Toys 'R' Us closed its doors for good earlier this year, but there are still plenty of great places to find toys these days. Independent toy stores across the country keep alive a sense of wholesome play with distinctive toys and games, unique surroundings, and one-of-a-kind programming that keeps children delighted, as well as often educated and inspired. Many of the stores are heavy on nostalgic fun with stuff from the 1980s and 1990s as well as DIY kits from even earlier eras.
RHEN'S NEST TOY SHOP
With an online category devoted to "Putty & Slime," Rhen's clearly knows kids. Bricks-and-mortar locations in Ponce City Market and Glenwood Park invite children of all ages to play with selections designed to stimulate the imagination. Expect a thoughtful mix of everything from a stuffed cow to a "Learn How to Pan for Gold!" kit.
HENRY BEAR'S PARK
These seven shops named after a 1976 children's book by David McPhail are award-winning destinations lauded for an attentive staff. With toys, books, and games from the traditional to cutting-edge (yes, they'll make coding fun), Henry Bear's shops offer seasonal picks and in-store events ranging from singalongs and story times to of-the-moment craft activities such as "hide-and-seek rock painting."
ONCE UPON A TIME
This cozy neighborhood bookstore has a carefully curated selection to fit its small space, but kids can expect to pick up signed books at author events at Once Upon A Time, while parents can ask for free gift wrapping and even select from a wide variety of shipping boxes in the back of the store. Best of all (if you're not allergic), there's a friendly resident cat on the premises.
THE CURIOUS GEORGE STORE
This Harvard Square store serves as "the world's only bricks and mortar Curious George Store." In homage to the beloved monkey starring in the children's books by H.A. Rey and Margret Rey dating back to the 1940s, the majority of the stock is devoted to puzzles, games, toys, Curious George exclusives, and an amazing array of George-themed party goods.
You know they're playful when you notice they refer to their address as "Austin, Texas, Planet Earth." At Terra, there's a quirky mix of goods, ranging from Texas-themed toy selections to coordination toys for budding jugglers. The more-is-more aesthetic is a charmer, and adults will delight in the art gallery and espresso bar (which serves PB&J sandwiches).
New York City
Dinosaur Hill has been in the East Village since 1983 (and has been recognized by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation) offering "handmade wonderments," toys, and clothes, many locally made, designed to "challenge the mind, please the eye, and stimulate the senses." Planet mobiles and hot-air balloons dangle overhead, and cubbies are crammed with whimsical delights.
Charleston, SC and environs
With roots dating back to 1990, Wonder Works encourages hands-on play in each of its four locations, and tries to support child entrepreneurs, child entertainers, and children's charities. The team takes it on the road with two free family events annually, and runs an "Elfstravaganza" each November.
There might be as many adult fans of this "action figure destination" as kids. There's plenty to geek out on, from G.I. Joe to Star Wars figurines and merchandise. Be prepared to spend plenty of time browsing at Saga Toys.
A Bay Area stalwart since 1966, though it briefly relocated to nearby Berkeley, the family-owned Jeffrey's has earned its place in local history with a distinctive variety of games and toys (its previous incarnation as a five-and-dime opened in 1938 has been called the first U.S. seller of Lego) as well as comics. There are classes in drawing and animation too.
Management staffers of the two *Play locations in Chicago have two-plus decades' experience in the toy industry, and it shows in the sophisticated space, hand-selected inventory, call-ahead ordering, and personal shopping aided by "Certified Play Experts."
MISCHIEF TOY STORE
St. Paul, MN
Mischief Toy Store is for all ages with its "irreverent selection of games, comics, art supplies, pop culture, and anime gifts, outdoor adventure gear, jewelry, candy, and kinetic toys." Its game rooms and game libraries make it a good, quirky venue for birthday parties.
MAGIC MOUSE TOYS
Classic and imported toys, puzzles, and games for all ages are a specialty at a shop serving Seattle since 1977. With two floors and more than 6,000 square feet, Magic Mouse has toys, games, and chess sets handpicked by a trademarked "Professional Child," though the store insists no child is needed to visit.
WHATCHAMACALLIT'S FOR KIDS
Palm Beach, FL
The specialty toy store in the heart of Palm Beach offers quality toys and gifts, especially for "the kid who has everything." That means Whatchamacallit's has selections ranging from art supplies and puzzles to beach accessories and oversize "ride on" animals, all on vibrant display.
AMATO'S TOY AND HOBBY
New Britain and Middletown, CT
This pair of shops started in 1940 specializes in classic toys for all ages. Amato's encourages hands-on play featuring electric radio-control toys such as helicopters, as well as extensive racing and train departments and introductions to varied hobbies.
Princeton, NJ, and Lahaska, PA
JaZams holds events, signings, parties, and more, but at the heart of a business that marked its 20th birthday in 2016 is a focus on imaginative toys and books ranging from dolls and dress-up to construction and art.
Brevard, Asheville, and Greenville, NC
Look elsewhere for video games: The self-proclaimed "coolest toy store on the planet" of O.P. Taylor's is wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling stuff to play with on-site as well as to take away, almost all powered by imagination rather than batteries.
Four locations in Denver, CO
Timbuk Toys is a little empire founded in 1993 with in-store play and regular storytelling and music classes. Weekends bring events and displays, including a gigantic Brio wooden railroad.
This downtown container-park toy store is a paradise for collectors of various pop culture genres and fans of retro toys, games, and books. The store specializes in nostalgia and "blind boxes" with surprises inside. Kappa employees are known to offer trades if a child isn't happy with their surprise.
Portsmouth, NH, and Portland, ME
Need that birthday gift in a pinch? Treehouse Toys offers curbside pick-up. In New Hampshire since 1993 and Maine since 1998, the stores have singular, carefully curated selections of toys with a bent toward the green and safe, to both U.S. and European standards.
FAT BRAIN TOYS
Omaha, NE, and Overland Park, KS
There's a lot you won't find at Fat Brain Toys, such as the "licensed, violent, cheaply made" stuff. Here, the focus is on quality products that entertain and educate in play-friendly, visually stimulating spaces filled with light, colors, and plenty of awe-inspiring displays. It has its own line of toys now sold at the Smithsonian and other museum gift shops.
PHILLIPS TOY MART
Phillips is big on outdoor fun, with nature, sports, and riding toys, as well as on trains. The store has traditionally had a giant kit set up with buttons to push that activate windmills, crossing bars, and other working parts, as well as a conductor tower kids can climb. Around Easter, bunnies are sometimes brought in to pet.
DOODLEHOPPER 4 KIDS
Falls Church, VA
The events calendar always has something to look forward to, including children's musicians and live animal and magic shows, and over two decades of being in business the owners have landed on some thoughtful ways to make Doodlehopper even more family friendly: free gift-wrapping and weekly discount days for grandparents.
TILDIE'S TOY BOX
While most toy stores are crammed with stuff, Tildie's isn't. It may be because it was founded by specialists in architecture and technology and has a sparer, cleaner aesthetic. Run by a couple inspired by their own two daughters, Tildie's is a place for gender-neutral items and imaginative toys, including a section devoted to toys that spark fun in science, technology, engineering, and math.