Playing and Learning in the Wild Wild West

08/14/2018
by Tina Manzer

“We’re in the ‘business of children,’” explains Jane Burbank, owner of multifaceted Teacher’s Corner-Kid’s Mart (TCKM), a 29-year-old store in Gillette, Wyoming. “We’re proud to be the state’s largest independently owned and operated toy store, and the only teacher supply store in the region.”

It’s July, and Jane is getting ready for her annual sidewalk sale. No, it’s not a back-to-school event for teachers, she clarifies. Over the last 18 years, Jane’s store has shifted from a 50/50 ratio toys-to-teacher items, to more like 90/10, respectively. “The school market has changed so much,” she says. “A lot of districts today don’t encourage their teachers to find their own resources; they want them to stay within the curriculum. When teachers do need resources, they turn to Pinterest or teacherspayteachers.com.”

The back-to-school selling season may not be the store’s biggest anymore, but it remains “good,” notes Jane, a former teacher. “In the toy world, the summer months can be bleak. Teacher purchases in July and August give us that little ‘oomph’ we need to get over the hill before we get to the big mountain.”

The sidewalk sale adds a little zing to the cash flow, too. It’s also a means to an end: cleaning out malingering merchandise gives Jane room to stock up for the holidays.

Believing in downtown

The store is the result of a 1989 merger between Teacher’s Corner, a small teacher supply store; and Wilderness Toys, a home-based toy store. Jane worked for the business’s two partners after she left teaching to raise her family. In 1994, she and her husband Dale, also a teacher, bought out one of the partners. They bought out the other six years later.

Under Jane’s management, the business grew. In 2005 a move from one end of a downtown block to a bigger building at the other end doubled the store’s space. Then in 2014, a year after Dale retired and joined the store full time, it moved to its current location in the middle of the block. It has 6,000 square feet of selling space. 

Jane is an ardent supporter of her downtown. “There are other stores here that sell toys, and the bookstore has a unique mix of children’s books, art supplies, tea and candles. I think that if we all have a nice mix of stuff, we can keep shoppers downtown.”

You’d think that with the closest mall 140 miles away, that wouldn’t be a problem. But, as Jane relates, the same people who complain that they can’t find on-street parking right directly in front of her store think nothing of driving two hours-plus to shop in Rapid City, South Dakota!

Gillette, nicknamed “the energy capital of the nation,” is a coalmining town. “We have a lot of natural resources that keep our area hopping, including oil, gas and uranium,” Jane explains. Its distinction as Wyoming’s third-largest town belies the actual number of citizens –just 32,000.

“It’s not very populated, so I am often amazed that we’ve done so well here,” she comments. “But we also draw from some of the small towns around us. Going east, the closest one is 28 miles. Heading west, it’s 67 miles. We’re a sports-minded area and many kids are involved. Families travel all over for tournaments, and I consider myself lucky that they stop here.

“Our store hosts special events and activities that bring people in,” she adds. “I know I could do more if I had the staff. That’s my biggest challenge right now.”

Her team consists of 10 part-timers: retired teachers, moms, a high-school student and a college kid home for the summer. Others are teachers who help on Saturdays during the school year; more in the summer.

“They’re all great, but no one likes working weekends,” says Jane. The store is not open on Sunday – except during the holidays. “Then I could use everyone seven days a week!”

She works hard to rally neighboring businesses to follow her lead in hosting events. “This year, for the first time in a long time, my neighbors are joining me in the sidewalk sale,” she says. “I’m excited because I’ve been a standalone for a couple of years. We expect a lot of people – our downtown is holding a brew fest on Saturday. People are discovering we have a lot going on down here again.”

Everything is educational

TCKM’s teacher section is heavily stocked with decorations. “Most teachers are very creative people; that’s why they got into the field in the first place,” Jane explains. “They have a strong desire to make their room unique; you know, ‘their own.’ They’re in it all the time so they get tired of, and then they change it, just like they change their homes.”

Décor may be the top seller for teachers, but every product at TCKM is educational. “We say all toys teach. It depends on what you want children to learn.”

Thanks to their teaching experience, she and Dale are able to spot items from the toy world that are also good for the classroom, including games, books, science kits, and arts & crafts. “We sell a lot of arts & crafts items,” she says. “Magnetic block sets are big right now too, and different kinds of marble runs. We have a big construction section and carry science kits that help kids build things like robots or bridges. For babies we have the basics: something to love and something to chew on.”

It takes a lot of product to fill 6,000 square feet, and TCKM doesn’t disappoint. As Jane tells me, Dale sometimes gets overwhelmed. “I just explain that I want our customers to have choices. Life is about choices.

“Parents choose items to help their children learn the alphabet, or help develop gross motor and fine-motor skills, decision-making skills, and verbal skills. To meet their needs, we carry a variety of open-ended and creative toys. ‘An invitation to play and learn’ is our tagline.

“We are very strongly oriented toward games,” Jane adds. “We even have a game bar where staff can teach customers a game before they take it home.”

Among the store’s favorites are classics like Five Crowns and Quiddler, and newer games including Dead Man’s Draw from Mayday Games, and Chickapig distributed by Buffalo Games. Chicapig, invented by guitar maker David Calhoun with help from his musician friend Dave Mathews, is played on a chess-like board with animal pieces.

“We also do game nights in schools as fundraisers for the parent councils,” Jane adds. It’s a project they undertook after hearing the answers to a question Dale posed to his third-grade students: “What games do you like to play?”

“Out of 25 kids, not one mentioned a board game or an outside activity! Every one was a video game. It’s scary, especially since we see the need for kids to develop better verbal communication skills.”

When I asked Jane, “How’s business?” she laughed.

“How do I explain about our two great months thanks to fidget spinners?”

It was her first exposure to a fad – she wasn’t in on the Beanie Baby craze, and adult coloring books sales are still selling at TCKM. But how about those spinners? “When school was done, that fad died faster than an ant!”

Trends start on the East Coast, Jane believes, and then move to the West Coast before they work their way back toward Wyoming. She tries to pay attention, and gets the lowdown at ASTRA Marketplace every year. It’s the only tradeshow she attends.

Jane loves traditional retail. “We’d like to continue growing and being an active part of our Gillette ‘Main Street,’” she says. “I really like the interaction with the customers and helping them find quality toys, games and new products for their families.”

The store’s website is for information only; Jane doesn’t think they’ll ever have a shopping cart. “We’re so busy with our customers, I don’t feel that we can do them justice if we have an ecommerce site, too.

“The business of children is a good business because of the friendships we’ve formed and watching families grow. It’s been a wonderful life.”

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