Even for toy stores, business is not always fun and games.
After five years at 77 Audubon St., Richard Stack, owner of Toystore on Audubon, said he will not be renewing his lease when it expires in early March. A “25% off” sign stands outside the store’s front door, advertising the end of what he called a wonderful but “long and painstaking experiment” of running a higher-end, specialized store in the University Properties-owned Audubon Arts & Retail District, especially during the current economic downturn.
“I don’t have any capital money to speak of, and I simply don’t have the emotional enthusiasm anymore,” the 69-year-old said.
Stack, whose matter-of-fact outlook on his business seems out of place amid the carefree ambience of plush finger puppets, wooden medieval castles and multihued beading kits, said the closing of his small shop is a matter of necessity and the result of lessons learned. His best advice for incoming retailers, he said, is to thoroughly examine the demographics of the city.
“It’s a simple matter,” Stack said in a British accent. “New Haven is a deceptive city. There is not a large preponderance of — so to call — a middle class … despite the splendor of Yale.”
He cited the economics of both the Elm City and the nation as a whole for the difficulties inherent in selling “superfluous” goods, often the first that consumers give up in a recession. Retailing a small number of higher-end merchandise, such as a $55 toy-car garage complete with miniature ramps or handmade wooden playthings from eras past, he said, may no longer be suited to the times — or the setting.
Stack, who said he has had a professional and “straightforward” relationship with his landlord, University Properties, attributes the collapse of his business both to the economic climate and the Audubon Street site.
“There are real limitations to opening in this location,” he said, citing the lack of street-side parking, which makes it difficult to run a “drop-in” type of retail. “There are a finite number of people … not enough to sustain a little store.”
University Properties Director of Marketing Shana Schneider ’00 said parking is “a matter of perspective.” Numerous options exist, including nearby parking garages, she said.
“New Haven is an urban area,” she said. “You may have to park a block or two away from where you have to go.”
But for Stack, parking inaccessibility has hindered business, he said. A large segment of his customer base filters in from daytime organizations on the street: the Creative Arts Workshop, Neighborhood Music School and Arts Council of Greater New Haven.
Lisa Rovello, marking and publicity director for the Neighborhood Music School on Audubon Street, said the school and nearby retailers have a “great relationship,” noting that traffic from the arts school is vital for businesses on “a small little side street” like Audubon.
“We do provide sort of a captive audience,” Rovello explained.
Saturday afternoon, a woman who had stopped into Toystore in search of a Slinky said she purchases something about once a month, often after spotting an interesting new toy in the window of the store, across the street from her office.
Other customers that day browsed the merchandise on Stack’s handmade wooden shelves, picking up armfuls of various items as they queued behind the shop’s register, a corner desk hidden beneath piles of paper and stray merchandise.
But sales exclusively to music students and their parents will not pay the rent, Stack said.
“It has been a great pleasure — an enormous pleasure — to see young children and their parents and to attend to their needs,” Stack said. “But I simply cannot go on losing money.”
Schneider said although University Properties utilizes focus groups and professional analysis to ensure that a potential tenant will fit the character and dynamic of the Audubon district, turnover in the retail industry is to be expected.
“The type of retailer may need to be more specific — something people seek out,” she said.
Other shops on the street include retailers such as Gilden’s Jewelers, the Bead Hive II and Yarn, LLC — as well as two empty storefronts. Any future tenants would also need to navigate the extensive selection process described by Schneider.
Up the street from Toystore, another “storewide sale” sign hangs in a storefront window — in Sogno Boutique of Dreams, which sells women’s clothing, jewelry and gift items. Schneider said the store’s owner, Krista Camputaro, has “raised some conversation” about her lease — although it has not yet expired.
New to the block, a more service-oriented shop, The Devil’s Gear Bike Shop II, will be opening on 97 Audubon St. in the first week of March, Schneider said. The bike shop, a satellite of the existing Devil’s Gear on Chapel Street, will function primarily as an on-the-spot repair station for flat tires and brake adjustments.
Meanwhile, back in Toystore, a woman walks in, pointing at the set of assorted wooden blocks arranged in the front window.
Stack is quick to pounce, attesting to the craftsmanship of the Thai-made set.
“How much does it sell for?” the woman asks, running her hand along the flush edge of the biggest yellow block.
“Sixty-five dollars,” Stack answers, pausing before adding, “minus the 25 percent.”
A moment’s hesitation indicates her decision. “I think I might look around a bit more.”
But at least for the next two weeks, Stack will be more than willing to help customers find the perfect alternative.