Photo by Sam Arendt
Last independent toy store in the area was dream for former teacher
On Christmas Eve, B.J. Beck’s Toys in Cedarburg — the last independent toy store in the Milwaukee metropolitan area — will close its doors, “for sure” as the sign says, after 23 years of entertaining children and adults with quality toys.
“When we opened the store, there were 10 specialty toy shops in the Milwaukee area. Now, there is just us — until Christmas Eve,” said Jane Beck, who with her husband Bruce opened their first store in 1987 in a historic house in downtown Cedarburg. The house is now the Cedarburg Visitors Center.
About 10 years ago, the toy store moved to a larger space at W62 N204 Washington Ave. With Beck’s personal touch, the store survived competition from chain toy stores and discount warehouses, but the downturn in the economy along with increased Internet sales were things she could not ignore.
The couple tried a Web site for a short time, Beck said, but it was difficult to manage and maintain. They decided to sell and put a sign in the window.
Several people expressed interest, Beck said, but all the deals fell through.
“I’m not unhappy that we’re just closing it,” Beck said. “There is a difficulty about selling something with your name on it. What happens if they don’t keep up your standards?
“But I will miss the people. I love talking to people, hearing their stories and helping them find the right toys. That is very rewarding.”
Beck picked every game or toy in the store, and her well-trained employees know almost as much about them items as she does, including high school students who used to shop with their parents or grandparents.
They know the questions to ask to help grandparents, uncles or aunts pick a gift right for the child’s age and interests.
“We definitely are known as the grandparents’ store, especially if the grandchildren lived far away and they didn’t see them frequently,” Beck said.
“Someone once said, ‘B.J. Beck’s makes grandparents look good.’ I ‘m honest. I’m not afraid to say, ‘I don’t think this is the right thing. Let’s pick something else.’
“People would even send us photos of their grandchildren playing with the toy or the family playing a game to thank us.”
The items in the store range from $1 to $150. A good toy or game is good quality, appropriate for the recommended ages and spark creativity, she said. Most important, it has to be fun to play with.
“There is nothing wrong with educational toys, but I’m all for fun. I like toys that have a ‘wow’ factor,” said Beck, an elementary teacher who raised two sons.
“I like Mensa Select games. It doesn’t mean you have to be brainy to play it, but it will have substance.”
The Mensa Society tests hundreds of games each year, but puts its select seal on only five. Beck stocked those games.
A highlight each year was going to the Toy Fair in New York in February to see the latest toys and trends.
“I’ll miss that and picking things for next year,” she said. “I could usually tell if it would be a hit or miss.”
Although the items in her store are high quality, she said, that doesn’t mean they’re not affordable.
“Bruce would often say, ‘If you spend money on a plastic toy that tomorrow breaks, that’s more expensive than if you pay more for one that lasts for eight years and is put away for the next generation,’” Beck said.
“It’s the play value or lack of play value that’s important.”
One of her favorite toys is the Zebee, a $1.50 soft rubber disk that when dropped, bounces high into the air. She also likes rocket balloons that dart all over the room when released and blaster balls that make a loud blast when clinked together.
Manufacturers who hope to get new games in her store for Christmas often send sample games that her family played over the Thanksgiving holiday.
She ordered the game only if it got their stamp of approval. Among her favorite family games are Spot It!, Discombobulation, Qwirkle and Time’s Up. Blue Orange toys and games are always good, she said.
Beck said their first store, B.J. Beck’s Cards, Toys and Embellishments, was divided into rooms for cards, toys and party supplies. The shop reminded her of two stores she walked past on her way to and from school as a child.
“I have such vivid memories of going into the stores with my five or 10 cents to buy something,” Beck said. “That’s what I wanted to have.”
She also has a vivid memory of her teacher criticizing a Valentine she made for her mother.
“She said red and purple don’t go together, and I should make another one,” Beck said.
“We have lots of craft projects. I think it’s because I want every kid to know that what the kid does and how he or she does it is just right. We need to respect individual differences.”
Her dream store weathered a lot of storms, but last year, the Christmas season was “pretty dismal,” she said.
“My most important thing is that everybody is paid. Our vendors never waited for a check. I just feel if you can pay everybody, sometimes you have to weather not such good times,” she said.
“I’m not sad that it’s closing. I gave it my best try and I enjoyed it, but now I want to take it easy and have more time with my family.
“Over the years, I became convinced that grandparents support the airline industry. They would come in here on their way to the airport to pick up toys. Now, I want to do that. I want to visit my grandchildren.”
Toys left after Christmas may be sold at a one-day sale in January, Beck said.