Would you believe me if I told you now is a Golden Era of toys? Would you? Or, would you guffaw and point at an 8-year old kid hunched over an iPad, slinging angry red birds at stacks of pigs, and sputter and tell me how those gadgets drain hours of social time, and launch into an explanation about how inactivity leads to diabetes and poor social skills, in spite of it being called "social media."
Maybe you would cap your diatribe with a proclamation about how toys "used to be"—in the good old days—really interactive, and even encouraged kids to engage and negotiate with each other. Think about Monopoly. Now there was a game! Teaching about money management in a fun way. Or, Slinky! Simple, elegant.
But hold that argument for an elfin moment. In spite of the troubling statistics that children spend some eight-plus hours a day interfacing with "screens" (TVs, computers, iPads), even the manufacturers of popular online games like Angry Birds have recognized that kids still enjoy—and even prefer—physical toys. Two years ago, Mattel released "Angry Birds: Knock on Wood," a highly interactive and tactile game that involves drawing a card showing various building blocks. One by one, players set up elaborate structures—and then slingshot a bird and smash them down ($19.99).
In Wabi Sabi, a zany storefront in Bend's downtown, one of the clerks explains that many of their most popular toys and games are the most simple games, the ones that require kids to fill in the blank spaces with their own imagination—and, moreover, she adds, the ones that "get [kids] off the computer and socializing."
Patty Campbell is the sister-in-law of the store's owner and works weekdays selling various toys and games at Wabi Sabi, a store that stocks "cool Japanese stuff." On Saturdays, she says, the store hosts Poké mon gatherings that brings handfuls of boys to trade and swap playing cards that show one of the fictional Pokémon monsters. Although Pokémon has spawned TV shows and video games since its launch 15 years ago, it is these simple cards—718 in all, and a derivation the originator's childhood love of collecting insects—that hold together the sprawling, multi-billion dollar enterprise.
Campbell walks me over to a spiral rack of what looks like cartoon ice cream cones—brightly painted balls attached by a string and resting atop a wood handle. The toys—called kendamas—are unassuming, but Campbell informs me that, like Pokémon or Dungeons & Dragons a generation earlier, they represent an entire world and lifestyle for dozens of local kids. There was even a recent tournament at Sisters Middle School that attracted 50 boys to show off the various catch-and-bounce tricks they perform with the kendamas. She also points to a newspaper article framed on the wall; it talks about a local snowboarder, Turner Thorne, who was injured snowboarding and, during recovery, picked up kendamas.
"He's gone pro," she tells me.
"Snowboarding?" I ask, somewhat confused.
"No, pro kendamas."
In recent years, the game has taken hold for young boys with the same ferocity of Rubik's Cube for previous generations; an article this March in the Sacramento Bee calls the game a "craze," with local events drawing nearly 1,000 participants, and retailers coast-to-coast are saying that sales have skyrocketed in the past few months.
"I call them high heels for boys because they want them in every brand, color and style," Campbell adds, spinning the rack to show several varieties—one brand called Sweets are colorfully hand-painted in Minnesota, while Krom are more traditional plain wood models built in Japan.
Two blocks away from Wabi Sabi is a more traditional—and imminently popular—toy store, Leapin' Lizards. As crowded as Santa's workshop, the store is stacked with small-scale cars, a barn that folds into an easy carrying case (Melissa & Doug Farms, $49.99) and a collection of doll houses made by Educo (largely lacking walls, the stick-and-frame designs are spartan and elegant; $119).
"Instead of going online," one of the clerks tells me, "we emphasize the hands-on shopping experience."
He weaves through the crowded aisles and moves towards a shelf on the far wall, where he picks up a jeep produced by Bruder, which, like Tonka trucks a half-century ago, carries a line of detailed construction vehicles from front-end loaders to bulldozers. "It is about touch," he says.
He points to another shelf full of vehicles—seaplanes, ferry boats, a canary yellow school bus and a purple dump truck made by Green Toys—and then spins to another rack to show me another popular brand, Sprig, which focuses more on adventure vehicles, like helicopters, fishing boats and ATVs. Made from recycled plastics and bamboo, they are soft to the touch.
"Anything that's the Fisher Price plastic breaks all the time," he says, "But toys like these, they are so durable, you can put them in the dishwasher."
Leapin' Lizards does not carry every brand; instead owner Suzy Reininger tells me, they try to curate items from high quality, ethical companies.
But unlike food (see page 10) or clothes (page 14), shopping local for toys has several paradoxes. Both in terms of supply and demand, there are fewer opportunities for locally produced toys.
Reininger does keep a list of local wood workers, but she points out Leapin' Lizards simply doesn't have room to store desks and toy chests. She does, though, market some locally-produced toys and children's wares, like a rack of locally-made hats—adorable red caps that have ladybug spots and a bright yellow hat resembling a chick ($24.99)—and she shows a book, "All Along the River," which catalogues a float down the river (with juniper trees and chipmunks) written by a local mom and illustrated by her daughter.
But producing toys locally isn't quite the same as shopping for basil and eggs at the local farmers' market; quite simply, there often isn't an apple-for-apple comparison between mass produced and locally made toys. More specifically, both for production difficulties and for copyright reasons, it is hard to find a locally made, hand-crafted Slinky or set of Legos.
Moreover, locally made toys face a difficult battle not only on the supply-side, but on the demand-side. Increasingly, toys enjoy clever tie-ins to movies, TV shows and games. (Which isn't altogether a bad thing: There is something charming about the role that popular toys can play in creating commonalities for an entire generation, like how hula hoops serve as a proxy for the 1950s or a white-suited Evel Knievel doll is an instant portal back to 1974, whether you grew up in Bend or Baton Rogue.)
Reininger does try to draw in toys that enjoy that sort of national, zeitgeist popularity. At a recent trade show in New York, she noted the popularity of "stuffies," plush and plump stuffed animals that have hidden pockets throughout. At the center of the store is a seven-foot rack holding smiling alligators, lions, a purple dinosaur, a gold-horned pink unicorn and a fire engine red dragon.
But, shopping locally—whether for handcrafted toys or mass-produced Star Wars Lego kits—is unassailable.
This Saturday, for Shop Local Saturday, Leapin' Lizards is offering $10 off every $50, up to $200 purchased. Also, check out Dee's Hobby (757 NW Greenwald), Hopscotch (1303 NW Galveston), and Wonderland (520 SW Powerhouse Dr, Old Mill).