Toy Story

Toy Story

My mission seemed impossible: Find a novel Christmas gift that would delight and absorb my 6-year-old grandnephew Bodhi, an active and inquisitive boy who seems to love science and building projects but is already up to his ears in dinosaurs, interactive books, toy cars and Legos. What to do, besides submit to the algorithms or the big-boxes?

For me, the answer was to head to Jesse’s Toys in Orange. Established in 1988 by husband-and-wife team Michael (“Mick”) and Lori Hershman, Jesse’s is the flagship of a three-store mom-and-pop empire including Evan’s Toy Shoppe in Hamden (opened in 1992) and Jordie’s Toy Shoppe in Guilford (2011), each named for one of the couple’s three sons. You won’t necessarily find the hottest toys of the season here, even though Mick Hershman jokes that had he taken advantage of this summer’s Barbie revival, “I would have been able to retire in two months. But we don’t have 50,000 square feet of space here. Given our size, we have to keep items on our shelves that make us unique.”

Still, Jesse’s 2,600 square feet seem endlessly brimming with toys, games, books, creative kits, dolls and stuffed animals geared for every age group from infancy to adulthood. The Hershmans curate their stock while attending annual events like the International Toy Fair in New York City and the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association Marketplace, as well as meeting with salespeople, in total representing thousands of toymakers, every morning. Lori takes charge of that last task, insuring that there’s consistency in the stock of all three stores. “She loves to fill shelves, loves to buy, and has a great eye for that,” Mick says. He loves to sell, patiently explaining to me what’s unique about every item that sparks my curiosity.

“The key to our inventory is stimulation,” he says. “Will this toy allow the child to use their imagination? And we try to keep things fun.” He’s particularly pleased to point out the entire line of Playmobil Toys—”which are all about open-ended play”—and the wide range of possibilities from the Wilton-based company Melissa & Doug, who specialize in puzzles, learning toys and pretend play sets like toy foods, housecleaning implements, “top & bake” pizza counters and smoothie-maker blender sets. “We were one of their first accounts,” he says.

I also got demonstrations of how to work the store’s lifelike and cuddly Folkmanis animal puppets (from dinos and hippos to snowy owls and lion cubs) and its collection of Tonies and Tonieboxes, a portable computerized sound system that allows kids to play songs and stories by placing a figurine that contains a sound chip on top of the Toniebox. Choose from among Paw Patrol characters, classic children’s stories, superheroes and a multitude of Disney favorites. The Lion King Tonie sounds like it was recorded straight from the Broadway stage.

Mick loves it “when I can introduce people to items they may not have known about and hear the feedback that our recommendation was a huge success,” bringing the kind of sensitivity and confidence to his recommendations that you might expect from someone whose career prior to retail was as an educational psychologist. (Lori was a psychiatric social worker.)

So, what did he suggest for my grandnephew? A game called The Genius Square, which offers 62,208 possible puzzles to solve while enhancing visual perception and spatial awareness, playable alone or with family and friends, and a beginner’s set of Snap Circuits, with which he can build over 20 electronic projects involving light, sound and motion. I purchased both.

In addition to personalized attention, another of Jesse’s appealing features is that every toy is hands-on and available for inspection. Because the stock is organized by age-appropriateness, it’s easy to locate what you want, and several floor displays offer chances to try before you buy. I talked with regular customer Kylie Rehm, who has shopped here since she was her daughter Taya’s age and now works in the field of early childhood intervention. “I remember, when little, playing with a Playmobil house and wanting that,” she says. “As an adult, I’ve come here countless times and just sat with Taya and played with the toys. This store is an experience, which is really nice. It brings joy to a lot of people.”

While the little girl in me coveted a collection of Calico Critters (miniature animal families with homes, furniture and accessories), Perfect Petz (kittens and puppies that actually “breathe” and might make a perfect surrogate for children who are allergic to real pets) and mini aquariums that serve as a complete ecosystem for the tiny South African frogs that live within, adult me craved the various National Geographic lab kits, the LEGO Creator sets (especially the one for building your own garden of succulent plants) and, of course, the board games both perennial and novel.

Though he’s delighted to see “multiple generations come through our door that we’ve appealed to over time,” Mick points out that “we take nothing for granted. We always think about what we need to do to maintain our relationship with our customer base. If I have the best day ever today, I still have to perform tomorrow. I can’t ever be overconfident.” I, for one, am never overconfident about gift-giving, but something tells me the gifts I found at Jesse’s will be just right for Bodhi.

Jesse’s Toy Shoppe
185 Boston Post Rd, Orange (map)
Mon-Wed 10am-6pm, Thurs 10am-8pm, Fri 10am-6pm, Sat 10am-5:30pm, Sun 11am-4pm
(203) 799-1301
Also: Evan’s (Hamden) and Jordie’s (Guilford)

Written and photographed by Patricia Grandjean. Image 1 features Mick Hershman at the register. Image 2 features Kylie and Taya Rehm.

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