Donna Frederick doesn’t want to close the play house door.
But the owner of one of the city’s oldest toy stores may not have much choice.
Revenue at The Play House Toy Store on Ninth Street has dropped 65 percent since 2009, she said, and she can’t sustain the business on its current path.
In August, she created a crowdfunding campaign on the GoFundMe website to raise $15,000. As of Wednesday she had raised $1,335 from 15 donations.
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“If we don’t come up with enough backing to stay here, then we will close because we are not going to have money to pay the rent,” she said.
Frederick, 58, wants to use the money to pay bills and to tweak her business model. She is exploring creating a shop where kids can do art projects and science experiments. She is also considering partnering with another business that could help bring people in.
“Right now, I am entertaining different ideas,” she said.
Old West Durham resident John Schelp took his children to The Play House when they were little. Now one is a junior at UNC-Greensboro and the other is applying to colleges.
“When life comes at you fast, it's a joy to see local shops with deep roots in the community,” Schelp said. “The Play House is part of the fabric of Ninth Street and, for all these many years, part of the fabric of our lives.”
A local niche
Karen Anderson opened The Play House in 1985 to fill a local niche as an independent, educational toy store.
While the store has been transferred to two different owners, it has maintained a throwback feel with wooden toys, puzzles and multicultural dolls of various price points. Around 1992 Pam Crigler bought the store. She sold it to Frederick, then the store manager, in 2008.
Sales and traffic plummeted in 2012, Frederick said, with the closing of West Main Street for a new water line. More construction followed with the renovation and expansion of the Shops at Erwin Mill on the west side of the street.
“I think we lost the momentum of people coming to the street,” Frederick said.
Then the city converted a free parking lot into one where customers pay $1 an hour on weekdays.
“Our longtime customers said, ‘We aren’t going to pay a dollar,’ ” Frederick said. “They were rebelling, but it was hurting us.”
Tom Campbell, co-owner of The Regulator Bookshop, said his business also suffered after the paid parking but has rebounded some over the past year
“I think we have been helped by a kind of resurgence of interest in people browsing in real book stores,” he said. “It is kind of retro.”
While The Play House has experienced an uptick, Frederick said, it isn’t enough.
From 2009 to 2015, the toy store’s revenue dropped from $196,000 to $68,000.
According to market research company IBIS World, smaller hobby and toy shops continue to face pressure from larger competitors, such as Toys “R” Us, along with discount and online retailers such as Walmart and Amazon.
In addition, the company notes today’s children have grown up in the Internet era and some prefer products traditionally marketed to older kids and adults, such as tablets and video games.
Kimberly Mosley, president of the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association, said small stores have advantages, including being part of the community and benefiting from the buy-local movement.
Customer experience is also key, she said.
“I don’t think any brick-and-mortar retailer can just be about retail anymore,” Mosley said. “I think everyone is getting into the business of customer experience.”
Since 2012, Frederick hasn’t been able to pay herself. She took up part-time security work, mainly working overnights on weekends.
She also has taken small business classes and unsuccessfully sought private loans for The Play House. Now, the focus is on creating a new experience for kids who come into the store
“We have to offer something more than just a retail store to keep above every one else,” she said.