It's easy as a person over the age of 30to cast judgment on the youth of today in regards to their computerized interests and couch-oriented, hand-controlled play habits. Those born before the 1980s remember walking uphill to school in the snow, both ways. We didn't have the Internet or video games. We played war with sticks and trash can lids. If we were lucky we played with G.I. Joe or Star Wars figures. When nobody was looking we combed the mane of our sister's My Little Pony toys. We built skyscrapers and spaceships out of Lego bricks. Back in those days we had imagination. We had attention spans. Kids these days are too busy clicking mouses and jumping up and down in front of a Wii...or are they?
Wayne Kneeland's might prove otherwise. This weekend, Kneeland is hosting a sweet 16 birthday party for his Hope Street toy store. He's been selling the community quality toys since 1995, the kind of toys that are both fun and educational, the kind that help kids expand their imagination by way of letting them think and enact for themselves. Kneeland sells the old classics such as Playmobil and Erector Set, but he also offers future classics such as Melissa & Doug and Thomas trains. Kneeland's thriving business is a testament to the hard work and research he conducts in selecting products for his shelves. It's also the result of the many healthy minds in our community, the kids and adults who expect the very best of their toys.
Born in New York, Kneeland spent his early adulthood in Chicago making a living as an actor. He studied at the Goodman School and earned himself speaking roles in classics such as Risky Business and Uncle Buck. He got married in Chicago and suddenly found himself thinking about the finances needed to raise a family. Unfortunately, theater doesn't provide most actors with that kind of economic stability. After doing some research, Kneeland came up with the idea of owning a toy store. As a teen, he would perform puppet shows at birthday parties. He'd always been interested in entertainment and wanted to continue working in an industry of creativity and imagination.
“I didn't have a lot of toys growing up,” Kneeland says. “So I guess I'm making up for lost time.”
Kneeland had relatives who lived in the area. He visited Bristol and knew immediately that he'd found the perfect, picturesque setting for his new endeavor, a classic backdrop for a toy store. At that point, Bristol was just beginning to renovate its downtown. The timing couldn't have been better. Kneeland's The Toy Company and his son Tim were born that year.
Kneeland has since knocked down a wall and doubled his space. He has won RI Monthly's “Best Toy Store.” His neighborhood specialty toy store has prospered in an era of corporate boxed toy stores. This is due in large part to his commitment in not just providing customers with the latest video game or collectible. He goes out of his way to find toys that allow kids to learn through play, that assists in the development of their imaginations and intellect. With many toys being manufactured overseas, safety is also a primary if not main concern of Kneeland's.
“When I select toys for the store, I'm really thinking about the benefits that toy will have on a kid. Will it inspire them? Will they remember it for the rest of their life?”
With both online shopping and playing, Kneeland does have his work cut out for him. He is meeting the challenges of the Internet age by having a Facebook page and launching a website of his own where customers can brwose and shop.
“You can't help but be happy when you walk into a toy store,” Kneeland says. “I am an old school guy. I want people to have that good old-fashioned shopping experience of talking to a knowledgable salesman and holding the product in their hands, but I am also a realist. The Internet is here to stay and we have to move into the 21st century. I am so proud of the website. It's beautiful.”
Saturday's sweet 16 party is in part a celebration of the website's launch. Saturday, The Toy shop celebrated by hosting a party day, offering cupcakes and refreshments and a performance by 12-year-old yo-yo champion, Connor Madeiros, of Barrington.
Having a father who owned a toy store, Kneeland's own children, Tim and Kathleen, were invited to quite a few birthday parties growing up. For his kids and all of us, it's like having our very own Santa Claus right here in Bristol. The job has certainly kept Kneeland jolly over the past 16 years. Perhaps that's due to his testing all the toys in his store personally before putting them on the shelves.
"I'm not getting any older," Kneeland laughs. "The toys keep me young."
For more information, visit their new website.