At a time where big-box retailers and Amazon seem to be dominating the toy business, an old-fashioned neighborhood toy store in Marblehead is finding success by going back to the basics.
The family-owned Mud Puddle Toys sits on a street corner in Old Town Marblehead, where it has lived since 2003. It’s an obvious favorite among local kids — when new owner Cassie Watt arrives in the morning to open up shop, she often finds the big front windows smudged with child-sized face and handprint marks, left by a curious kid peering in.
But flashback to just over a year ago, and Mud Puddle was slated to close. Watt and her husband Jay, who own the building Mud Puddle occupies, were approached by the store’s previous owners, Sam and Kristen Pollard, in spring of 2021 with the news they’d be shutting down.
“The thought of Mud Puddle closing was just devastating, it’s such an important part of our downtown here,” said Watt, who lives down the road from the small toy store. “It took us by surprise, but I looked at my husband and said, ‘do you want to buy a toy store?’”
A librarian, Watt had never owned a business before, let alone a toy store, and at the time had three young kids who were still out of school thanks to COVID. But she knew she couldn’t let the rare gem shut its doors, and after taking out a business loan and completing stacks of paperwork, decided to take on what she called her “next adventure:” running a toy store in the middle of a pandemic.
“I realized I had this passion that I never knew I had,” said the Maine native who moved to Marblehead a decade ago. “It was like a door opened and I was like ‘oh wow, I feel really passionately about this. I think this is really fun.’”
A grand reopening was held on May 1 of last year. And in spite of supply chain shortages, shipping delays, and various mandates, the toy store has thrived by creating a whimsical environment that encourages children to play and focuses on personalized customer experiences.
“We had been in blind panic for 14 months because of the pandemic,” said Watt. “And then suddenly, there’s this piece that is so joyful. We leaned into it, and we started looking at what products we could bring in that were more unique and that brought that sense of childhood.”
After wiping off the child-sized fingerprints on Mud Puddle’s windows, Watt and her employees (which include two full-time workers and a handful of part-timers) begin re-shelving and reorganizing to make the store as attractive as possible. The bright blue-and-red awnings come down, chalk is placed outside to catch children passing by, and the doors open at 10 a.m.
Throughout the day, Watt and her knowledgeable team walk around with customers to help them pick out the perfect toy using the child’s age, likes and dislikes, and the customer’s price range.
“That creates a whole fun experience for this person coming in, because they’re really sure they’ve made a great choice and they have a great time at the store while they’re discovering this new toy for the child,” said Watt.
Later, a Mud Puddle employee will follow up with the customer to see how the child likes the product, and compile that feedback throughout the years to help people select birthday or holiday presents.
It’s what sets the small store apart from Amazon, though Watt says she doesn’t really view the e-commerce giant as competition. In a time where an online search can overwhelm you with options, Watt says Mud Puddle has found success leaning into the “old school mentality” of focusing less on transactions and more on customer experience.
Also key to Mud Puddle’s booming business is Watt’s toy inventory. After the pandemic snarled supply chains and delayed toy shipments from Asia, Watt turned to independent toymakers in the US.
“It ended up being this blessing in disguise,” she said. “I found all of these really interesting and now extremely popular toys that I would never have found otherwise.”
Mud Puddle also prioritizes diversity in its toy selection, selling dolls with a range of skin colors and hair textures, as well as toys that are inclusive of children with disabilities. Families from outside Marblehead come to Mud Puddle looking for unique toys they often can’t find elsewhere, Watt said.
“I feel it’s extremely important that when any child walks into the store, they’re able to see themselves, and their families and their community in those toys,” she said. “So that was really fun, to be able to have a firm belief on something and act on it.”
Mud Puddle’s business model is working — the toy store has beat monthly sales expectations by at least 40 percent since reopening almost a year ago, Watt said, which helped fund a renovation and staff raises. To keep up with demand, Mud Puddle expanded into a business next door this past February, and the space now serves as a dedicated book area.
“It was hard to keep up with how popular it was, especially when we weren’t expecting it to be,” Watt added. “It just felt like we tapped into this need that we didn’t even know existed. Everyone was having so much fun and it became infectious.”
The Mud Puddle team’s goals for 2022 are — unsurprisingly — to keep having fun. As the store enters its second year under her ownership, Watt says she’s also eyeing a second location, details pending.
“It has been a crazy and wonderful year, and very surprising for a stay-at-home mom who was working part-time as a librarian,” said Watt. “I’m continuing to learn how to run a toy store. If I do this for 20 years, in year 20 I’ll still be learning.”
Annie Probert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.