Indie Insight | All aboard and building a community the Bus Stop Toy Shop way

It was a gut feeling that convinced Duncan O’Conner to buy the shop across the street from where he lives in Largs – just 33 miles north of Glasgow – to set up the Bus Stop Toy Shop some 15 years ago; a sixth sense that he has been trusting ever since.

A seaside town on the West Coast of Scotland, Largs as it was then – a small business community run by locals – was a spot wanting for a toy shop. Recently a father, O’Conner made the decision to see the world through the eyes of his daughter and leap into the world of toys.

Over the course of the 15 years that the Bus Stop Toy Shop has been in operation, it has been through various stages of evolution, opening in 2006 as a traditional toy shop that made the eventual transition – ‘fuelled by a need to survive’ – into what it is today; a hub for a local hobby community that has come to be a central destination for North Ayrshire’s gaming and hobbyist audience, and a go-to space “where lifelong friendships are formed.”

In our own Love Letter to Largs, ToyNews catches up with Duncan O’Conner, owner of the Bus Stop Toy Shop to learn more about the passion that surrounds the hobby scene, the key trends it has given to the mainstream space, and what being at the heart of a community means during times of Covid.

Hello Duncan. You may be able to tell by the intro, we’re a fan of the shop! Can you tell us about the evolution of the store? And, has what it means to be an indie toy retailer changed since you first opened your doors?

I opened the doors of Bus Stop Toy Shop, originally as a traditional toy shop, in 2006. To be fair, it probably wouldn’t have survived that way. In hindsight, our town is too small a place to support one.

The evolution into what we’ve become happened mostly by chance. One day, only a few months after I’d opened the doors, I was speaking with a supplier. A couple of items I was after had gone out of stock and my order had dropped just below minimum carriage.

“Sell me something I don’t already stock,” I said.  She told me that Yu-Gi-Oh! was literally the biggest thing they were selling at the time, and I should try putting a box on the counter to see what happened.

I had a hobby background – I’ve been a lifelong Tabletop RPG fanatic – but Trading Card Games had started after my childhood and I knew nothing about them. I could see the appeal though. I remembered the football stickers of my childhood. These Yu-Gi-Oh! cards had the same collectability, plus a game was involved too. They looked great, so I took a punt. And they sold, and sold, and sold.

So it all took off from there, your journey into the geek and hobby retail was underway. How did it all continue from there?

Soon after that, Games Workshop called me out the blue. Warhammer I did know well, but I’d never even considered I’d have a market for it. At the early stages of the business, a rack full of Warhammer models was a big investment, but I let my heart rule my head. The gamble paid off – very quickly I had another new group of loyal customers.

So within a few months, hobby gaming was as big a part of what we were doing as traditional toys. We’ve stuck with that curious mixture ever since, and branched off into plenty other directions as well.

And how did you guys come to pick up the local reputation as the place for hobbyists and gamers come to congregate?

Over the years, we’ve developed the in store experience. I started by letting kids sit on the floor and play Yu-Gi-Oh! and Pokemon on quiet Sunday afternoons, but before long we were running trading card tournaments, wargaming evenings, roleplaying clubs, boardgame nights. The things that now get taken for granted in hundreds of gaming stores and cafes countrywide, we were literally making up as we went along.

To finish up an earlier question, independent retailing has changed massively over the last 15 years, with myriad competitors that we’d never have dreamed of seeing emerge back then. The reason we’ve always survived and continue to do so, despite the challenges of the last year, is community.

We’ve become so much more than a store. We’re a space where people come together and where lifelong friendships are formed. Bus Stop Toy Shop is maybe not the best descriptive name for what we do now, but to our regulars – they’ll just tell people they’re at “The Shop”  and folks will know what they mean.

Where does your passion for this form of retail come from? Why do you do what you do and how important is it to understand that, particularly in current times?

The passion comes from only selling things I can be passionate about. If I can’t find reasons to be excited about a product, then I don’t stock it. And of course I’m selling those products to people who are equally excited about them. That’s a pretty satisfying way to make a living. It’s honestly never been a struggle in 15 years to come over and open up for the day.  I simply don’t think you can succeed as an independent retailer without that enjoyment of what you do.

Outside of these Covid times, we know Bus Stop to be a hub for local hobby activity. How important is it for you guys to be at the centre of the local community? How have you managed to maintain that position over the past year?

Yes, over the years, we’ve become a family and it’s been incredibly important to me that everyone feels welcomed here. BSTS Rule Number One is: Everyone Gets a Game. There isn’t a second rule.

This last year, that rule has become even more important. For a great many customers, we’re an essential Third Space, away from work and home. We’re where people come to relax, unwind and de-stress. And that vanished overnight, when in-store gaming had to stop.

So keeping our community together became the number one priority. We had an enormous amount of incredibly generous help from our more tech savvy regulars and within a very short space of time, we had online versions of every in-store event up and running. But of course it’s been about much more than playing games. It’s meant everyone has been able to be there for one another throughout the last year.

You guys stock ranges that span the traditional toy space through to key trends and franchises in the pop culture explosion of the last few years, and the hobbyist market, too. How has this breadth of product helped you guys maintain a relevance over the years? Are there any other sectors/emerging areas that you’d expand your offering into?

I think we have to be diverse. We’re in a town of less than 10,000 people, so if we only operated in small niches, we’d never survive. There has to be something for everyone. And yes, everything from Wooden Toys to Arts & Crafts to Collectibles to Pokemon to Dungeons & Dragons has had a rollercoaster ride in terms of popularity over the last 15 years.

But we’re a small and agile business, so we’re able to respond quickly to what people want and stay relevant, without ever abandoning any of the things our loyal customers love along the way. As long as there’s a few different things at the top of that rollercoaster track at any one time, we can keep making it work – we can be traditional and cutting edge at the same time.

What do you look for in a product to bring into the shop? Is there an ethos that the Bus Stop Toy Shop goes by?

When I’m looking for new ranges to bring in, there’s three things to think about. I have to be able to be passionate about the product. Secondly, are there people who already come through the door who’d be interested? And thirdly, could it potentially bring new faces through the door? Generally, the answer to all three has to be yes.

So despite being 15 years in, there’s still plenty of avenues to explore. Up until a few months ago, we’d sold countless Space Marines but very few Spitfires. The last year though, as people have sought out ways to entertain themselves indoors, there’s been an explosive return of traditional model making. They did incredibly well for us in the run up to Christmas.

Another recent example would be Manga. The huge interest in all things Japanese Culture shows no signs of dying down. As sales of figures and plush from Japanese licenses continued to grow and grow for us, adding the books they were based on seemed like a natural progression. They’ve sold fantastically since they arrived.

What do you think 2020 highlighted in the relationship between independent retailers, suppliers, and consumers? What changes would you like to see for the year ahead?

A number of Hobby manufacturers have really stood up to be counted in 2020. The support from Pokemon, Wizards of the Coast and Konami particularly has been incredible, and given a great many stores a lifeline. It’s been heart-warming to see how importantly they still view independent retailers in their overall strategy.

And the response from our customer community has been truly humbling. Their support has been incredible and that’s been enormously helpful in keeping me going day after day.

In both cases, it’s been everything I could have hoped for and more. My hope for 2021 is that the support from both sides continues, and I firmly believe it will.

One lasting impact of the pandemic – but rooted well before it took a hold – is the rise in direct to consumer selling from some of the big brands (through social media, online platforms etc). How big a concern does this raise for the indie retailer in 2021? We will see this increase, and is there a way in which the indie retailer can adapt to this?

There’s threats everywhere, that are only going to increase in the coming years. Direct selling, crowd funding, online shopping, non-specialist retailers and, in hobbies particularly, the ever increasing number of spare bedroom sellers who manage to get accounts from wholesalers and try to undercut everyone else.

Hobby gaming is partly insulated from it all though. Most players appreciate that they need the place they play to survive and are prepared to pay for it. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, building a community through old fashioned good customer service is the answer to all of these problems.

In some ways, our business is just me and a couple of staff members, but it always feels like I have a huge team behind me every step I take.

What trends are you expecting to see for 2021?

The trends of 2020 are going to continue for at least the first half of the year. We’re going to continue to be dominated by indoor, at-home activities. Board games, war gaming and traditional model kits, arts and crafts are all going to continue to thrive in the world we currently find ourselves in.

Slightly counter intuitively, a couple of trading card brands have gone through the roof in the last year too, despite the fact that playing the games is currently impossible. Some smart people have pointed out that Trading Cards have been, for a decade now, a far better investment than stocks and shares.

The secondary market for cards has gone through the roof, and we could currently sell many times more product than we’re able to get our hands on. I seem to spend half my life at the moment answering messages, telling people I don’t know that we’re sold out of what they’re looking for.

What’s the next step for you guys? Has expansion ever been on the cards?

Never say never. But at the end of the day, I probably enjoy my day to day job too much. I can’t see many ways of expanding that would still allow me to run Tuesday Dungeons & Dragons or Thursday After School Pokemon – they’re absolutely the highlights of my week!

About Robert Hutchins

Robert Hutchins is the editor of ToyNews and its sister title, Licensing.biz. He has worked his way from Staff Writer to Editor across the two titles, having spent almost eight years with both and what now seems like a lifetime surrounded by toys. You can contact him by emailing robert.hutchins@biz-media.co.uk or calling him on 0203 143 8780 You can even follow him on Twitter @RobGHutchins if ranting is your thing...

Check Also

Tonies to open exclusive pop-up within Harrods’ Fourth Floor Toy Department

An exclusive Tonies pop-up is preparing to open at the world-renowned department store, Harrods and …