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Interview with a Toy Shop Owner: Dr Wendy Hamilton

Interview with a Toy Shop Owner: Dr Wendy Hamilton

Interview with a Toy Shop Owner: Dr Wendy Hamilton

What is your name and some background about yourself? 

My name is Dr Wendy Hamilton. I grew up in Africa and was homeschooled for a time when we lived rurally. I later went to school in Norfolk then did my undergraduate and PhD at Nottingham university. Before my kids were borne, I worked as a research scientist and I eventually came to live in Scotland in 2002.

When did you open/start Grasshopper Toys/Curious Minds?

Believe it or not, I started our business in 2010 as a solely online business working from my home garage! When I look back I’m amazed at how far we’ve come, especially given all the mountains we’ve had to climb... in the rain... with no footholds.

What drew you to the idea of owning a toy shop?

Actually opening a toy shop was never part of the plan! I started the business as an e-commerce business, with a focus on science toys and kits.

When we moved into our current premises it was because we wanted the warehouses, not the cute shop space. At the beginning the shop was even used as a warehouse too. But we were always answering the door to local residents who would ask if they could shop with us. We would politely explain we weren’t a toy shop, but it was always a tad awkward and their disappointment began to affect us.

Then one day we opened the door to a formidable elderly lady who tore strips off us! She had walked across town in the lashing rain to shop with us, and it just wasn’t good enough! So we decided it was time to give a physical shop a go. And now here we are in 2024 with an unplanned (all the best things are) but rather lovely toy shop.

You have two sons of your own, how do they influence you in regards to the shop?

My sons are both actively involved in the business and have been since they were very small boys. In fact, I have a photo somewhere of them standing next to our very first Lego order, which they placed themselves!

When we first opened the Lego account, I had no idea what to buy from the Lego range, so I thought to myself: 'You know what Wendy, you have two experts at hand, why don’t you ask them to choose?!'

It was their dream job spending thousands on a great big Lego order and they did an excellent job. They still keep a close eye on the range even now, to make sure there is plenty of Star Wars Lego in stock (which there always is!).

Is there a day in the shop that stands out in your memory? Perhaps opening day or something similar?

There have been many memorable days in our little shop. The day we moved in is definitely a big one though! It was a bittersweet time as we helped the family that had held the premises for three generations to move their things out, but at the same time we knew we were keeping the building alive for future generations to enjoy! Sadly the previous owner recently passed, we will always remember him with great affection.

Perhaps the most stand out day however, was the day of the fire in 2013. Ironically, it was also the first birthday party for our shop! It had been such a fun day with our local customers all coming along to visit, and I had no idea that a few hours later the whole business would go up in flames.

Being taken into the building on the morning after the fire was a surreal experience. I was shaking uncontrollably with the shock. I remember standing looking at the burnt remnants of my business and telling myself I must never dwell on what had happened, I must only focus on how I was going to resurrect it. And I can proudly say that that’s what I have done. It was incredibly tough and it took us the best part of two years to climb back to where we were.

What was your favourite toy/s as a kid?

Uhmm, I'd probably say my brother’s Lego! We would spend hours building Lego houses for the imaginary folk to live in. Lego wasn’t so fancy when we were kids, it was all about your imagination not following instructions, but we loved it nonetheless.

I loved my Spirograph too. I also distinctly remember having a Fisher Price TV that went around on a reel. So much fun!

What is your favourite range or product in the shop currently?

Brio. No question. I adore the Brio range. It’s such a wholesome and robust toy that invokes the imagination at every turn of the track!

You have a keen interest in science and it is reflected in the shop’s product range, tell us about your thoughts on the need for educational and STEM toys?

I love all things science, but I especially appreciate how science is a part of every person’s life. From cooking a meal in the kitchen to lighting a fire, or writing a sentence, everything we do has some clever science behind it.

I understand that not every child will want to be a scientist when they grow up, but all kids love experimenting and I think we can help kids, and adults, understand so much more about the world we live in through a bit of science focused fun.

I'm a firm believer that no matter how old or jaded we get, we should never lose our curiosity.

What product from our science range would you recommend and why?

For adults, I love the Hemisferium range - the astrolabes in particular are so beautiful. To think that once they were actual instruments rather than novel replicas is simply fascinating to me. The solar radiometers are also firm favourites for me; they’re simply a joy to watch on a sunny day.

For kids, I would recommend the chemistry kits for sure! My brother and I used to have such hilarious fun with our chemistry kits.

I especially remember the time we realised that if we sealed water into a test tube with a melted and cooled wax cap, then heated the water over a Bunsen burner, the water would expand and send the now warmed wax flying across our bedrooms at force. The wax made such a great splattering sound as it hit the bedroom walls and ceiling! We thought it was fantastic fun, though I’m not sure our mum liked it quite so much...! She was certainly no fan of all the weird fungal cultures I used to grow in my bedroom, or my taxidermy phase... thankfully that one didn’t last long!

Science and education aside, what is a range or product you love just because it’s fun or cute?

I love the Schleich unicorns and the magical horses. They’re mesmerizsngly pretty. If I'd had them when I was a child, I would have built them each a fancy Lego stable!

You have many hobbies outside of the shop, such as chocolate making and beekeeping, that sometimes make their way on to our shelves - what is it you enjoy about these pastimes?

I am genuinely fascinated by the life of the honey bee. They’re such industrious critters and have an extraordinarily evolved community. For example, did you know that if a honey bee has been out foraging and has collected fermented nectar (and gotten a little tipsy!), the guard bees wont allow it to enter the hive until it has sobered up?!

All the bees have a role - there are mortuary bees who take out the dead, nursery bees who look after the young, forager bees who bring back pollen or nectar. They’re also critical to humanity’s survival; without them many of our food crops would fail to produce food.

Once I started beekeeping, I realised I needed to do something with all the honey I was producing. We sell a lot of jars of honey in the shop, but I decided it would be a good idea to learn to make chocolates and use some of the honey in the centres of the chocolates.

Both hobbies are synergistic and give me immense pleasure. i particularly love seeing the delight on people’s faces when they bite into one of my chocolate creations, it’s such a wonderful feeling.

We’re all big kids at heart so tell us, what’s your favourite way to engage with your inner child?

Messing about with my sons, no matter how big they get! They’re always so full of fun, they make me laugh continuously.

And sourcing new toys for the shop! Can you imagine anything better than spending your days questing for the most fun toys?!

The toy shop industry has struggled this year, what allows you to keep going strong?

My team. I have the best people around me. They work hard, they’re intelligent and innovative and we have a vision of how we want the Grasshopper toy shop to look and feel. We work closely together and we enjoy what we’re doing.

We’re also lucky to live in a small town where the residents see value in their high street and make a point of supporting the local businesses. We try to reciprocate with a fun shopping experience where we get to know our customers and their needs well.

What is the biggest challenge to toy shops in these modern times and how do you think people can fight back?

The biggest challenge to toy shops and in fact any high street shop these days is the change in consumer habits; people don’t shop on the high street as often as they once did. The only way to counter that is to make sure we’re offering a really exceptional experience with a great range of toys and fabulous customer service.

The second biggest challenge is government indifference to our high streets - they talk a good game, but in reality they do little to sustain the high street.

You’ve overcome many obstacles to get to where you are today, what is one piece of advice you’d give to anyone looking to open their own toy shop?

I’d say choose your location carefully and be prepared for a great deal of hard work and a slow burn as you grow your business.

A small business is not dissimilar to a new baby: it will make you cry with fatigue but then one day it will suddenly smile back at you and you’ll forget all the sleepless nights and start planning the next whacky chapter!

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