Saturday, November 23, 2013

Treasure Hunting (Shopping)

We celebrated Mikey’s birthday with a friends and family and cake and play. At the end of all the excitement, there were (inevitably?) some returns that needed to be made.  I am not a shopper and when I do shop I usually avoid big stores. The argumentative side of me says I should support small business and steer clear of stores that take advantage of and exploit consumers, underpaid workers, etc. The real reason I avoid big stores is more visceral.

I like shopping in boutiques. When I walk into a small toy store I am not assaulted by stimuli. Somehow small toy stores seem to be quieter, more peaceful, and more inspiring than big stores. Most of the toys are made of natural materials, lovely colors, and make me feel relaxed just holding them for inspection.

Unfortunately, I have not had the delightful experience of boutique toy shopping in almost two years since I moved from Montana to Arizona. And returning a broken-out-of-the-box toy to a big store is sometimes inevitable. So there I was, dwarfed by towers of brightly colored boxes of toys…trying to find my way.

The broken toy was the last one in the store so it could not be exchanged. Instead, we got to look for something else to treasure. And that seemed like what our time in the store could be – a treasure hunt. I spotted treasures here and there: a clever wooden rattle here, an adorable animal there. Mikey had a harder time spotting treasures so he defaulted to an obvious choice for a preschool engineer – a new truck.

With the new Tonka Bulldozer in the basket we started toward the register. But my parents were with us and wanted to get something little as another “treat.” Of course, I am at a point in my life where I know when to pick my battles so I reluctantly agreed to go treasure hunting a little longer for something new for each child. My mom headed us back to the “educational” part of the store and I wondered what distinguished toys as “educational.” It seemed like there were fewer character/brand toys. The Octonauts had their own place elsewhere as did Dora, the Avengers, and other popular TV personalities. There were more “science” toys and Melissa and Doug seemed to have taken up residence in the “educational” section but it was unsurprisingly hard to find something just right.

Watching Mikey seem lost and uninterested and my mom bewildered by the selection it occurred to me that we needed something more specific than “educational.” I stepped in. “We are looking for something mechanically interesting,” I said. Scanning the stuff I quickly found a water toy with a funnel and some spinning wheels. It was mechanical and shaped like a crab so Mikey loved it. It was under the price point so my dad seemed satisfied. My mom seemed skeptical but she was outnumbered. We finally could leave so I was starting to feel relieved.

Upon reflection, I began to wonder how people shop for toys. Since I’m not a shopper, I shop online. Since I ruminate I usually do research before buying a toy. I look at “must have” lists, lists of toys that have won awards, and top selling lists. I think about the child who will be playing with the toy and his or her age and preferences. I consider the parents of the child how annoying the toy might be. I pay attention to how the toy makes me feel. Is it a treasure? Could it be one?

Seriously? Can I really put in all the effort to just buy a toy? No, not every time. That is why, at the end of the day, I rely on a framework for shopping. More than, “Is it educational?” I choose something more specific like, “is it mechanically interesting?”  or “are the puzzle pieces designed for good fine motor work?” or “does it inspire creativity?” or “is it magic?”

Don’t have time to create a framework to drive your shopping? Yeah. Sometimes I don’t either. And sometimes I just want to surf around and get excited and/or feel inspired by the possibilities. That is when I rely on “boutique” Internet stores to have done some treasure hunting of their own. has exclusive selling privileges for some toys in the US. For example, when I saw Blu Tracks on their site I did a quick search to price-compare and saw that Fat Brain is the only place that sells these European racetracks to US residents. What other treasures will I find on Bella Luna has an extensive collection of Waldorf toys – those things that are natural, simple and beautiful. If I could walk into a storefront that carried these treasures then I would…and I used to in Montana at Walking Stick Toys.

Indeed, sometimes I shop just to support that small business where I had beautiful visceral shopping experiences. I made new friends, discovered Sarah’s Silks, and sometimes rested mid-day to nurse my first-born baby.  I never had to return a gift from Walking Stick Toys but I would have been delighted for a reason to visit the store. It was filled with magic.

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  1. blutracks? whatever happened to Mattel's made-in-America orange tracks for their HotWheels?

    1. We love the Hot Wheels tracks too. But Bluetracks are flexible and offer different opportunities for play. Just trying to help my readers find treasures.

      The Hot Wheels tracks are made in China according to their site. ("Country of Origin: CN")

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