When I was growing up, parents who wanted to ensure their children had the hottest toys of the year under their Christmas tree had to stand in line at Toys R Us or KB Toys. But over the past decade, chain toy stores have all but disappeared, with KB Toys calling it quits in 2009, and Toys R Us going bankrupt in 2017.
But there's still hope. Though FAO Schwartz, the famous New York City toy store, shuttered its Fifth Avenue location in 2015, the brand was purchased and the store resurrected in Rockefeller Center in 2018. Online shopping helps to fill the void left by the absence of mall-based chains, but how do kids draw up their wish lists without the option to browse their favorite toy aisle (we all had one) or the help of commercials, which the advent of streaming services has done such a good job of cutting out of our lives?
Here in Chattanooga, independent local toy stores continue to offer procrastinating parents the convenience of grabbing last-minute gifts just before Christmas or on the way to a birthday party.
To aid in your local holiday shopping, here's our directory of Chattanooga's independent toy stores and the owners' picks for their top toys this season. Don't sit on the opportunity to scoop them up, as the COVID-related supply chain issues, labor shortages and current shipping crisis have all hit the toy market hard, says Patrick Holland, owner of Learning Express in North Chattanooga and Mountain Top Toys in Signal Mountain.
To offer further evidence that toy stores aren't dead, Holland said his stores had their best year-to-date sales in the history of Mountain Top's 29 years and Learning Express' 13 years.
Boxcar General Store
52 Frazier Ave. | 423-497-5088 | boxcargeneralstore.com
Speciality: Classic and nostalgic toys. Think sturdy steel Tonka trucks that last forever, classic family games such as Twister and Clue, and retro toys like Pound Puppies and Ms. Pac Man arcade games. Basically, the stuff people my age would beg our parents to buy us from KB Toys. "We also have plenty of modern toys," owner Danielle Landrum adds.
Current best-sellers: Care Bears and NeeDoh balls, which are stress-relief balls filled with a dough-like substance of a different color than its flexible skin, making it appear to change colors when the ball is squeezed.
A Child's Garden Boutique
135 Frazier Ave. | 423-634-0822
Specialty: Toys for younger children, along with clothing and books. You can also find puppets, stuffed animals and collectibles such as Civil War army figurines.
Current best-sellers: Maileg mice, handmade toys from Swedish company Maileg featuring themes such as camping and the beach (the tattooed daddy beach mouse was a particularly hot item, owner Jeanne Trewhitt says) with corresponding accessories. Many come in adorable matchboxes, or you can also go all out with big-ticket items like the Maileg Mouse House personalized with the mouse furniture and mice of your choice.
Learning Express Chattanooga
313 Manufacturers Road, Unit 103 | 423-643-8697 | learningexpress.com/chattanooga
Specialty: Toys focused on learning and creativity. Stores in the Learning Express chain, which includes Mountain Top Toys, are independently owned. Patrick and Joanna Holland own both local stores.
Current best-sellers: Holiday Squishmallows, the holiday-themed series of the hottest plush line in the country that's as collectible as Ty Beanie Babies were back in the 1990s; DopeSlimes, slimes in yummy-smelling scents like Blueberry Pancake, Ice Cream Birthday Cake and Marshmallow Puff that have been the surprise runaway hit of 2021; STEM kits from Thames & Kosmos; fidget toys and stress balls such as Pop Its, pop tubes, Wacky Tracks and NeeDoh balls; and ICEE machines. (If I still had a Christmas list, an ICEE machine would definitely be on it.)
Mountain Top Toys: A Learning Express Store
1231 Taft Highway, Signal Mountain | 423-886-6943 | mountaintoptoys.com
Specialty: Hard-to-find and education-focusesd toys, stocking stuffers
Current best-sellers: Da Bomb Bath Fizzers, bath bombs with a surprise inside; Mini Brands Series 3, collectible sets containing five mystery miniature versions of popular name-brand household items; Stomp Racers, toy car launchers and air powered toy cars for racing and jumping; Creatto 3-D Light-Up Puzzles; and Shashibo magnetic puzzle cubes, which can be transformed into over 70 shapes and combined to build even larger shapes.