The Lego set was nowhere to be found.
“I know you used to have it, but it was, like, back in 2011,” Dylan Wilson, 9, of New York city said to BeeBee Horowitz, studying a shelf crowded with Lego boxes and packages of individual Lego people. There was a massive lighthouse set and a couple of boxes of Lego Friends blocks, among other kits, but what Dylan remembered seeing — “a big Star Wars ship that had Yoda on it” — remained elusive, even for Mrs. Horowitz, owner of The Toy Box. Dylan settled on several Lego mini-figures for his younger brother, Alex, 6, who received the prizes eagerly.
“It’s always the place every kid wants to go,” the boys’ mother, Tara, said.
For 25 years, The Toy Box has held that status, and next Tuesday, they’re celebrating the milestone with a day of “cake and giggles,” as a small handwritten sign in the store notes.
“It’s been good to me,” Mrs. Horowitz said in an interview Wednesday afternoon. “It’s one of the choices that you never realize is going to be so important.”
Back then, there were two Toy Boxes: one in Edgartown and one in the current Tisbury Marketplace location. The Edgartown location closed up as its then-owner moved on to other ventures off-Island, and the Vineyard Haven store was put up for sale. Mrs. Horowitz, who had moved to the island a year before, had tried her hand at painting, baking for the Black Dog Bakery, and gardening with Ana Edey of Solviva. When she heard of the available space, “it just made sense,” she said, “It didn’t sound too daunting.”
What is daunting, at least for an unprepared adult who enters The Toy Box, is the higglety-pigglety layout of the store, which is best described as organized chaos. But it’s supposed to be that way. There’s a lot of inventory to pack into the three-room store (expanded from the original 620-square-foot space), and Mrs. Horowitz, showing her background in theater, has devised the layout so that the unexpected lies around every corner. About the only guideline is for toys for the younger set to be on the lower shelves.
The end result is that it’s nearly impossible to step inside The Toy Box without wanting to take another step, and then a few more, and then maybe a look around this corner to see what’s in the back nook. There are puzzles and puppets, stickers and science books, tiaras and Tinglers (a scalp massager, of all things), and just about everything in between. (For those who are more interested in the second part of the store’s name, Mrs. Horowitz has it covered: “People start calling and ask if we have any cartons outside,” she said, laughing. “Oh my gosh, are we in the toy business or the box business?’”)
“To hear a kid — a 12-year-old kid — walk in and say ‘This place is heaven’ is wonderful,” said Marcia MacGillivray, 87, who has been working at The Toy Box since Mrs. Horowitz’s second son, Michael, now in college, was born. Mrs. MacGillivray, Judy Jahries and Ann Knight are all part-time employees (the “three grandmas,” as Mrs. Horowitz described), as is Galya Walt, 15, a sophomore at the regional high school. Miss Walt’s former babysitter also used to work at the store.
“People come from around the world and say this store is different from anywhere they’ve ever been,” Mrs. Horowitz said. “I’m not sure what we’re doing differently, though . . . I go to the same [toy] shows and use the same catalogs.”
But then, a toy store is steeped with memories and nostalgia in a way that other retail stores are not. Mrs. Horowitz recently stocked Zube Tubes, which are, according to the box, “the ultimate cosmic sound machine.” A 30-year-old customer bought one to replace his that he’d lost on a plane — at age 15.
The store has always been open year-round — there are weeks in December that are busier than any July or August stretch — and there are few times when it’s quiet inside. Birthdays happen throughout the year, after all, and what other store keeps an informal register so that the birthday kid doesn’t get the same present from 20 different people?
For summer visitors, the fact that The Toy Box is on the Island adds to its mystique; it’s a priority stop once getting off the boat. One family, Miss Walt said, saves all of their change for a year before taking it to the bank and exchanging it for bills, and then comes straight to The Toy Box.
And for young customers, the toy store is the first place they start to learn about the “grown-up” world. Occasionally, items walk off the shelves — a slight Mrs. Horowitz admits she takes a bit personally — and occasionally, they walk back in, in the hand of a nervous kid whose parents discovered the “new” toy.
“You have to explain that it’s a trade,” Mrs. Horowitz said. “You can take it, but you have to give money in exchange.”
“We get kids emptying their banks because they’ve saved up for something,” Mrs. MacGillivray said.
In between the two points on the spectrum is the time-honored ritual of bargaining. The staff is always impressed when parents put their foot down in the face of wheedling.
“We do listen to a lot of negotiations between parents and kids,” Mrs. Horowitz said, turning to Mrs. MacGillivray. “The kids usually win, don’t you think?”
After 25 years, it seems that everybody’s come out on top.
The Toy Box celebrates its 25th anniversary on Tuesday, September 4. All are invited.