Every Thursday morning a sea of strollers covers the entrance to Campusville Toys. At the back of the shop, the East Coast’s answer to Rolf Harris strums his guitar and sings, egged on by around thirty under-4s.
Rolf is not a bad performer but, in truth, his uncanny resemblance to a chimpanzee must be a boost to his kiddie X-factor. He takes up his guitar and monkey mayhem ensues. Pre-crawlers flap arms and down lego pieces and other floor debris, while the more mobile little chimps swing from the rafters. They snatch toys, pull things off shelves, and bounce around, jostling for position at the front when a favourite tune comes on. Enthusiastic nannies, moms and the odd dad sing along mouthing the words with tremendous gusto. Probably, like me, they’ve come just as much for themselves as their kids - a little adult contact goes a long way in breaking up long hours spent caring for a young child. For an hour or so after the event beleaguered shop assistants tiptoe around us stragglers hoovering, sorting and running an inventory of the damage. I wonder sometimes if all this can be worth it for the store, we didn’t even pay to get in after all. But of course it is - the tills have taken more in a couple of hours than the rest of the week combined.
In small town America, it seems that just about every high street big enough to have a post office also has an enticing independent or small-chain toy store. Hosting weekly parent and baby sing-alongs, story-times and coffee hours is pretty standard - a lot see it as their bread and butter. Events typically attract dozens of local families, thus etching out the place of toy-stores as meeting places for young families and community hubs.
We’ve looked to publicly funded Sure Start Children’s Centres and libraries for this kind of thing in the UK in recent years. In the face of radical plans by the new Coalition Government to pay back the deficit and reduce spending, both are now facing significant cuts and potential closures. So, might our toy shops go the American way?
On one level, its a no brainer. State provided services shrink enabling small businesses to grow into the spaces they once occupied. Profits get boosted and children and parents are able to access equivalent services to the ones they used before. The shopkeeper’s community knowledge and desire to get people through the door might even lead to events which are better attuned to the needs and desires of local families. Its the perfect allegory for David Cameron’s “Big Society” master-plan.
Yet in cultural terms, UK retailers have a distance to travel to take up their spot in the Big Society. In contrast to the US service culture, some still seem to see their customers as the enemy. At our local London toy shop, patrons are greeted by a sign on the door that shouts “KNOCK BEFORE ENTRY. NO TOUCHING. CHILDREN ONE AT A TIME”. Once you’re through the door, if you don’t accept immediate assistance, you’ll feel the shop assistant’s eyes burning holes in the back of your head. Its a stoney stare that says in no uncertain terms: your-brat-breaks-anything-and-you-both-get-booted... Thanks very much.
A more serious question, however, is whether families can really draw value from playing along with what is essentially a private business’s marketing strategy. I don’t think the answer is straight forward. There are obviously a lot of good things going on at Campusville Toys’s sing-a-long, just the same as they would in a Children’s Centre or library (exposure to language, child social interactions, adult networks being established, etc). But a toy store is not a Children’s Centre. It is not designed with child development in mind, and that’s not the priority of the people who run it. Some of the toys are educational, but a lot are simply designed to be eye-catching. The sheer amount of toys around is enough to bring on a bout of ADHD in the most focused child - which would explain the rafter swinging. And the frenzied grabbing at stuff off shelves is not just an unfortunate side-effect from the retailers point of view. It is the very purpose of the event. The more children grab, the more their parents buy.
As services are cut back in the UK, its worth looking at the way things are done in the States where commercial and civic society play a larger role (this is something I intend to do more of in this blog). But as always, its important to drill beneath the surface to see what’s really going on. A dose of toy-lust? A little frivolous spending? A momentary shortening of a child’s attention span? On the face of it, these trade-offs don’t sound too major. But writ large they could lead to an undesirable creeping commercialisation of public life.