Once upon a time – well, only the other day, actually, a Monday morning during the summer holidays – in the beautiful city of Bath, there stood a building. Just across the railway station. It was – still is – a grand, handsome building, built not so long ago but in a Georgian style befitting its historic surroundings. The building is not happy because its owners left after falling on hard times. The Debenhams building is now empty, haunted today by the ghosts and relics of sales assistants.

Hold the violins, though, and walk round the corner to St Lawrence Street, where you will find a little pocket of life – joy even – occupying a unit within the same building. Here’s a window with hot-air balloons and a red pedal car, as well as mice and a huge fantasy wooden castle. It could be Mr Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, Toy Story 2, Big, Angela Carter even, if you want to go darker or classier: choose your own cultural comparison. This independent toy shop, called My Small World, is run by a woman called Dawn Burden and I’m spending the morning here.

Fun and games … Jo Salmon and her children, Thea and Laurie, at My Small World.Photograph by Adrian Sherratt/The Guardian

Before you go in to play, make sure you understand the why. This little scene in Bath is just a microcosm of the larger retail picture. Toy shops are more optimistic than the general high street woes, with department stores closing and familiar names moving online, or disappearing entirely.

From January to June 2022, sales in toy shops increased 44% compared to the same period last years. Duh, you say: lockdown at the start of 2021, that’s why. True, that does have a lot to do with it – but what about this? Even in the 2nd quarter of 2022 sales were up 13% compared with the same period in 2021 when shops Were open.

Alan Simpson, who has been in business for over 40 years and is chairman, Toy Retailers Association, said that there was some extra money for some people. “People on furlough didn’t have the expense of going to work; they weren’t able to get away on holiday. I think parents felt able to push the boat out a bit when it came to expenditure on toys and the kids reaped the benefit.”

There are 600 toy shops in Britain today, compared to 900 five years ago. But that trend is changing. The Toy Retailers Association describes 2012 as a record year and expects that there will be more physical shops. IncreasingOver the next two years, it will increase by 10%. Simpson is also the chair of the association and runs the Toytown chain with around 30 stores in the UK. It opened two shops last year, and it will open three more this year. “If your competitors are moving forward and you’re not, you’re basically reversing.”

My Small World in Bath does not belong to a chain. Burden opened her first store 17 years ago in a different town, near Waitrose. She says that this is her target customer. Her products are tasteful, traditional, and wholesome. There are no batteries, very little plastic, and lots of wood. It’s not displayed according to age or gender. “Boys love doll’s houses; girls like building things. I think we’re beyond that,”She said. “It’s important we’re edging boys towards being nurturing and girls towards engineering.”

It’s not cheap. You can get a string of coloured twist-and-lock blocks for £2 or a make-your-own nodding cat for £3, but the most expensive doll’s house is 300 full-sized adult quid, as is the red metal pedal car in the window. “Things like that will last,”Jo Salmon “They’ll pass them down to their kids. It’s important to be sustainable now.”

Dawn Burden, with curly hair, smiling and holding an armful of six long-legged cloth dolls
‘It’s important we’re edging boys towards being nurturing and girls towards engineering’: Dawn Burden, owner of My Small World.Photograph by Adrian Sherratt/The Guardian

Jo is here with her children Thea, eighteen, and Laurie, five. It’s Laurie’s favourite shop. The books and the arty stuff are a favorite of Thea. They are local; hadn’t planned to come in, were just passing. Mum was escorted through the door.

Pester power, plus the lure of the toy shop window, is paying off – soon after opening time, it’s already busy. “I like it because there are things my seven-year-old only wants to do on the screen,”Cheryl Burnside speaks out about Sam, her three-year-old son. “He wants to play Minecraft, he wants to play Roblox. But here he’s like: ‘Oh, look – a balancing bird!’ That’s not something he would have been exposed to. It’s important to let them go in and play around.”She ends up getting the bird and a book for Sam. They are not local – they are on holiday from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

It’s good to have the tourists back, says Burden. While I’m in the shop, French, German and Cornish (“escaping the crowds”The shop welcomes a variety of families. The Cogswell family – mum Millie, Arthur, 10, and Phillip, three – aren’t tourists. They are originally from Bath, but they currently live in Saudi Arabia for work. They have returned to visit. “It’s nice to be back where anything goes, and kids are still kids and allowed to play with rainbow toys,”Millie.

Millie Cogswell with Phillip, left, and Arthur.
Kids’ stuff … Millie Cogswell with Phillip, left, and Arthur.Photograph by Adrian Sherratt/The Guardian

“They’re banning rainbow toys and clothes,” explains Arthur about the Saudi authorities seizing kids’ stuff they think promotes homosexuality. He left with a crank-operated doorbell that you can build yourself. It is natural wood-coloured but could be painted to look like a rainbow. Phillip is given a tugboat for the tub.

Louise Evans and Emily Weston don’t have kids but do work with them. They are primary school teachers in Swindon and know the importance of the physical shop. “If you can see something, you can visualise your child, or someone else’s child, with it,”Louise “If I buy something online for the classroom I don’t really know what it’s going to be like.”They were passing by again. They are in town on a girls’ day out to visit an actual bricks-and-mortar bookshop. Hey, shopping on the internet is so pre-pandemic – the future is in-store.

Juno, 10, agrees with Juno about the importance to visit a shop. “You can interact with stuff and they let you try things out,”She says. Right now, she is interfacing with a mouse wearing an orange striped dress and lying in a tiny bed inside a matchbox. “I love tiny stuff and making tiny little worlds.” A mouse in a matchbox is £23.50.

“We’ve been known to spend far too much money in here,” says Juno’s dad, Joe Short. People spend money on different things in difficult times, and maybe even more so in tough times. “Even in the shit, people look after their kids. That’s not a bad spend. You don’t tell yourself off for that, whereas you don’t feel so great about drinking that extra bottle of wine. Buying a toy for your loved one is sort of righteous.”

Burden believes that the past few years have seen family bonds strengthen. “I wonder whether people are more tuned into their children because they spent a lot of time with them in lockdown. Maybe children are more visible in their lives than they were pre-pandemic.”

Good news for children, great news for toy shops and good news Dawn. Last year was My Small World’s busiest ever. Sales were back at the level they were before Covid by November. They are now pre-pandemic plus 24% month to month. Even taking into consideration higher-than-average inflation, they are doing well. I’m not a financial journalist but I believe the technical term is ker-ching.

They have a small set of steps right at the counter for people who are smaller so they can get involved. The woman currently paying, Felicity Lynch, doesn’t need it: she hasn’t brought any of her five children along “because they grab everything”. She prefers to visit the store than go online. “I prefer to be able to look and touch and feel.” Today she is getting a wooden puzzle toy for her soon-to-be two-year-old daughter for £16.

Simpson agrees about the need for physical shops – that’s why he keeps opening his own Toytown stores: “It would be incredibly detrimental for toy shops to go only online. You remember being brought into a toy shop when you were a child – it’s a magical experience children remember for the rest of their lives. There’s no magic in a cardboard box arriving.”

But, there are still good times ahead. “I’m cautious without getting depressed about it,”Simpson, “We know what’s going on out there with petrol and electric and gas prices. There’s a lot less disposable income about. I think people are starting to batten down the hatches and look for value. We’re aware that going into the back end of the year isn’t going to be the same as last year.”

It will all depend on what kind support the new prime Minister is going to provide. Burden, as well as his business, has another, potentially even greater, savior. He delivers, even if it’s only once per year. “The difference between toys and most retailers is that Santa comes at Christmas time, and parents push the boat out to try to make sure there’s a good Christmas for the kids.”

They lived happily ever after. At least for now.

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