Hazel McCarthy, owner of the Galway-based indie toy retailer, Toy Corner likes to think of herself as in the “business of making memories” rather than selling toys, having set up shop just one year ago to become the only shop of its kind in the Gaeltacht village of Moycullen.
Having grown up working in the family business – running the almost 200 year old Wicklow shop, John P. Hopkins, McCarthy is a seventh generation shop owner for whom, retail is most certainly within her DNA.
It was at the start of last year, when the Coronavirus was a rumbling idea occurring on the other side of the world, that she decided to open up her independent toy selling operation under the name of Toy Corner, with little realisation (like most of us) as to what the first year of business would be throwing at her.
It’s with particular pride that McCarthy has accepted her award win from the British Toy and Hobby Association’s Retailer of the Year Awards, in recognition of the altruism and community spirit with which she traversed 2020 to keep that core element of toy selling right at its centre; becoming the focal point for a local community and a network of local independents.
Here, we catch up with Hazel McCarthy, owner of Galway’s Toy Corner, to talk about that tumultuous first year, what it means to be a Gaeltacht-based business, and where her toy shop goes from here.
To kick us off, congratulations on the award win, and for making it through the first year of the business. What has that experience been like for you, opening up shop in a year of the pandemic?
Oh my goodness, mental! If I’d known what was coming I wouldn’t have been brave enough to do it. There were so many unknowns all year, but I just took it day by day, worked as hard as I could and tried not to think too far ahead (which is so unlike me, I’m a total planner).
I have to say it was an absolutely amazing feeling going home on Christmas Eve – I couldn’t believe I’d not only made it to the end of the year but I’d exceeded my own expectations for the year too.
So, where did your career in the toy industry begin? How did you get into toy retail and can you talk to us about your background in the family business?
I grew up working in the family business, John P. Hopkins in Wicklow Town. The shop is open 194 years this year, and I’m the seventh generation, so retail probably is in my DNA at this point.
I explored a few other sectors and cities after completing my Masters degree but I found my way back to retail last year – this time on the west coast of Ireland with my own store.
I am currently my only employee so it’s great to be able to pick up the phone to my Mum or my Grandpa and ask them for their input when I feel stuck. They have also been very gracious in never being offended when I don’t ask for, or don’t take their advice!
Can you tell us about the location of your shop in the Connemara Gaeltacht? What does Toy Corner bring to the local community, and how do you work to place yourself at the centre of the local community?
I really believe in the role of a local toyshop for children to learn the skills of budgeting, saving and communicating. Smaller, independent shops like mine are better able to be flexible in how we operate to create an inclusive environment which is less overwhelming for children with different needs.
I make an effort every day to acknowledge each of my customers when they come in, and to try to get to know them and what they want to provide an even better service that meets their needs. I make a huge effort with my window displays, and I love seeing people stopping to look at them.
I challenged myself to change them every week during the first lockdown, to keep providing something new and interesting to brighten up people’s walks around the village, the community seemed to really appreciate that!
It was kind of wonderful to think (for me at least) that in a world when we were living so much of our lives online, that the classic image of real people peering in the window of a real toy shop was still happening… That in a world where everything you could ever want to see or own is online at our fingertips, I can still create a real life window display that can literally stop people in their tracks for a moment.
We can’t not talk about the fact your sister has a gym next door to your toy shop – a McCarthy family empire in the local vicinity. How does this work to strengthen your ties to the community?
To be fair to my sister, it is actually a Hodgins family empire! McCarthy is my married name, we only just got married on 29th February 2020 – we were very lucky to have had our day before everything kicked off. My sister Holly opened Wild Way CrossFit about six months before I opened Toy Corner right next door.
Seeing Holly take on such a big project and make such a success of it inspired me to take my own leap, and knowing how supportive the community of Moycullen was to Holly when she opened, I knew it would be the perfect place to set up shop.
I also have to sing the praises of my landlord (though he would hate to be called that!) who has really worked with both of us to make sure our businesses survive.
What adaptations have you had to make to the business as the year has progressed? How is that reflective of the strength of independent retailers amid the current situation?
For starters I had to create an online store, something I had no prior experience of at all. And transforming the shop every couple of months from retail space to warehouse and back again is one of those things you’ll never imagine could be so time consuming until you’ve had to do it. How messy can the place get in just a couple of months of being closed, right? The answer is VERY.
I have found the social distancing aspect has really changed my sales style, but I’m just trying to learn from each challenge rather than getting bogged down in it as an inconvenience.
We’d love to explore the fact that you are a Gaeltacht based business – what does this mean? How do you promote the language through your shop?
I’m definitely not a native speaker, or anywhere close to fluent in the Irish language, but I really try as much as I can to improve and to use a cúpla focal wherever I can in conversation and on social media, to have bilingual signage in-store, and to support local initiatives. It’s a really wonderful aspect of life in Galway that I love.
What is your ethos when it comes to the toys that you stock? What do you look for in products, how is what you stock reflective of the traditions you like to promote through Toy Corner? Why is this important to you?
My tagline is ‘toys powered by imagination’. I believe in the value of real play, and embodied learning. Unfortunately these days families have to work so much harder to make sure that children have enough time in real play activities with screen-based activities being so extensive, accessible and enticing.
While I do stock on-trend collectables and licensed items, I devote the most space to products that are classic, that will be valuable additions to my customers’ homes, that have real play value, and products that can bring families together through play. I also give a lot of space to sensory and pocket money toys – I want the children of the village, when they grow up, to look back and remember the magic of those Friday afternoons after school spending their pocket money, and how much they had to choose from.
I suppose I like to think I’m less in the business of toys, and more in the business of memory-making. Of course those days are few and far between now between openings and closures but it is something for me to look forward to when things finally get back to normal.
What will be the next steps for you as we continue to navigate a constantly shifting landscape for retail and toys? What lasting impact do you think the past year will have in indie retail and for Toy Corner in particular?
I think this year has given all of us an opportunity to create stronger relationships with each of our customers. I invest real time and emotional energy in every customer, both in-store and online, and as a result, I have wonderful customers, because we’re communicating person to person rather than business to consumer.
I think the importance of that personal touch, of knowing you’re dealing with a real-life person and not a Chat-Bot will become more of a driver for online customers in the future as we seek authentic experiences even if we’re in a digital space. Bricks and mortar retailers will have more opportunity to become a destination shopping experience, and so I’m striving to make my store more experiential as well as functional and profitable – quite the challenge for 600 square feet.
However, I have always believed in the role of independent shops to help create a sense of place in any location, and so I strive for Toy Corner to become part of the fabric of the locality.
Thank you Hazel, for chatting with us. Before we leave you with your win, is there anything you’d like to add?
I am so fortunate that all the hard work and creativity throughout 2020 will allow me to continue growing my business in 2021, and for Toy Corner’s innovation to be recognised with this award is truly wonderful. Tá áthas orm ghlacadh leis an mbronnadh seo, is iontach an rud é gur aithnítear an obair dian a dhéanaim anseo.’