“When I hire someone new, or someones asks about my store, I explain how we’re in Manhattan, but we really do consider ourselves a small neighborhood store,” says Karen Barwick, owner of Boomerang Toys, an important Tribeca resource for 14 years. “We remember what people have bought, and we ask them how they liked it, so we can help find the next toy. We know the neighborhood.”
How did you get started in this business?
When 9/11 happened, I was working at a record company, and I had a baby and a four-year-old. The record company went out of business, and I got laid off. I had a lot of vacation and holiday time, and I was nervous after 9/11 and my kids and I didn’t want go back to corporate work. We live in Battery Park City, and one weekend one of my kid’s friends was having a birthday party. I went to the Toys”R”Us that used to be at Union Square to get a gift. At the party, a few of the moms said they had seen me there—we all had gone there! I woke up the next morning and realized I should open a toy store down here. We opened at W. Broadway and Worth in November of 2002, then we moved to this space in May of 2009. We opened a second store at the World Financial Center in 2006, but they kicked us out in 2011 when they decided to remodel. We opened a store in the New York Mercantile Exchange in 2012, but that location was too tough.
What is Boomerang Toys known for?
I like to think it’s our customer service. My managers and I hand-pick every toy. Customers know that if it’s here, it’s here for a reason. Most ask for advice, and they like that they don’t have to do the research themselves. And of course we gift wrap!
Where did the name come from?
My four-year-old was really into superheroes. He was the Blue Boomerang, and his brother was Shield Boomerang. He’ll kill me if you mention that! He wanted the store to be called Boomerang Brothers, but we shortened it. We probably should’ve gone with Boomerang Brothers, because everyone thinks we sell boomerangs.
What’s the most satisfying part of what you do?
Watching the kids grow up. Kids that were three or four when we opened are now in college. Sometimes their parents still come in, which is nice to see. Also, we support local teams, and I love walking by the ball fields and seeing the store’s name on the jerseys.
It must be nice for older kids, knowing that their toy store is still here.
We recently had a woman come in—she asked if I recognized her, and I did. I’m good with faces and names. Her daughter, who’s now in college, needed puppets for a project, and she remembered that we have them. When she asked her mom if Boomerang Toys is still open, the mom was very touched that she remembered it.
Most popular item?
The bestseller for the last 14 years has been Magna-Tiles, clear plastic with magnets for free building, so you use your imagination. Kids start playing with them around three years old, but they still come in for them as old as nine and ten. Micro Scooters are popular, too.
I always thought adults were riding their kids’ scooters home from dropping their kids off at school.
Huh. Least expensive item?
Silly Putty. No, Wikki Stix for 75¢. They’re pieces of yarn coated with wax, so you can mold them into creations. We sell a lot as party favors, or parents buy them on their way to dinner because they need a distraction for their kids.
Your very favorite item right now? In other words, what do you play with when no one’s around?
Crazy Aaron’s Thinking Putty! It comes in all different colors and shapes. We also sell it to physical and occupational therapists.
Where do you source stuff?
Initially, I had never worked in retail, and never with toys. So I went into my kids’ closets to see what they loved, and I started contacting the manufacturers. Now, I meet with toy reps a few times a month. And there are toy shows—the big one at the Javits Center in the winter, and I went to Denver in June. There’s a German toy show I’ve been to. And customers come in and ask for things.
I imagine trends bubble up unexpectedly.
They do. We’re 90% tried and true and 10% trends. You want to have what people want, but trends come and go so fast. Kids are the ones who really know what’s coming up next. There’s a TV show, “PAW Patrol”—my kids are older now, so I had no idea about it.
Tribeca has obviously changed a lot. Any changes that have surprised you?
The influx of big chain stores. There have always been great restaurants around here, but there don’t seem to be as many shops where you can shop for goods. I used to love Working Class on Duane. And Pookie & Sebastian, though it wasn’t here for long. Now we have Bed Bath & Beyond and those stores.
How has your business changed?
We’ve had to adapt to the Internet. It’s hard for retail. When we opened, we sold no mass market toys—no Disney Princess, no Hot Wheels. We’ve added that over time, so now we’re 70% specialty, 30% mass market. We can’t compete with the Internet if we’re just mass market.
What percentage of your business is local?
I’d say 65% residential, 25% workers, and 15% tourists.
Tell me a crazy customer story.
I’m not big on sharing celebrity stories—we do as much as possible to respect their privacy—but this one is kind of funny. When his son was a little younger, Harvey Keitel was a semi-regular customer. One day he came in and inquired about a certain toy. I was working alone in the store at the time, and I told him I’d have to look it up online. Next thing I know, he’s behind the counter with me. After a few minutes, he was still looking on the computer and I had some work to do, so I left him to it and went in the back of the store for a second. A customer came in and asked Harvey about the tricycles we were selling. He listened to her, then asked her to wait until someone could help her, at which time he called for me. She and I went to the front of the store, and I launched into this whole spiel about the tricycle, when I realize she wasn’t listening to me at all. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I can’t focus on what you’re saying. Does Harvey Keitel work here?”
Photographs by Claudine Williams, who specializes in head shots for actors, business professionals, or anyone looking to be photographed.