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Volume 15, Issue 22 ~ May 31 - June 6, 2007

A Toy Story

After 28 years in the toy business, Jeff Franklin wonders what’s next

by Carrie Madren

After more than 20 years, Jeff Franklin has handed over the reins of the BeBeep toy stores he founded.

Jeff Franklin knows about Jack-in-the-Boxes. He’s been winding them up for over a quarter of a century. So he wasn’t surprised the day opportunity popped out. After nurturing Be Beep a Toy Shop in Annapolis and Severna Park for 28 years, Franklin found the right buyer at the right time. But retirement won’t leave him bored, he says. Now he’s got more time to invest elsewhere.

The former school teacher who took play seriously — as the work that builds young minds and stretches imaginations — has sold his stores to Annapolitans John and Ann Ryder, owners of the Virginia, Maryland and D.C. toy store chain Tree Top Kids.

“It was difficult to make the final decision,” Franklin says.

First, in Be Beep he had fostered a philosophy as well as a thriving store. That philosophy at work here is that children learn as they play.

Second, living among toys has been such fun. Puppets, hula hoops, building blocks, princess dresses, bubbles and bug boxes lighten up a day’s work. Each corner and aisle of the not quite crowded store is full of fun: games, stuffed animals, toy planes and wind-up cars.

On the other hand, at 58, Franklin feared missing out on other chances. If he continued running the business, he says, “I knew that I was likely not to have some opportunities to do other things that are really important to me.”

Before handing over his kingdom of toys, Franklin first sounded out his three sons, 26, 24 and 21. “I wanted to give them one last chance to get involved,” Franklin says. “But they’re all following different paths.” Presumably, a lifetime in toys has been enough for the Franklin brothers.

The Ryders purchased Tree Top Kids from Franklin’s friend, Carol Segal. Watching that acquisition gave Franklin comfort. “I was assured that Be Beep would be in good hands over the long run,” he says. “Be Beep will continue to be what it has been beyond my tenure here.”

The guarantee is that Franklin and his hand-picked staff continue on the front lines. Some 90 percent of Tree Top Kids’ staff has stayed with the store. Joining forces with Tree Top Kids also opens the door to musicians, puppeteers and other kids’ performers, who are regular visitors to Tree Top Kids.

“When I added it all up, it was a rare opportunity,” says Franklin, who’s worked 50 to 60 hour weeks as owner.

He still acts as president, with a commitment to work 20 hours per week for five more years. But in the new arrangement, he revels in the fun parts of the job.

On that fun side, Franklin gets a say in what toys enter Be Beep’s toyland. On the work side, he says, “There’s a buyer now doing the buying for all the stores, which takes that huge responsibility off of my shoulders.”

Bill paying was another task Franklin eagerly surrendered.

Now that Franklin has to cut back those long hours, he’s got free time to devote elsewhere. There’s no blueprint for his future, he says, but there’s more time to diversify and dream.

Yet five months into his new role, Franklin confesses he still feels as busy as ever.

As part of the Anne Arundel County Leadership in Action group — which requires two full consecutive days each month — he’ll help spread the word on getting kids ready for school by age five. He’s also on the library committee for the Boys and Girls Club and the advisory board of the Junior League of Annapolis. Franklin finds yet more time to teach a fall class on play at the Anne Arundel Community College’s parenting center.

“It will focus on how play affects children,” he says. “Adults often don’t realize that our interaction with children when they play adds sophisticated elements to their play.”

For 23 years until 2005, Franklin taught philosophy at St. John’s College, with his reading and class preparation time at six in the morning and 11 at night. In the future, he hopes to add great books tutoring to his schedule — without sunrise or midnight reading sessions — returning to St. John’s, his alma mater.

For himself, Franklin dreams of traveling, a rare opportunity a busy business owner can only squeeze in.

Through work and play, the legacy Franklin hopes to leave behind is more than toys. It’s better lives for children and adults — through play.

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