Let me tell you what you won’t find at West Side Toys. You won’t find plastic or rubber weapons, not even water pistols. You won’t find electronics or computer stuff. There are only a very few definitely classic DVDs and CDs. You won’t find Barbies “because she’s a poor role model,” declares owner, Alice Bergman. You won’t find Disney Princesses or Dora the Explorer or Spiderman or Bob the Builder—no licensed playthings—where the franchise is too often more important than quality and stimulation. No TV or film associations here.
What you will find are retro (like Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs, and Sand Art,) non gender specific, multi-cultural, more often than not eco-safe toys; crafts, dolls, musical instruments, costumes (costume components, really, nothing pre-packaged in sets), books, art supplies, sports items, building sets, puzzles…and (limited) décor.
For more than a quarter of a century, this independent family-owned business has been a freehold of fun, creative, educational, well made, attractive toys, each and every one tested-played with by Alice Bergman and her two (now grown) daughters. Honestly. Alice still plays with everything, she still reads every book.
The staff is intimately familiar with the store’s stock. Ranging in tenure from ten to sixteen years, you would almost think they all shared Bergman’s background as an elementary school teacher or that of her daughter, Leslie, in child development. Bergman’s older daughter, Jennie, went on to work in children’s publishing. And they care…generating a loyalty that demonstrates the best of what has been lost by the proliferation of malls and chain stores. Parents who came as children bring their children. Grandparents who came as parents bring their grandchildren. “Customers don’t grow out of us,” says Alice with well-earned pleasure.
“I never planned to own a store,” she begins, “I never planned to leave teaching…” When Bergman had her first lovely blond blue-eyed daughter, she experienced something of an epiphany. All the toys she saw were blonde and blue-eyed! What about children of other ethnicities who also needed to identify with their toys? There were toys for girls in one area of a store and toys for boys in another. What about the little girl who wanted to build with blocks or the little boy who wanted a doll? (Bergman tells me West Side Kids sells a fair number of boy dolls and blue doll carriages for two and three year old boys). She asks if I am familiar with a book called William’s Doll, by Charlotte Zolotow and William Pene Du Bois in which William’s parents are dead set against buying him the doll he wants. His grandmother protests “William just wants to grow up to be a daddy.”
In an effort to provide multi-ethnic and non specific gender oriented playthings, Bergman began to make them herself. She successfully sold these to day care centers, but the economics of production would not support her vision. Her first stores, in New Rochelle and then on Amsterdam Avenue, carried consignment clothes and her own, hand-crafted toys. Gradually, however, some of the industry began to catch up with Bergman’s philosophy and the store grew into what it is under her benevolent vigilance.
From hand-crafted wooden train sets to kazoos, from engaging mobiles to the softest, sweetest plush; with dolls of half a dozen ethnicities, thinking games like Pictionary, dexterity and memory toys, role-playing accessories and an impressive crafts section, inventory is carefully culled for imagination and intelligence. There’s a lovely corner of some of the most artfully selected infant gifts you’ll find and the shop is a veritable one-stop-shop for stocking stuffers. Arranged thematically, it’s easy to navigate when you think you know what you’re looking for and fun to wander when you have no idea what you’re looking for. Help is ever present…and they gift wrap!
Alice Bergman is there four days a week. If you’re lucky, she might be the one providing sage recommendation with a twinkle in her eye.
“Real isn’t how you’re made…It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with but REALLY loves you, then you become real.”
The Velveteen Rabbit
By Margery Williams 1922, A Classic.
West Side Kids
498 Amsterdam Avenue at 84th Street
Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Infant to 14 (games for the latter)