Volume XVII, Issue 36 # September 3 - September 9, 2009

The Toy Man

Success is a group effort, says Jeff Franklin (with dog Riley) here with the rehired staff of Franklin’s Toys.

Play is Jeff Franklin’s Work

by Margaret Tearman

Jeff Franklin is smiling. After a two-year retirement from the toy business, the founder of Be Beep Toys is back at play. He tried, but he couldn’t stay away. Making children happy is his life’s game.

Two Years Without Toys

For 28 years, Franklin owned Be Beep toy shops, first in Annapolis, then also in Severna Park. In 2007, at 58, he decided to give retirement a try and sold both stores to Tree Top Kids.

The decision to sell was difficult, but he’d found who he hoped was the right buyer at the right time.

If he continued running the businesses, he was afraid he’d miss “opportunities to do other things that are really important to me,” he told Bay Weekly back then.

For two years, Franklin tried out those “other things.”

A graduate of St. John’s College with a master’s degree in philosophy, Franklin had made a quarter-century avocation of teaching even while the Toy Man — and a father with growing children. In retirement, he returned to St. John’s (after only two years off) and added philosophy classes at Anne Arundel Community College to his schedule.

“I enjoyed my semi-retirement,” Franklin says.

Franklin also continued his career-long quest to make children happy. As chairman of the Early Childhood Coalition of Anne Arundel County, he helped more kids arrive at kindergarten ready to learn.

One of the ways to meet that mission is to put books in the hands of kids — and their parents.

“Illiterate parents may be uncomfortable with books. We show them that you don’t have to be able to read to enjoy books with your children,” Franklin says. “We show them how to look at pictures and create stories. This is a great interaction with children.”

Back in the Game

The Toy Man’s hours were full, but his life wasn’t. He was feeling like a kid locked out of the toy store.

He missed spending his days with his coworkers. He missed his customers. He missed his toys. Legos and building blocks were always his favorite.

“I really enjoyed owning a toy store,” he said. “I had just decided to go back to it, if the conditions were right,” he said, “when my old landlord called in June.”

Already feeling the pull back to toys, Franklin got the final push when Tree Top Kids closed its Severna Park store, although the Annapolis store remains.

“It left a hole in the community,” he says. “A business I spent 28 years creating was gone. And seven of my former staff members who were still working for them were suddenly unemployed.”

Franklin’s Toys will soon fill the hole left by Tree Top Kids’ closing. Rehired staff is filling empty shelves in time for the Labor Day weekend opening. Stuffed penguins are waddling out of boxes. Puppets are waiting for small hands to bring them to life. Japanese erasers are seeking collectors. A book corner is filling with children’s reading.

“As we’ve been getting ready to open,” Franklin says, “some of my former customers have stopped in. One 80-year-old customer, who bought toys from me for almost 30 years, stopped by and gave me a big hug, telling me our reopening was the best thing she had heard all week.”

Rolling the Dice

Hugs are good, but they don’t guarantee sales.

According to market research from the NPD Group, overall toy sales in the United States is down three percent in 2008. Franklin knows he is taking on a risk by opening a toy store in a recession.

“I know we can make Franklin’s Toys everything that Be Beep was,” he says. “I don’t know that, given the economic conditions, we will be as successful.”

As president of the American Toy Retailing Association, Kathleen McHugh has her finger on the pulse of 1,000 independent stores and manufacturers.

“They are holding on pretty well,” she tells Bay Weekly. “We know all of retail is experiencing difficulty right now, but neighborhood toy stores are really good options for people who want to find the very best kind of toys, ones that are age and developmentally appropriate.”

The small stores can’t compete with the big chains on price, but they can make sure they’ve got the best quality and the newest, coolest things not found in the big box.

Customer service is another strength. “It can’t be beat,” says McHugh. “The people who own and work in the small stores know all about toys. They can help people choose appropriate toys. You can’t get that anywhere else.”

Franklin’s philosophy is to capitalize on that strength. Make his store a warm, friendly place where people can get good toys, he believes, and they will come.

“It’s important to me to do it on a personal and human scale,” he says. “Every interaction with a customer is personal rather than mechanical. When you deal with big stores, you don’t feel like it’s a personal interaction. Mom-and-pop stores are family. This isn’t just a marketing concept. This is something we genuinely believe in.”

A good prognosticator of success tapped on the window of the not-yet-opened Franklin’s Toys.

A woman and small boy were peeking in. Rehired worker Corrine Macon stopped stocking shelves to answer the knock.

Are you open yet? I’m in desperate need of a child’s telescope, the tapper outside the toy store begged.

Macon apologized that the store wouldn’t be open until Labor Day. True to the Franklin spirit of customer service, she stepped outside to list other stores where the desperate shopper might find her telescope.