Professor Toy closes in Visalia; will continue at Fresno location and online at ProfessorToy.com
By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN
VISALIA – Tulare County has closed the doors on toy stores.
Professor Toy, Tulare County’s last remaining toy store, closed the doors to its Visalia location, 3448 S. Mooney Blvd., Visalia, last week. Owner Rob Fox said the store had been struggling for the last several years as schools have shifted to computer-based learning and teacher supply companies began selling direct to customers. Fox said the store has been operating on a month-to-month basis for the last two years to see how long it could last following the last two minimum wage increases.
“It’s difficult for a small mom and pop shop to continue,” Fox said. “We don’t have the mass population for that type of store.”
Fox said he had hoped to see an uptick in business with the closing of Toys ‘R’ Us stores nationwide last year; however, Amazon picked up most of the online business and “Target and Walmart soaked up the local toy business.”
Fox opened Professor Toy 12 years ago to provide educational toys for his four boys then ages 2, 5, 8, and 11 and other school-age children. “I wanted to offer something different than just the toys, but things that helped kids think and learn,” he said. Fox even picked a large segment of the former Target on Caldwell because of its location across the street from his other business Party Works, which he has owned since 1989, and converted to a Party City franchise in 2007.
“I thought people leaving the party supply store might see the sign and go across the street to look for a gift,” Fox said. “It ended up being kind of difficult location that was very large for this type of business.”
The store’s primary business was teaching supplies, such as workbooks, as well as classroom decorations including alphabets, charts, multiplication tables, calendars, globes and maps. Fox said the store found a niche providing teachers who don’t shop online with supplies, providing great customer service, including free gift wrapping, and providing educational toys that were hard to find at traditional retailers.
“School supplies kept it going but that had been steadily going down for years,” Fox said. “There was never really a big toy business, it was just a niche I liked.”
Elizabeth Smith has worked for Fox for more than a decade, and all but her first 10 weeks were spent at Professor Toy. Smith said there is still a small base of loyal customers, such as teachers and grandparents, but has seen less and less people come in the store over the last few years. She said the top sellers have remained relatively the same, Magformers, a line of magnetic building shapes, family board games, and science kits.
“When it was full it was quite a lot to look at,” said Smith, who pointed the bare walls and empty shelves as she gave a tour of the store.
She said the store used to have a regular busy season over the summer for back to school supplies and in the fall leading up to Christmas. She says she will miss taking time to help customers find the perfect set of flash cards, maps, puzzles, and games and the crew of five other employees who have worked together for the last five years.
“When you work with people that long you really get to know each other,” Smith said. “It will be hard working somewhere else.”
Fox said he will continue the Professor Toy name at his Fresno location, 7897 N. Blackstone Ave., and online at ProfessorToy.com. The store’s inventory will remain educational toys from brands such as Lego, Melissa & Doug, Hape, HABA, Thomas & Friends, Bananagrams, and Schleich.
“I think a store like this is still viable in the right town at the right time,” Fox said. “I think online has some potential too.”