‘From the Gegent’ is a series of articles featuring businesses, services and the people behind them in the Crown Heights neighborhood in Brooklyn. Presented by Mica Soffer, owner and publisher of community news service COLlive.com and neighborhood directory gegent.com:
Photos: Sholem Srugo
When the largest U.S. toy chain Toys ‘R’ Us declared bankruptcy, experts pointed to “America’s retail apocalypse” as online competitors bite away at the brick-and-mortar industry.
But one toy store in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood proves that with the right approach and services, a traditional street-side store can be a success.
Kingston Toys, known locally as Zakon’s, is now the oldest original store operating on their block of Kingston Avenue, clocking in over 40 years of selling toys, games and stationary supplies.
Local chassidic residents Aron and Sima Zakon purchased the store when it was located at 373 Kingston Avenue (currently Boytique) and with time moved it to its current location down the road at 388 Kingston Avenue.
Aron was a school teacher and Sima was a homemaker that shopped there. Together, they ventured out in a new industry and made it a family store that is today owned and operated by their daughter Braindy and husband Boruch Naparstak.
“What so many people remember about my father is that he would learn at every free moment he had in the store,” Braindy recalls. “He would play Torah tapes of learning and when a kid would be rowdy, he would higher the volume. The kids would think it was a walkie-talkie and quiet down.”
Even after running the store for the last 16 years and rebranding it Kingston Toys, the memories still remain.
“People still call us Zakon’s because that’s my parents’ name,” she says. “We became a neighborhood icon, and a meet-up place on Kingston Avenue. People told us years later, after my father wasn’t in the store anymore, ‘we used to come in here and bring our children, just to show them that you can be in business and still make time to learn.'”
“When we took over,” she explains, “we first updated the look of the store, and then we updated and expanded our merchandise. We always strive to maintain a neat, updated look, and appearance has always been important to us. We were the first ones to renovate our store, and put in a glass window front, years ago.”
And how do they deal with the competition online?
“Even in this day of online shopping, when so many people’s shopping habits have been reduced to just a few clicks of a button, we find that children would rather take their allowance and birthday money to a store which allows them to touch, explore and choose their toys.
“Or, if a customer walks in and asks for a $20 gift for a four-year-old, in a matter of minutes we can suggest something, wrap it for free, and they’re out on their way. So people find it really convenient – and you can beat the time frame.”
Naparstak states that their prices are very competitive for what you will find online. Another factor is the customer attention. “We take the items out of the box if they want to see it, we show them how it works. This kind of personal shopping experience can’t be substituted with online shopping,” she says.
“Parents come to our store regularly because they like the carefully selected toys we carry, the appropriate toys for every child’s stage of development, as well as the fun games and activities. We have many therapists who come in for the toys they need for their work.”
Asked about Toys ‘R’ Us, she says:
“I don’t know why Toys ‘R’ Us couldn’t make it, but I will say that there is something about shopping in a specialty neighborhood store. The parents come in with their children and tell them, ‘here is where I shopped when I was your age.’ It’s very nostalgic and parents just love the service. They’re very happy they have that personal connection. They know if they send their child in, we will help them, and we are familiar with them and what they like. Sometimes I will tell my customers, ‘when I bought this item I had you in mind.’ The large stores can be very overwhelming.”
She says many grandparents shop there because they know they can exchange the items if needed. “Our customer service is great, if anything is broken we will fix it or replace it right away. We also do ‘drive by’ service, people will drive by on the way to an outing, and we can prepare whatever toys, such as bubbles, balls, and more, and they can pick it up on the way,” she says.
“A lot of attention is paid to each customer. Many times if kids need craft items for a school project, and we run out of that item, we will try to restock that item by the next day, even if it means that my husband has to personally go and pick it up,” Naparstak says.
She notes that Jewish salesmen always put on Tefillin when they come by. “It became a ritual already,” she says. “One time, when my husband was not here and a salesman came by, I noticed that he was just hanging around and not leaving. I finally realized, he wants to put on Tefillin. I asked him, and he said, ‘how did you guess? I felt funny leaving without putting on Tefillin.’ I went outside and found a young man walking down the street, asked him to come inside and put tefillin on him. It’s already something the salesmen look forward to.”
As a rule, the Naparstaks try to stay on top of the trends. “Things constantly change, so we are always updating and keeping up with the times,” she says. “It’s a hard job but you have to know what the children like and what is in fashion. Right now slime, squishies and sequins are very in, but things change quickly. You always have to be on top of what the kids want for now.”
But that doesn’t mean they will offer everything for sale. “Being a neighborhood store, we have a sense of responsibility for the items we carry,” she says.
An example, the store won’t carry toys with “really dangerous little parts” or prank toys. “We only carry those around Purim-time but not all year round. Parents really appreciate that, because it’s not something they want their kids playing with on a regular basis.”
Another example is the Rebbe’s educational instruction to parents to only show infants images of kosher creatures, instead of non-kosher animals that are predators by nature and can be a negative influence on a child.
“We try not to carry them,” she says. “We had to convince our suppliers, and were successful somewhat in doing, to embroider ducks and other kosher images instead of bears on the items. We also feel we had a great impact on the Jewish manufacturers in the last few years, as there have been many more companies offering Jewish toys at our request. We have a Kosher animal toy set which they created specifically for us, which includes only Kosher animals.”
They also carry an extensive selection of Jewish-themed toys and games. “We feel we owe it to the neighborhood to carry items that represent what Crown Heights stands for,” she states.
With Lag BaOmer coming up, it’s clear from the selection in the store that seasonal items are a big part of their business. There are bows and arrows, and items for 3-year-old boys who will be getting their upshernish haircut that day. But the summer is also apparent with an array of camp items and outdoor toys.
“School season is really big for us. The kids know we have everything your teacher wants,” she reminds. “We try to have all the school supplies ready so parents don’t have to go crazy and travel around, we have everything here they need for the school list.”
Despite the store being known for toys and games, they also carry luggage that is useful to the many visitors to Crown Heights throughout the year. “Our most famous is the expanding traveling wheel bag, which many people buy to fill up with their Crown Heights purchases before they go home.”
“This business is very nostalgic because we really get to know families for generations, we have the kids coming in, and then they come in with their children, and we get to know them, and see their simchas… we love being a part of that.”
Kingston Toys and Stationery
388 Kingston Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11225
Phone: (718) 774-4409
Hours: Sun-Thurs 11:00am-7:00pm
Fri & Erev Yom Tov: Winter till 3:00 ~ Other Seasons till 4:30
~ Summer Closed on Fri