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Toy Factory 01

Second-generation business owner Errol Noel at The Toy Factory in downtown Corvallis, with his sons Thatcher, 11, left, and Beckett, 12. The boys visit dad at the shop two to three times a month.

A young boy scampers to the checkout at The Toy Factory in Corvallis and hoists a treasured package of Legos on a counter he is barely tall enough to see over. The look on his face shows he can’t wait to make his purchase so he can get home to open the box and play.

He’s another satisfied customer of The Toy Factory.

The joy of discovering a new favorite toy or game is one of the reasons people choose to shop at the longtime downtown Corvallis business. Online shopping is convenient, but it can’t compete with the experience people have at the Toy Factory.

As retail giant Toys ‘R’ Us holds liquidation sales to close more than 800 stores across the United States, unable to compete with online power Amazon and large discount chains that also sell toys, the Toy Factory recently celebrated its 45th anniversary.

The failure of an industry competitor isn’t reason for second-generation Toy Factory owner Errol Noel to cheer. In fact, it made him sad.

“The reason Toys ‘R’ Us closed is affecting us all,” he said. “People shop differently.”

Noel does not try to compete with big box retailers or online.

“I can’t and I won’t,” he said.

He doesn’t stock the most trendy toys. Instead, he sells quality brands and time-tested favorites, as well as many unique items.

Noel’s parents, Jim and Sue Noel, started The Toy Factory as a mail-order operation in 1972. Noel and his brother and sister were young children then. He remembers how his dad made all the toys and his mom drew the illustrations for the toy catalogs. The Toy Factory became a retail store in Florence. Then the family moved to Corvallis and opened its second location in 1985. The Florence store closed in the early 1990s when it became too difficult to operate from out-of-town.

Noel and his wife took over the business in 2000, when his parents retired. At the time, both Katey and Errol Noel had jobs that were grant-funded, and they had a new baby. Owning a business seemed stable and provided the flexibility they sought as a young family.

There were tradeoffs, Noel recalled.

“You’re always on-call,” he said.

In 2004, The Toy Factory expanded to its current space at 442 SW Second St. The Noels signed a long-term lease and remodeled the former auto shop into a bright and cheerful space. With ample room, they set up displays for customers to try out the toys. Next, they created an indoor play park and a party room that people can rent for birthdays and other special occasions. These additions bring people to the store.

Noel can relate to his customers. One day, he noticed a father had fallen asleep on the floor next to the train table. Parenting can be exhausting. So he brought in chairs for the grown-ups to rest in while the kids play.

About the time that Noel’s two youngest children were toddlers, he also needed a break. So he brought on a store manager, Patrick Sloma, to help with operations.

The Toy Factory opened a second location in Albany in 2011. Growing a business can be a positive step. But after a few years, Noel decided to close the Albany store when he realized it wasn’t worth the extra work.

Noel remembers what it was like to grow up in a family that owned a toy store. It was idyllic and fun, but also a lot of work. When he left home, Noel said he had no intention of taking over.

“I swore up and down that I would never,” Noel said.

His parents encouraged him to explore and try different things. That’s what he wants for his children, too.

Noel’s oldest daughter, Makenna, a high school senior, now works in the store. Middle child, Beckett, a seventh-grader who demonstrates his aptitude in sales by explaining the properties of Silly Putty, would like to work there to hone his business skills when he’s old enough. The youngest, Thatcher, who is in fifth grade, shows the most interest in the family business, according to his dad.

In 2016, the family moved to Kansas when Katey Noel got a job running a summer camp. They returned before school started last year so their daughter could graduate with her friends. Noel said the year away convinced him that they could run the business from out-of-state. That’s one possibility for the future.

Construction across the street of the Benton County Historical Society’s new Corvallis museum brings optimism. When the museum opens in 2019, it could attract more visitors and customers downtown.

People often tell Noel that they think of The Toy Factory as an institution. Multiple generations of families have shopped here. Noel wants The Toy Factory to provide that experience for years to come.

“It’s more than just toys,” Noel said. “It’s a good shopping environment.”

Rebecca Barrett, a freelance writer, is a frequent contributor to Mid-Valley InBusiness.

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