Toy Shoppe owners Danny and Barrie Shapiro make connections that last a lifetime.
Since Danny Shapiro opened The Toy Shoppe in Richmond, Va., in 1975, he and his wife, Barrie, have paired hundreds, perhaps thousands, of collectors with the highest quality teddy bears and dolls. The Shapiros are matchmakers, relationship experts. Above and beyond anything else, they are partners.
“Danny and I are such a unique team,” shares Barrie, who met Danny in the shopping center where the original Toy Shoppe was located (the store has since relocated to a business park). “It works. There’s no conflict between the two of us. We fill in where the other one doesn’t like to be.” While Barrie generally focuses on the artistic side of things, Danny deals more with business matters. Both enjoy working closely with collectors and artists.
“We love what we do. I couldn’t imagine life without The Toy Shoppe. I love the people we’re involved with,” Danny says.
“I think we both have this feeling with the shop that we’re both so proud of what we represent and for what we’re able to do for the artists,” Barrie adds.
Their efforts on behalf of the designers do not go unnoticed. “They are very nice people, uncomplicated, friendly, and they do well at choosing a good style and design,” says German teddy bear artist Annette Rauch whose first encounter with The Toy Shoppe was in January 1999 at IDEX in San Francisco. “They choose good quality; I could see this through their catalogs from the years since ’99. And I’m sure they love what they do. All the contact is on a high level; they deal fairly with the artists.”
The Shapiros’ reputation for offering topnotch service along with the highest quality bears, dolls and toys is one they have worked hard to achieve and maintain. Whether creating advertisements to showcase their latest offerings, publishing a stunning catalog that serves as a picture book of collectors’ dreams, setting up gallery-like displays in their shop, or determining which bears and dolls to offer collectors, the couple keeps one thing in mind above all others: Quality counts.
When selecting pieces to offer through The Toy Shoppe, Danny says he looks at design quality, quality of artisanship and quality of material used. “It starts with design,” he explains. “How does this feel? How does this look? There are a lot of things that are going through your mind when you are first looking at something. Is it something that’s just a copy rather than being really original?”
Finding truly unique pieces for their customers is something the Shapiros pride themselves on. They often work with artists and manufacturers to design limited-edition shop exclusives that are second to none.
R. John Wright’s “The Little Prince,” inspired by the character from the book of the same name by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, was the first exclusive piece made for The Toy Shoppe. “John had come to us in the early ’80s and asked if I’d like to have something done specifically for The Toy Shoppe,” Danny recalls. “I felt it was a book that really touched me. I’ve read it dozens of times. It was a classic that really touched me emotionally. I thought John could really bring the character to life.”
The Shapiros were not disappointed, nor were the many collectors who added the striking doll to their collections. Since then, R. John Wright and his creative partner and wife, Susan, have created several more sought-after shop exclusives for The Toy Shoppe, as have a number of other artists—Rauch, Deborah Beardsley and Jared Monroe, to name just a few.
And over the years, Steiff has created approximately 20 pieces exclusively for The Toy Shoppe. “Without a doubt, ‘Maximilian’ is one of the most memorable pieces we have done with them,” notes Jim Pitocco, president of Steiff North America. “From the earliest prototypes of this bear, we could tell that this was going to be a winner. Max was a big bear with a great face and a lot of appeal. So it’s not surprising that he sold out so quickly—and that his ‘family’ is also very popular.”
The 32-inch bear has since been joined by his wife, “Appolonia,” and two children, “Zoe” and “Little Max.” Other companions have also been popular in the series. The Toy Shoppe will soon introduce “Grandpapa” as the next exclusive bear in Steiff’s Maximilian family.
“This is an exceptional series that perfectly illustrates how creative and savvy the people at The Toy Shoppe really are,” Pitocco asserts, noting that another of his favorite Toy Shoppe exclusives is Steiff’s “Traveller,” a horse on wheels. “This is one of the most intricate pieces Steiff has produced in many years,” he observes.
“With Barrie and Danny, the ideas and the enthusiasm never end,” Pitocco says. “They are just as excited about their next project as they were about their very first project. Right now, they have more amazing exclusives in the pipeline that are sure to be must-haves for collectors. In my opinion, each piece just gets better and better.”
Building a Dream
The beautiful bears and alluring dolls beckon to customers from the gallery-style showroom at the Shapiros’ store and call to collectors from the gorgeous catalogs and attractive website where The Toy Shoppe showcases its superior offerings.
“I consider The Toy Shoppe an art gallery,” says Wanda Miller, a bear and doll collector who lives in Richmond, about 20 minutes from The Toy Shoppe. “While they have dolls and bears from many different price ranges, the gallery is extraordinary. Exquisite dolls are displayed in vignettes that are incredible. Barrie and Danny are so gracious in answering questions and providing explanations about the various dolls and bears and the artists to new visitors to the gallery. Many new collectors are born following a visit to the gallery.”
Danny understands the emotional pull toys, particularly bears and dolls, can have on children and children-at-heart. He recalls going to FAO Schwarz in the 1950s and “your eyes popping because you saw so many fabulous things. That’s how retailing can inspire. Good stores can be inspirational for children, and adults too.”
A native of Richmond, Danny got started in the toy business when he began working with his father, a mainstream toy wholesaler, after college. But Danny says his real love was for the imported and specialty toys from Europe. He has long been attracted to toys of the past. In college at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., he began as a business major. “I hated it,” he says. “I then went back to my love: history. It could explain some of my love of older objects. I definitely have an affinity for antique toys and antique dolls. All of these makers whose work we love to sell, these people are very much connected to the past.”
In the beginning especially, The Toy Shoppe specialized in all kinds of toys, particularly wooden ones. But the emphasis was always on dolls and teddy bears and stuffed animals. “Remember, most of the toys that are made are functional, inanimate objects, but a doll and a teddy bear have a direct connection to human emotion and animal instinct,” Danny notes. “So there’s that deep connection to your past. So that’s what I think is so special about dolls and teddy bears. And they are really difficult to create as compared to many other types of toys.”
Barrie shares Danny’s affection for toys of the past. “I have always had a fascination and a love of toys. I’ve always loved finely crafted things,” she says. “It’s the magical mix of emotion, warmth and humor. Some the materials used are reminiscent of another time.”
While tuning into the allure of the past, the Shapiros always keep their collectors in mind. “We get to know our collectors well enough to kind of take them in directions they wouldn’t have normally gone,” Barrie notes. Whether offering artists suggestions for exclusives or calling up customers to tell them about a doll or bear they think will be the next great addition to their collections, the dedicated shop owners seem to instinctively know what will tug at collectors’ heartstrings.
“Barrie and Danny are warm individuals who are really interested in promoting the art of doll and bear collecting. We share the same philosophy in that we consider our dolls and bears to be works of art,” says Miller, a Toy Shoppe customer since the early 1980s. “We appreciate the use of expression, color, texture and proportion in our dolls as you would a beautiful painting. I have learned so much from them over the years and look forward to our conversations. They develop an interest in the individual and their collection. They share their knowledge and offer suggestions that enhance a collection. It is not unusual for them to pick up a phone and chat about a new artist or a piece from a favorite artist that they think the collector will appreciate.”
When Miller’s beloved schnauzer, Winston, passed away, her sister gave Barrie and Danny a call to purchase a soft-sculpture schnauzer in remembrance of her precious pet—but the Shapiros had an even more original idea. “They suggested that a wonderful memory could be created by having an oil-painted canvas of a favorite picture incorporated into a fabulous bear. They worked with the artist and my family to create this treasure that captures the spirit of my Winston,” Miller says of the Oz Matilda bear the Shapiros helped her sister to have made especially for her. Her sweet schnauzer is forever memorialized in a painting on the bear’s belly.
Creating lasting memories—and lasting friendships—is what the doll and bear business is all about for the Shapiros and their staff of 16 dedicated employees. “The real fun is still finding the beautiful object and then being able to show it to someone who would love it,” Danny says.
Derie Trujillo, a collector in Westminster, Colo., says she has “always had the utmost respect for Danny and Barrie. They are both very nice people and I truly believe they enjoy what they do as it shows in the enthusiasm in their voices and the fact that they take the time to learn what a collector really wants. They are teachers of collecting. I have learned so much about my beautiful dolls from them. I think it is great that they are so familiar with so many artists and it makes me feel comfortable buying an artist doll from them as I feel they are guiding me in the direction I want my collection to go.”
Collector Mary Helmers of Saratoga, Calif., agrees with Trujillo. “Barrie and Danny are extremely friendly and very knowledgeable in the collectible market,” she says. “Their honesty allows me to know that what they tell me is extremely reliable. I can’t say that about 99 percent of the people I’ve dealt with in this world.”
The Business of Friendship
Artists, too, cherish the relationships they have built Danny and Barrie. “It would be nice to share many more years with them,” Rauch shares. “Through the years we were not only business partners but we also became friends. That makes my work very agreeable, and I know my creations are in good hands.”
Barrie, in particular, is quick to share stories of special moments with artists as well as collectors that she holds close to her heart. “Every day when I come into work and I have something new waiting for me, whether it’s on the computer from an artist with something new or a box I’ve come back to the warehouse with, I feel like it’s my birthday,” Barrie says. “I can honestly say I feel like I make new friends every day.”
She fondly remembers one collector who never fails to make her “job” even more rewarding. “When she comes into the store and you put the doll in her hand and she sees these dolls, you light up because she lights up,” Barrie shares. “It’s like that sense of discovery by collectors of something new. It’s magically transformed doll or bear collections into serious art collections and, often, into emotional collections.”
It is a true labor of love as the Shapiros and their equally enthusiastic staff share their passion with one another as well as with collectors and artists worldwide. “I feel it’s like these last 30 years I’m looking at this patchwork quilt of all these magical moments spent with all these artists,” Danny says.
“I know what we’ve done in our own hearts and in our own home here at the shop and how happy we’ve made collectors,” Barrie adds. “And I know what we’ve done for the market. I’m really, really fortunate in that we both believe that anything that you do, you do well.”