Stood before a shelf of meowing kittens, I conceded that at £50, these Fur Real kittens were either going to break my bank or my heart.
“Need a hand there?” asked a friendly store assistant, not realising she had just rescued me from myself. I gave her my brief.
“Hmm, bit out of the price range, these kittens, but this orang-utan dances...”
“I’m after something with educational value,” I said. “Ah, well my daughter loves Peppa Pig and Doc McStuffin at the moment.” Lead the way.
Arriving at the wall of Peppa Pig, the young woman explained that each episode taught kids a different lesson, with toys following suit. “Of course, for more obvious educational value, we have loads from VTech.”
The store was huge, stacked with everything from boys and girls toys, to outdoor swing sets and a dedicated pram section. The girl told me that with a daughter herself, she quickly learned what toys really work.
“The VTech lines are great, but some maybe a bit young for her, so the more advanced toys can offer more longevity.”
She delighted over a Dora the Explorer Laptop complete with a Dora shaped joystick. “Girls do love all these characters and really identify with Dora, in fact take a look at this.”
She took me to the VTech V Smile Motion Console. “This is on special offer at £20 plus a free game. They are stopping making the cartridges for it soon, but in the mean time... It’s like a Wii for kids!” Sold.
VERDICT: Extremely friendly and helpful staff with great empathy with their customers. The girl was really clued up and very keen to find something in my budget of £20. A great store with great range. 4/5.
Early Learning Centre
“We have these things here,” offered the girl begrudgingly with a shrug of her shoulders. “These are educational... But it may be better to go for something less boring.”
The young store assistant shuffled to the Aqua Doodle. “Something like this is good.”
“This looks interesting,” I encouraged, “what is it?”
Aqua Doodle, I was informed, is a water product that kids write on. To her credit, it was the first Aqua Doodle suggested all day, it was different and it was in my price range.
“I’ll leave you to look at this then and I’ll come back in a minute.” Something in her voice told me this was to be our last encounter. So I took the chance for another lap around the store.
Arts and crafts had a huge presence, alongside Sylvanian Families sets and the wide array of Barbie
I saw the assistant on myway out. Our eyes met. The minutes must have changed me as she didn’t recognise me. I left silently, looking forward only to documenting the experience.
VERDICT: Dire customer service dramatically undersells what this store has to offer and left me thoroughly unimpressed. 1/5.
Look at this,” announced the young woman, presenting a detailed clay fairy to the store. “A three year old made this. Incredible.”
She retreated to what I assumed was the fairy kiln round the back of the shop and I continued my perusal of the store.
The shop was decorated with children’s artwork and imaginative scenes, while shelves were bursting with
exciting toys, games and puzzles for all ages. Every corner boasted a different interactive scenario. This was no store short of imagination, and with a sign pointing to the Hullabaloo Kids Craft Centre upstairs, it was easy to see why.
“Do you need a hand there?” beamed a friendly store assistant. I told her I was looking for an educational toy for my three year old niece. With cogs visibly turning, she replied: “That’s a difficult age. The memory games are too old, and letters and numbers – chances are she’ll have these. But these will be perfect...”
The woman lead me to a colourful spiralling display of craft kits from Djeco. “These are lovely, and ideal for girls of that age.” I enquired about their educational value. “These encourage girls to follow instructions and use their imaginations while matching the shapes and colours.”
A pair of kids tore across the room waving freshly made paintings, and the woman excused herself to answer the phone.
As she booked in a party of children for a Crafts party, I realised this was not just a toy store, but an active part of the community.
VERDICT: An enchanting store celebrating children’s imagination with traditional toys and interactive displays. With a popular arts and crafts centre upstairs, this store is a pillar of the local community. 5/5.
Toys and Tales
“I’m really not very good at puzzles,” laughed the chatty young shop assistant holding the jigsaw.“Puzzles are great for three year olds. They’re cute and educational, so everybody wins.”
Before I knew it the girl had excitedly talked me through the range of picture, number and word puzzles from Orchard and was halfway through a selection of arts and craft sets, when she paused for a breath.
I used the momentary silence as a chance to survey the shop. The store offered a vast collection of pocket money collectables met with higher end play-sets, dolls and accessories, while the boys section boasted science kits, LEGO, action figures and much more.
The far corner of the shop was dedicated to learning with shelves of kids’ books and a reading area.
Stood with a magnetic princess dress-up board in one hand and a Wow Toy’s Aeroplane in the other, the girl was ready to continue.
“Pretty much any toy aimed at that age range is going to have an educational element, kids are always excited by our Wow Toys.”
I was told that they encourage play, motor skills development and creativity, while the princess dress-up game offers everything girls typically enjoy.
This girl could have happily chatted to an empty room about toys. Her unflappable energy, enthusiasm and knowledge was a real treat.
VERDICT: A quaint store in a lovely setting. A good range of pre-school, girls and boys toys all with the emphasis on learning. Impressive staff enthusiasm, though more questions could have been asked to understand child’s likes and dislikes, etc. 3/5.
Monkey Puzzle Toys
A notice behind the till advertising the next local mothers meeting indicated that this was a shop focused on community.
Interactive displays of play-sets from Hape, Djeco, Melissa and Doug and Tidlo brought the brands to life and a window display was packed with special offers.
As I moved towards the back of the store, the collection seemed to spread itself thinner with puzzles and a few boys’ toys stretching to fill shelf space.
“Abney and Teal is the only character brand I stock. Their message is great for young kids, they love ‘em,” she said.
The friendly store owner then showed me a fold out princess castle book, ‘ideal for girly girls’ followed by an animals and numbers puzzle perfect for ‘something a bit different.’
“We’re closing down,” she told me. This was sad to hear, but unsurprising considering its limited range.
As I left, a group of chatting mothers with push chairs entered the shop. What a blow to the community the loss of this store will be.
VERDICT: Dependent on local community, this store offers a small but nevertheless charming selection of traditional and wooden toys.3/5.
Greater Manchester’s independent toy stores are sadly becoming few and far between.
However, driven by the local community, the independents offer more than just a place to buy to toys, exuding personality, charm and imagination as the pillar of local life.
Meanwhile, the out-of- town Smyths offers a real treat in range and customer service proving that these bigger named stores can still deliver the bespoke service to Greater Manchester.