PITTSBORO – Samantha Birchard’s excitement at the 10-year anniversary of her toy store was quickly soured when government-mandated restrictions stifled the shop’s operation in March.
But with an inimitable selection and winsome shopping experience in the heart of downtown, she says Pittsboro Toys is here to stay.
Like all small business owners in an area troubled by coronavirus, Birchard has had to adjust her business model to retain customers and to minimize revenue loss. She’s requiring face-coverings, and although in-store shopping is allowed, she continues to offer curbside pick-up and shopping by appointment. Early in the pandemic, when restrictions were at their stiffest, she had a small breakthrough upon discovering that COVID-19 regulations permitted her to keep her doors open, with some qualifications.
“I thought I was going to have to completely close,” she said. “But I found out I could do it by appointment as long as I followed some rules. I had the door open all the time and I was sanitizing everything constantly.”
Still, Birchard watched sales drop off as the pandemic dragged on.
“It made me nervous,” she said, “but all I could do was take it one step at a time.”
To combat major losses, Birchard took advantage of her extra downtime to bolster the store’s web and social media presence.
She regularly posted to her Facebook and Instagram pages, promoting her latest products for entertaining housebound children. Moving forward, Birchard plans to expand her store’s website to make it easier for customers to evaluate her selection and to decide what they want in advance.
“I want people who are nervous about coming in to have options, to feel safe,” she said. “And I want to make it easier for people to see what I have.”
While a bolstered online presence will help Birchard to keep pace with the way business functions in an internet-driven era, the charm of her toy store — located in The Blair Building across from the Chatham historic courthouse on Hillsboro Street — will always be in the uniqueness of her merchandise.
Among aisles of puzzles, puppets, robots and other toys — many of which are not available in the big franchise toy stores that dominate the industry — lie the real treasures of Pittsboro Toys: local, handcrafted playthings for children up to about age 12.
What makes them all the more exclusive is that most of the toys’ makers have passed away.
Ralph Evans was Birchard’s first and most prolific supplier of locally made toys. The World War II and Korean War veteran pilot had a penchant for identifying trucks, animals, and more in the leftover bits of wood strewn about his shop. His talent and passion for handmade toys eventually developed into a business of its own.
“From test pilot to toy builder may seem a strange transition,” Evans once wrote, “but now, in retirement, I think I’ve found my purpose in life. There is great satisfaction in using scrap wood to make things that give pleasure to others.”
Birchard first met Evans at a local craft fair shortly after opening her store, and the two struck up a partnership. Though he died in 2018, Evans lives on in his work.
“He was such a hard worker,” Birchard recalled, “I still have so many toys from him.”
An entire shelf in Pittsboro Toys, spanning the length of the building, is dedicated to Evans’ wares. Birchard has boxes more out of view.
After working with Evans for a time, Birchard said, she “developed a reputation as the store that sold locally made toys.” Other craftsmen and local toymakers soon started approaching her to strike up business relationships.
One such company was HQ Kites & Designs USA out of Powells Point, located in Currituck County in extreme northeastern North Carolina. The biplane kites on display in Birchard’s shop resemble the one Wilbur and Orville Wright built in 1899 on which their first-flight airplane was later based.
Other popular items include robotics kits that teach kids the basics of mechatronic engineering; chemistry sets, the products of which can be eaten; and puzzles of 1,000 pieces or more. The puzzle-lovers she sees most often these days are not children, though, but housebound adults eager for intellectual stimulation.
Despite having tentatively overcome the crisis, Birchard is realistic about the ongoing difficulties of small business ownership in a COVID-19 world. She is keenly interested not only in the welfare of her own store, but in helping all local business to thrive. It’s a sense of community responsibility that stems from her family’s rich history in the area; they’ve lived in North Carolina for 250 years.
“I’ve been involved for a long time,” Birchard said. “I try to help whenever I’m asked.”
These days, she says, she helps mostly with organizing Small Business Saturday and Mainstreet Pittsboro, events designed to connect Chatham County consumers with their local vendors.
Birchard’s community engagement and her work with Pittsboro’s many small businesses began when she joined the Pittsboro Business Association. Eventually she served as president of the organization (which comprises 58 local retailers and service businesses) until stepping down a few years ago to concentrate her efforts elsewhere. Her continued zeal for Chatham County businesses is evident, though, in the time she dedicates toward helping her peers navigate coronavirus woes.
As many states and communities around the country roll back their plans to reopen businesses and to resume normal activity, Birchard can’t help but wonder how local circumstances will affect small business operation in Chatham County. She admits she’s worried about the future, but confident her store will survive. That confidence, she said, is derived from what she knows of her community and its business owners.
“There are lots of people who want to shop locally in Pittsboro, instead of with the big stores,” she said. “I’ve been really impressed with people’s resilience and creativity. Small businesses can’t get away with what big business can, so we’re really trying hard. There’s no margin for error. But again, it’s just about taking it one step at a time.”
For more information, go to www.pittsborotoys.com, facebook.com/PittsboroToys or @PittsboroToys on Instagram.