by Paula M. Riley
For the second time in its 60-year history, the retail store owned by the O’Donnell family is transforming itself.
O’Doodles – the toy store that promises to deliver “unplugged fun” for kids – will move in May from its current location at 8335 Germantown Ave. to the southwest corner of Germantown and West Evergreen avenues. It will continue to offer unique toys at the new location, but is planning to expand its product offering to include children’s apparel and décor.
“With the closing of Seedlings, Lemons ‘n Limes and others, there is a real retail void on the Hill,” said Fran O’Donnell, owner of O’Doodles. “We heard our customers tell us repeatedly that they were looking for more children’s items than simply toys. We are excited to tell them, ‘We have listened to you and we are bringing you just what you asked for.’”
The new location will continue to feature the “unplugged toys” for which the store is known – unique board games not easily found at Target, wooden puzzles and toys that encourage creative play and socialization – but will add apparel and décor for infants and children, including Elegant Baby, Bibi ‘n Mimi and My Blankee lines
O’Donnell said he plans to add items aimed at the “tween” market, too, such as hip T-shirts, jean jackets, and magnetic charm bracelets by MoGo.
“Now tweens can come to the Hill and spend their babysitting money on something fun for them,” he said.
O’Donnell, who has been in the family business for decades, sees this as another exciting chapter in the life of the Chestnut Hill retailer that some consider an institution.
Fran’s father, Henry O’Donnell Sr., opened O’Donnell’s Stationery at the site of the present toy store in 1954. After serving in World War II (including the Battle of the Bulge) Henry Sr. worked with his own father at the O’Donnell Taxi Company. In the early ’50s, although the writing was on the wall – most families were buying their own cars, and Henry Sr. knew it was time to try a new line of business. So he bought the building and opened O’Donnell’s Stationery.
It became a huge success. For the next three decades, Henry Sr. established himself as a well-respected business owner whose store was best known for its friendly and consistent service.
The business was so successful that O’Donnell Stationery opened a second location in Spring House and also had a profitable commercial delivery division. During its most successful years, O’Donnell’s Stationery staff exceeded 40 full-time employees and had sales of $3 million.
Now both deceased, Henry Sr. and his wife, Eleanor, were well known in Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill. They raised four children in the area, all of whom worked in some capacity at the stores.
Their sons, Hank Jr. and Fran, who had the longest tenure, joined the family business after college. (Their dad, however, insisted they work for other businesses before joining the family business). The two were at the helm when super stores Paper Cutter and later Staples, came to the Hill.
The presence of a super store and the changing face of the retail environment forced the family to reinvent its business model in the late 1990s. The climate of the Avenue was in a state of change, O’Donnell said. Formerly loyal customers sought out the better prices the super stores could deliver, and soon the orders stopped coming to O’Donnell’s.
In response to this changing marketplace and after engaging retail consultants, O’Doodles Creative Stuff Kids Love was born. This was located in the adjacent retail space to O’Donnell’s Stationery. Although the two stores had separate entrances, their store spaces were shared and then, in 1997, the family got completely out of the stationery business. Hank Jr. pursued other business ventures, and Fran became the sole owner of O’Doodles.
Much like his father was the face of O’Donnell’s Stationery, Fran O’Donnell became the enthusiastic champion of his shop. He proclaimed himself the “ToyDad” of O’Doodles (the title appears on his business cards). He is always eager to demonstrate a new toy and encourage his customers, young and old, to do the same.
Known for his bright colored clothing that matched the store’s colors, Fran was often the master of ceremonies, an accordion strapped to his shoulders, for various events at O’Doodles and throughout Chestnut Hill. The Christmas season was particularly fun and interesting as O’Donnell donned red suspenders and the store featured the newest toys and gifts for children.
O’Donnell said that the same atmosphere he’s developed at the old store will be maintained when it moves. The new location will offer all the elements most loved by O’Doodles’ customers – knowledgeable, fun staff, gift-wrapping and the popular ceiling train.
“Everything you love about O’Doodles is going to be at the new location,” O’Donnell said. “My dad taught me that we can’t be everything to everybody but we can be the best at what we do.”
A new addition to O’Doodles this year was consultant Kathie Meadows, a former buyer for Intermission, the performing arts -themes shop that closed its location at 8405 Germantown Ave. She has been working with O’Donnell on merchandising, buying and planning the store’s rebirth.
“I am ecstatic about this move,” Meadows said, with almost as much energy as O’Donnell. “O’Doodles is going to have the most amazing products for children that have been missing in Chestnut Hill and that moms have been looking for.”
A mom of three, Meadows moved to the area from Rittenhouse Square a decade ago and became a frequent buyer at O’Doodles.
With a background in sales and visual merchandising, she talks excitedly of new product lines, including Boikido wooden toys and plush toys by Dalingos. Meadows looks forward to featuring these items as well as infant linens, colorful umbrellas and personalized gift baskets in the large windows at the new location.
So much of the O’Donnell/O’Doodles story is a family one and the brick and mortar is no different. The new location of O’Doodles, 8532 Germantown Ave, is owned by the O’Donnell family members. Fran and Hank Jr. sold the existing O’Doodles location at 8335 Germantown to Richard Snowden/Bowman Properties in January of this year.
Kate O’Neill of the Chestnut Hill Business Association is excited to see O’Doodles in a new space.
“Fran O’Donnell is the master of fun in Chestnut Hill, and the new location is an amazing building, which will be a terrific home for our wonderful, unique toy store,” she said. “We’re so proud that O’Doodles calls Chestnut Hill home.”
O’Donnell plans to call Chestnut Hill home for a very long time. Although he is the sole owner of O’Doodles, he believes he’s operating his business with his father’s spirit and teachings alive in his heart.
“I know my dad would consider this a good move,” he said. “We are giving our customers just what they want. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about.”