What do two respiratory therapists do when they retire? That's the question that Blane and Nancy Sommer recently found themselves having to answer. The couple knew they wanted to open in a business in Charleston, though they weren't quite sure what kind. "We just knew we wanted a place where we would have fun at work everyday," says Blane Sommer.
After talking with friends in the area, the Sommers decided on a toy store that would offer classics from the past as well as new, innovative toys not readily available at the chain stores. They chose the location — 525 King St., smack dab in the Upper King Design District — in light of the recent upsurge in renovation and the growing energy in the area.
Walking through the door, we're greeted by a kaleidoscope of warm colors, lively music, and gadgets galore, not to mention the working carousel in the shop front. Magnifilous Toy Emporium is as much a sensory playground for children as it is a toy store; there are plenty of items to catch kids' attention, like the piano that plays itself, the rocking ark filled with stuffed animals, or the gum ball machine that holds more than 17,000 pieces of candy.
Unlike the linear aisles of the big box stores, the quaint shop is divided into themed corners. There's the science section, for example, where you can find European chemistry kits that aren't quite as dumbed-down as the American equivalents. The reading corner welcomes parents to sit and read to their children, who can gather on the cushy, fake grass among stuffed rabbits. Alongside this nook, there's "The Alternative Child" section, where you can find toys for your four-legged children. Due to shipping impediments from Sandy, it's a small selection for now, but expect the cat/dog section to grow soon.
The Twilight Zone is a closeted cubby demonstrating the galaxy light projectors and a night-light that shows phases of the moon. Moving into the college section, there are knickknacks like Marshmallow shooters, rockets, and other practical joke paraphernalia. "Squirrel underpants are really big," notes Sommer.
Dispersed throughout, the Toy Emporium also provides a selection of books, crafts, costumes, puzzles, and board games. However, don't expect the same array of Barbies and Legos you'll find at chains. The toy emporium has curated a selection of goods with origins worldwide, from Zulu wire baskets to wooden toys from Vermont.
"We didn't want to be in competition with the other big stores," says Sommer. "So, when people ask us if we have a particular toy, our first question is: 'Is it something you can get at a Walmart or Toys 'R' Us?' If the answer is yes, then we say it is unlikely that we will get it."
Many of the toys come from countries like Germany, France, and Italy. "There's a different, quality element of craftsmanship in toys from Europe," says Sommer. This attention to sourcing has led to a higher quality of workmanship, and in turn, a better quality product. Take the set of stone building blocks, for example. The heavy blocks are not just pretty to look at, they are also likely to persist through many a temper tantrum and look good on an architect's desk, too.
Many of the toys represent updated versions of classics that employ thoughtful, inventive designs. Remember how Play-Doh would dry out and leave that gross feeling on your hands? Meet Bubber: Sweden's latest answer to the age-old sculpting putty that boasts of never drying out and not reeking of some unknown polymer.
"We want toys that are going to be generational, not ones that are going to be in the yard sale next week," says Sommer.
The shop co-owner points out this durability also relies on the actual activity behind the toys. That's why you won't find many automated toys like remote control cars or Gigapets. In that way, many of the toys are child-driven: kids build, connect, create, combine, and more often than not, the toys at Magnifilous Toy Emporium can be used in more than one way.
"We're striving to get toys that are entertaining, challenging, and that have multiple options," says Sommer. "Toys like these won't bore kids in a few days because they can be remodeled, remade, and redesigned in multiple ways." Often, the toys offer varying levels of challenges, like the Katamino, a wooden Tetris-like puzzle that will challenge even those with a college degree. This way, playing together is fun and engaging for both adults and kids.
"We want to see more family time, not computer time," says Sommer. The shop owners have looked for ways to inspire parents and children to play together, pointing at the looming, over four feet tall K'NEX Ferris wheel near the entrance.
"The Ferris wheel looks overwhelming, but we like to tell kids and parents that if they commit one hour after dinner or on a Sunday afternoon then they can make slow progress. When kids see things begin to materialize they will want to continue."
The official grand opening is on Fri. Dec. 7 from 3-7 p.m. The mayor will be there at 5 p.m. for a ribbon-cutting ceremony with a reception to follow in the shop's courtyard. There will be giveaways, door prizes, and some discounts.