and my father was a barber. " As she described her situation, "I was blessed with intelligence and blessed with teachers who recognized my intelligence. I came through the school system loving learning and loving reading. " In 1957, Dawn graduated high school, but it was not until 1970, when she won a scholarship, that she was able to attend Sarah Lawrence College. After college, for the next forty years, Dawn was a teacher in Harlem. Continuing on, Dawn expressed herself with great emotion. "I am a conduit - I feel it is my responsibility to pass this on to others. I want other black parents to know who are raising kids alone to stay on point and know that they can do it. Things that are thrown at you are not reasons to give up, but rather get back on track. "Her words of wisdom have certainly resonated with many in her life. Her own two daughters have gone on to become successful in their careers, and she is quite proud of her two granddaughters. They both are attending college while also working at Grandma's Place, and one even lives with Dawn. "It is the destination not the journey - the destination is the gravy, where you start and how you get there is what matters. We all have challenges but we manage and can be successful. " To young people today, Dawn's message is a simple one. "I want them to follow their passion, for what's the worst that could happen? "On a subsequent visit, I had the pleasure of meeting Grandma Annette. She was the quintessential example of why Grandma's Place runs so beautifully. "I am the volunteer and good friend who comes every once in a while when needed. " She exudes love and warmth to each person - big or small - that steps into the shop. And as Dawn, herself, so eloquently chimed in, "It is always good to have a grandma in the house. "
There’s something deeply nostalgic about a trip to an old-fashioned, eclectic toy store. A walk down E 9th Street quickly revealed one such place in the tiny, cheerful shop known as The March Hare. Filled with delightfully analog toys (and a full-size Zoltar machine straight out of the movie BIG), The Magic Hare is as much an experience in the joy of browsing as it is a retail shop. Originally opened in 2020 by a former employee of beloved toy shop Dinosaur Hill, current owners Mike and Ilana Wiles (already known in many parenting circles for her blog, Mommy Shorts) took over for previous owners Jason and Karen in 2022 when Karen needed to step away to treat colon cancer. “We had lived in the East Village for a long time, and got in touch about keeping the store open, ” Mike told us when we stopped in one busy Friday. The longtime locals quickly went to work continuing the process of curating the shop’s quirky collection, adding a few new brands in as well as making popular The March Hare merch. He said that they’re busiest on Saturdays, when grateful New Yorkers pop in for a last minute birthday party or baby shower gift. We’d send anyone in need of whimsy here!