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Toy-buying Changes with the Times

After 20 years in Potomac, the specialty toy store, Toys Unique, will be closing in March, leaving a hole in the hearts of area residents of all ages. Since it opened in 1994, the neighborhood shop has been supplying locals with a variety of high quality classic toys expertly selected by its owner and displayed in an old-time setting. Toys Unique is not just any business, but a nostalgic walk back in time to an era when toyshops still elicited a sense of joy and communities were formed around shaping childhood experiences of wonder.

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Jarunee Chantraparnik

Toys Unique is the brainchild of Jarunee Chantraparnik, known by all her long-standing customers as Ja-Roon-ee. She came to the Washington area from Bangkok, Thailand in the 1970s after completing her undergraduate studies on the West Coast. For many years she headed up a new technology group for the former Riggs National Bank. Then, after a stint with the Montgomery County government where she was in charge of a computing information center, she decided it was time to try her hand at a new business venture. She ran into a friend of hers, the CEO of Mellon Bank at the time, and they talked about the fact that there was no toy store in Potomac Village.

Chantraparnik had previously helped a colleague in a toy shop and had some experience. She loved books of all sorts and was interested in providing a place where parents and children could find more discerning examples than were currently available at the big retail chains. She began looking in Potomac for a store to rent and soon after found a space she thought would be small enough for her to manage by herself.

She was 48 then, and not interested in carrying a lot of overhead. “You might say the move was a total departure from my former work environment,” she said with a laugh. “Especially since I rarely carry anything computer-related in my store.”

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Customers (from left) Teeda Izadi, Kyle Anderson-Boozer and Neeve Izadi in front of the Lego section.

She leased the space on Falls Road in the Village and opened for business on March 15, 1994, naming her store Toys Unique to define her mission and pay homage to her major in French studies. Her first objective was to assemble a variety of quality products including toys, books, crafts, puzzles and hobbies that weren’t readily available at the larger stores. She was saddened to find that many stores no longer carried hobby sets, though there still seemed to be strong demand for specialty items such as rocket parts among children and grown-ups alike.

“Grown children and parents love to reminisce about their younger days of shooting off rockets and things like that,” she said, adding, “Toys, hobbies and projects need to be fun and in the process of playing with them, you learn something.”

When it came to girls, she focused on offering crafts, dolls, dollhouses, puzzles and games, with the requisite number of trinkets, princesses and pink accessories thrown in to suit her customers’ tastes. There were even a few Barbies. “I tried to cover everyone, from infants to older children,” she said. For adolescents, she incorporated swimming pool bags, beach towels, headbands and bracelets, adding meticulously over the years to the growing inventory of items.

AFTER TWO DECADES spent working seven days a week, Chantraparnik built many long-term relationships with her customers. “There are so many stories I could tell,” she said. She recalled one of the first families to shop at her store, a young couple with four girls and one boy. They became so close over the years that she even attended their bar and bat-mitzvahs. “Part of running the store for me has been to watch the children grow up,” she said. “I could write a book about it. It’s a multi-layered experience.”

Part of that experience is that it is not unusual for former clients, children, parents and grandparents to look her up at the store to share news of important events in their lives. Recently, a woman who Chantraparnik had not seen in years came in to announce she had just had her first grandchild. In another instance, a young man stopped by, accompanied by a young lady. He asked her, “Do you remember me?” Chantraparnik could immediately recall him by the type of things his mom (now a good friend) used to buy. She remembered that as a boy he loved listening to Jim Weiss’ gospel music and wouldn’t go to sleep without it. The boy, now grown, introduced her to his fiancée.

Chantraparnik’s eyes watered over as she told the story of how an older child came into the store one day and handed her $10. The child said, “When I was little and short on a dollar or so, you said it was OK. I’ve been meaning to stop by for years to repay you for your kindness.”

OVER THE YEARS, Chantraparnik’s customers have taken on an active role in shaping her collection. “They advise me on what to buy and they broaden my awareness as to what’s on trend,” she said. Take, for instance, the case of Yomega Yoyos, a leading yoyo manufacturer, and all the rage with young boys. Many of her youngest customers pressed her to stock them, informing her they were the coolest things around. “I sold a lot of yoyos based on their very astute marketing advice,” she said with a smile.

The Rainbow Loom, a kit that makes colorful rubber bands into bracelets, came highly recommended by her young female contingent. A tween-age girl and her mother encouraged Chantraparnik to look into the popular product, which at the time was available only on line. She ended up contacting the supplier and began selling the item in her store. The loom later went viral on the web, but not before Chantraparnik had stocked up on a generous supply. Come summer, thanks to her junior marketing advisors, she was uniquely positioned to take the lead on all summer camp purchases.

There was one rough period for the tiny store; that was the year Imaginarium, the Toys R Us subsidiary, opened across the street. Toys Unique struggled, but many customers stood behind the store and were very supportive. Ultimately, Imaginarium closed down. By focusing on her customers and making sure she meets their needs, Chantraparnik has been fortunate to maintain her business. Though she doesn’t carry a large inventory, she tries to offer choices and value.

“We are a destination. We serve the community and neighborhoods. People know what the store carries and they know they’ll be able to find most of what they need,” she said.

Twenty years have seen a lot of changes occur since she arrived. “We are missing retail stores and pushing people away to the shopping malls,” she said. She remembers gift shops, a children’s clothing store and a “charming book store,” among other Potomac Village shops that have long since disappeared. She noted that the steep overhead makes it hard for small businesses to survive.

“Toys Unique is I, me and myself, seven days a week,” she said.

These days, Chantraparnik sees several major factors shaping trends in the market for toys. First, today’s parents have different purchasing habits, preferring mainly to shop on-line in lieu of going to stores. Second, children are shopping on the Internet, too, and they are choosing different types of toys than they used to. She observed, for instance, that when her store first opened, boys adored model trains sets and cars. Nowadays they are rarely interested. Kits also have disappeared almost entirely. Assembling pieces of track or building ship models no longer seems attractive. “Some things never change, though,” she added on a more positive note. “For instance, boys ages 2-4 still love individual wooden trains and Thomas the Tank. And Lego building blocks is a brilliant invention that will never go out of style.”

Girls on the other hand, are still very much interested in crafts and projects as well as making things. Chantraparnik sees all these choices as partly to do with family influences. “In my opinion, it is important to encourage setting aside one day a week for a family game,” she said. “Some of my customers are currently doing that. A board game that everyone can play enhances participation in the family.” She sees this as especially important in an era when children are more into electronics, which is an activity primarily focused on the individual. “There are great alternatives on the web, too, she said. “The key is to make all options work together so children get to use all parts of their brains.”

With March fast approaching, Chantraparnik looks forward to slowing down a little after working so hard for so many years. She plans to spend more time in her garden (photos of which are tucked behind some toys on the wall) and enjoying a good cup of tea. Perhaps most excited of all about her retirement is her husband, a retired executive with Sodexo. Over the years he has never failed to lend a hand at the store when needed and to drive her to and from work seven days a week for two decades. “He is perhaps the happiest of all,” she said with a laugh.

The sale is currently scheduled to begin the last three weeks in February, starting Feb. 6 or 7.

Chantraparnik will also be donating toys to various organizations, including the Children’s Inn at NIH. Toys Unique is located at 9812 Falls Road in Potomac. Call 301-983-3160 for hours of operation or stop by and to say goodbye to a venerable Potomac institution.