A world of pure imagination: What it's like to run a traditional toy shop

Nothing beats the magic of visiting a toy shop during the run-up to Christmas.

Stepping inside Betty Blake’s Toy Emporium in Wolverhampton is like walking into a treasure trove.

The shelves are full of all kinds of traditional and heritage toys aimed at bringing smiles to children’s faces and sparking their imaginations.

And for owner Ruth Swallow there is no better feeling than knowing her toys have brought joy to youngsters and their families.

“I love seeing photographs on Christmas Day of kids with their new toys that have come from my shop. It’s really nice to see them enjoying the toys,” she says.

Ruth has been running the business since 2015 but there has a been a toy shop on the same site in Windsor Avenue, Penn, since the 1980s.

The mother of two, who was previously working as a freelance artist, had been looking for a change of career after the birth of her youngest child.

“I bought the shop when my little boy was a baby. I was working as a freelance artist and couldn’t do that with children. They were able to come into the shop with me. They are both at school now,” she says.

When she took over the reins Ruth, inspired by traditional toy shops of the past, decided to fill the emporium with a carefully curated collection of toys selected to encourage creative and imaginative play.

She believes children don’t need hundreds of toys, just a few well designed ones suitable for their stage of development.

As an independent business, Ruth also wants the emporium to stand out from the crowd and offer items that people can’t find on the High Street.

“There’s no point me selling the things you can find in Argos, although there is some crossover. Instead it’s about being unique and offering beautifully designed, well-made toys that will last,” she says.

Ruth is also able to run her shop around the needs of her young family – and it worked out particularly well for her children who get to help her test all of the new stock.

“I enjoy choosing the toys. I go to trade fairs and try them out. I keep an eye on what’s on trend and what my customers want. Most of the toys I have tried out myself or with my kids.

“I try to stock traditional toys that encourage children to use their imaginations and ones that families can play with together like craft kits and board games.

“What I hope is that people buy these traditional toys and then go in the loft to get out the toys from their childhood,” she says.

As well as looking for items for their list to Santa, youngsters visiting the shop can also have some fun with items such as a train set to keep them entertained.

Ruth is always on hand to offer expert advice to customers to help them find the perfect gift and says she enjoys chatting to customers.

“I get a lot of uncles who don’t have any children coming in and asking what’s suitable for their nieces and nephews.

“If people go into a big toy shop there might not be anyone available to ask but here they can ask me what they can get with their budget and what’s suitable for different age groups,” says Ruth.

Although they have never really gone out of fashion, wooden toys have become far more popular in recent years with plastic falling out of favour due to its impact on the environment.

Parents and grandparents nostalgically remember their own childhood playthings when choosing toys for the little ones in their life.

And as toys can often take quite a battering from their young owners, wooden items are also often preferred as they can endure rough treatment better and are less likely to break.

“I think people are thinking more carefully about what they are buying. They are buying less but more carefully and trying to reduce plastic waste.

“I sell a range of toys made from rubberwood which is a waste product of the rubber industry. It’s usually burned when it’s no longer needed but it’s now being used to make lovely toys,” says Ruth.

The shop was previously called Little Learners and generations have come through the doors since it first opened.

Ruth is starting an oral history project called Toy Shop Tales and is collecting people’s stories and memories of the shop over the past four decades. “People will be come here who remember being brought by their grandma and grandmas come in who brought their children here and now they are bringing their children’s children,” she says.

The retail industry is always evolving according to the nation’s shopping habits and Ruth has noticed many changes since she bought the business.

“It’s changed very much since I’ve had the toy shop. Most people came in just to browse and have a chat. Now people will see something on social media or my Facebook page and rush in to buy it,” says Ruth.

At the moment the shop is fully decked out in festive decorations and has a seasonal window display to help attract more shoppers through the doors.

“I do enjoy Christmas. It’s always business and we usually have a few late nights so people can buy gifts. It’s a lovely time of year,” says Ruth.

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