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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, July 29, 2002

Mother's toy stores get Hawai'i kids thinking

By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer

Nancy Page wasn't thinking about starting a chain of toy stores. She was just a mother trying to help her troubled young son.

Thinker Toys founder Nancy Page and her son, Christian, 14, show off their creativity with a GeoMag Kit, which uses magnetic pieces that stick together without fasteners. Nancy runs three Thinker Toys stores in Hawai'i.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

Christian Page was born 3 1/2 months premature and lived in an incubator in neonatal intensive care for the first 4 months of his life. He underwent three operations — on his brain, to his heart and for a hernia.

The doctors said Christian had cerebral palsy. They said Christian "could be a vegetable," Page said.

For years, Nancy Page watched therapists work with Christian using brightly colored, well-made toys that were designed to stimulate his brain and his body.

She searched for the same kind of toys to work with him at home; the kind of toys she couldn't find anywhere in Hawai'i.

Page had to order catalogs and flip through their pages. And over time an idea began to take shape.

"Other parents must be looking for educational toys, too," Page said. "There was an open niche in Hawai'i that no one was filling."

When Christian was 9 Page opened her first of three Thinker Toys stores, beginning at Kahala Mall. In between she gave birth to a second child — a healthy daughter named Pualani — even though the doctors said that having another baby was risky.

"It was a leap of faith," Page said. "That's what I took. A leap of faith."

Before she was a mother and before she was a business owner, Page studied anthropology at the University of California-Los Angeles and at the University of Hawai'i, but never developed her degree into a career.

Instead she got an executive master's in business administration from UH in 1988 while working for an advertising agency.

But she hated the lack of control over her life and work.

"I realized I'm more of the entrepreneurial type," Page said. "I want the flexibility and independence. I like to do my own thing, on my own schedule."

She answered a newspaper ad by Hallmark Cards seeking business people to enter into licensing agreements to run Hallmark stores. Scraping together more than $30,000 from family and savings, Page opened one Hallmark store in Kailua and another at Pearlridge Center.

Hallmark's training program in Kansas City, Mo., taught Page how to lay out a store, display merchandise and market the business. She loved the challenge and the freedom of being her own boss.

In 1992, Page sold the stores to spend more time at home with Christian, who was 3, and Pualani, who was 1. But five years later, the children were in school and "I needed some mental stimulation," Page said.

She was ready to start a new business selling educational toys.

No action figures were allowed. Nothing violent. And she would sell no dolls or toys that were marketed because of a movie.

"I want children to use their imaginations," Page said. "Not play with something where the characters have already been defined and the plot to the movie has already been set."

She thought about calling her new store "Play and Learn." She considered "Creative Kid Stuff."

But Thinker Toys stuck. "I liked the double T's, I guess," Page said. She has since learned that other, unrelated Thinker Toys stores exist on the Mainland.

The learning curve was much shorter the second time around for Page. She opened the Kahala store in 1997 and bought ads in magazines targeted at parents.

With just less than 1,000 square feet of space, Page didn't have the room to organize play groups for children inside the store like she wanted. So she worked with the mall to set up craft areas outside the store that gave children free activities and offered Page free publicity.

In 1998 she opened a 1,500-square foot Thinker Toys at Pearlridge. The next year Liberty House asked if she wanted to rent space out of its Ala Moana Center store. Page wasn't interested, but it got her thinking about moving into Ala Moana.

She rented a 1,150-foot "temporary" site on the ground floor, just behind Centerstage. Immediately, Page's sales were double what she was bringing in at the Pearlridge and Kahala stores combined. Page's personnel roster ballooned to about 40 full- and part-time sales people and her own accounting staff.

Each store has its own manager, leaving Page to work out of her home in Kailua and be available for her children. She visits the stores about once a week. But spending time with her kids still translates into market research.

"I have my own little focus group," Page said. "They tell me what the kids like."

Clifford Atmospera, a regular customer of the Ala Moana store, doesn't think about the business end of Thinker Toys.

He comes in with his children because "the things here are more educational," Atmospera said as his 6-year-old son played with a puzzle with magnetic pieces.

Susan Kihara almost always shops for children's presents at Thinker Toys.

"They have toys that are just neat to play with," Kihara said. "They're also fun for learning and mentally stimulating."

Three years after opening the Ala Moana store, Page is getting ready to move just across the walkway into a "permanent" 1,350-square foot site at Ala Moana. She's investing $30,000 into a computer system that will make it easier to track hot-selling items at all three stores and give her better control over inventory.

She's pouring more than $100,000 into redecorating the new site with brighter colors and a futuristic look that will make it distinctive from the other two stores. She also launched a Web site in April to try to attract more business in Japan and on the Neighbor Islands.

"I'm making this huge capital expenditure at a time of uncertainty for the economy," Page said. "My plan is to have everything in place for when things turn around in Hawai'i.

"It's a leap of faith, I guess."

Reach Dan Nakaso at 525-8085 or dnakaso@honoluluadvertiser.com.