by Pete Mazzaccaro
For several generations of Chestnut Hill children, there was always O’Doodle’s Toy Store.
In its heyday through the late 90s and aughts, it was a colorful and toy-packed children’s store where kids could dance on a giant floor piano, guide wooden trains across a track at a large train table and more. Many children knew it as the store that always had bubbles blowing into the street.
“I’ve seen a lot of kids grow up,” said Fran O’Donnell, the store’s owner and chief manager since it was started in 1997 as a spin off from O’Donnell’s Stationery Store, which was opened by Fran’s father Hank O’Donnell Sr. in 1954.
“We’ve gone through a few generations,” O’Donnell said. “Some of the kids who used to play at the train table are now my employees.”
So it was somewhat bittersweet for O’Donnell when he announced last week that he was going to close the 17-year-old business, currently located at 8532 Germantown Ave., for good by the end of the month.
For O’Donnell, though, it was a decision made unavoidable by the consistent decline the business has had over recent years. Today’s economy does not favor small independent toy stores.
“The business overall has its challenges with the Internet and the big box stores,” he said. “The whole industry is hard. A lot of my suppliers have gone out of business.”
While options are more plentiful for shoppers who can turn to Amazon or Walmart, big toy manufacturers have adopted polices that have squeezed the business at the other end, requiring high minimum purchase orders, increasing the amount of risk for shop owners who want to stock the latest and greatest toys. Hasbro, which O’Donnell used as an example, requires all monthly orders to be a minimum of $5,000.
But not all is bad news for O’Donnell, who said a piece of fatherly advice is paying off.
“When we were making the transition from a stationery store to O’Doodle’s, my dad said, ‘Franny, I’m not too sure how this retail toy thing is going to go. I think it would be good for you to have a plan B.’”
So O’Donnell got his Realtor’s license in 2000 and has been selling homes ever since. He is currently affiliated with Berkshire Hathaway Fox and Roach Realtors in Chestnut Hill. Although he is leaving the toy business, he’s not leaving the neighborhood.
“So as I was looking at the store’s sales coming through a Christmas season and seeing sales slump, the winter from hell, even during that I was getting more calls for houses in Chestnut Hill and Mt Airy,” he said. “I had the best spring ever in real estate since I started doing it, I started thinking, do I sell doll houses or real houses?”
After talking the matter over with his family, all agreed that a move from toy store owner to full-time Realtor made sense.
O’Donnell said he is currently thinking about the building’s future. The family owns the building, and O’Donnell said he thinks it won’t be a vacant property for long.
“Think it’s a great location,” he said. “It will make a great restaurant.”
O’Donnell said he did not consider selling the business.
“If someone were to buy it, they’d have to be like me and work seven days a week,” he said. “How many other small indie toy stores are there? They’re few and far between. I never had any offers or anything like that.”
In the meantime, O’Donnell is offering a storewide sale of 25 percent. As he was being interviewed for this story, a dozen people came into the store to peruse the items for sale. Several wished O’Donnell luck in the future.
Although he is pretty confident he’s doing the right thing, O’Donnell said there are things he’ll miss about the business.
“I’ll miss seeing the kids,” he said. “I’ll also miss feeling like I’m part of promoting unplugged play. We’re trying to tell kids to play with jacks, yo-yos — stuff where kids are using their imagination instead of being stimulated by a video game. That’s lost now. How many kids journal anymore?”
But like his dad before him, who inherited a taxi cab company in Wyndmoor in 1954 at a time when personal cars were making suburban cab companies obsolete,it doesn’t make sense to be sentimental.
“My dad had to change and innovate, too,” he said. “I think he would have supported the decision.”