It takes both a sense of fun and “a steely eye” to be successful running an independent toy store, said Amazing Toys owner Dave Campbell.
Campbell, who worked 25 years as a store manager for Kmart, has enjoyed the last 13 years running the downtown toy store, located the last seven years at 513 Central Ave. He said he usually works six days a week but enjoys selecting and merchandising toys, puzzles and games he thinks will go over well with kids, adults and families.
Most retail stores rely on holiday shopping to make year-end goals, and that’s especially true of a toy store. Campbell’s staff of part-time workers swells from two to six during the busy pre-Christmas shopping season.
Campbell, 58, grew up in Hayward, a city near San Francisco. He started working for the W.T. Grant dime store chain in high school, where he ran the pet and yard department. He earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting from California State-Hayward and began working for Kmart.
He stayed with the discount chain for 25 years as a store manager, moving to Great Falls in 1990, where he ran the eastside Kmart for nine years.
His wife, Diana, a pharmacy tech for Benefis Health System, helps out at Amazing Toys, including keeping the books. They take occasional weekends and vacations to camp and visit their grown children.
Two of the perks of running his own business, Campbell said, are growing his hair long and taking time Tuesdays to host a music show on KGPR public radio.
Question: Why did you decide to buy a toy store?
Answer: Kmart had been good to me and I was well paid, but I realized as the company became more centralized that store managers were losing discretion in such areas as choosing merchandise and giving raises to top performing workers. I noticed that Bob Rechlin, who started Amazing Toys at 319 Central in 1987, was retiring and selling the store in 1999. I’d always liked trying to pick which toys would be popular with kids as a Kmart manager, so decided to buy Amazing Toys.
Q: How did you finance the purchase?
A: For the most part, I was buying Rechlin’s inventory. I mostly financed it myself, with a small SBA loan I paid off in five years.
Q: Are toy stores difficult to run successfully?
A: That would seem to be the case, since there are just five or six toy stores left in Montana. But I’ve done pretty well, and have the largest independent toy store in Montana. I think some people make the mistake of opening a toy store as a hobby, collecting things they like. It can be fun, but you can’t succeed without being a steely eyed business person at times, such as selecting toys for your audience and eliminating things that don’t sell well enough.
Q: Why did you move to 513 Central Ave. in 2005?
A: The move tripled my sales floor space. That allowed me to increase my inventory of toys and games to make enough money to stay in business. During one of the early years, the part-timer who worked 20 hours a week year-round actually made more money than I cleared, and that couldn’t last.
Q: How have your business sales gone?
A: My sales have gone up every year, except 2001, when people were in a funk over the Sept. 11 attacks and didn’t buy as much for Christmas. Sales grew, but not by as much as usual after the 2008 recession. But that was offset by strong oil prices in Alberta and a strong Canadian exchange rate, which brought even more Canadians to Great Falls to shop than usual.
Q: What are the biggest myths about Amazing Toys?
A: There are at least two and neither is true: that our merchandise is just for kids and that it’s too expensive.
We have games, puzzles and novelty items for adults, and some of our slot cars are popular with guys as well as kids.
I check big box stores at least once a month to make sure our prices are comparable on similar items. I look for value in several ways when I select toys, including quality: will it last; utility, is it easy to play with; and desirability, is it something fun kids will want to play with?