FREEPORT – Having just returned from the American International Toy Fair in New York City the night before, Island Treasure Toys co-owner Anita Demetropolous is excited – really excited, she said – as she rummaged around the cramped but orderly back office of her Yarmouth location to find the latest gotta-have-it gizmo to show a visitor.
“It’s an alarm clock that rolls off the nightstand when the alarm goes off,” said Demetropolous, 46, as she held up the pool-ball-shaped device. “You have to get out of bed to turn it off. Parents can sneak this into their kids’ rooms at night. It’s unbelievable.”
Demetropoulis has reason to smile. Her specialty toy store, with locations in Freeport and Yarmouth, will expand to Bath in May.
“The old adage for the smart business model is kids and pets. We’ve been lucky. It hasn’t always been easy,” said Demetropoulis.
Island Treasure Toys began as a strictly online venture in 2001 after Demetropoulis and her husband Jim had trouble finding basic and educational toys for their children.
“Toys were so commercialized. I told Jim, Why don’t we just start our own store’” said Demetropoulis.
After a three-week crash course in web design via HTML textbooks available at the local library, she designed a website and began ordering toys through companies that specialized in the types of products unavailable on the shelves of big-box stores.
“It was a giant leap of faith. I had friends help with the first big order. We had no financial backing to speak of,” said Demetropoulis.
The couple’s Yarmouth home quickly became overrun with “tote bags full of toys,” she said, until a friend offered a boathouse to store the bigger items in. Even with the additional storage, things remained tight.
“We were literally crawling through toys at our house,” said Demetropolous.
The transition from web only “clicks” to traditional retail “bricks” happened two years later when Island Treasure Toys moved into a 400-square-foot location on Main Street in Yarmouth. The store quickly became an anchor of the Yarmouth downtown and a popular gathering spot for both kids and parents alike. Demetropolous said the timing was serendipitous as Amazon.com began to dominate online sales of toys and web orders began to wane for Island Treasure. The move also brought the couple face to face with their customer base, a welcome interaction after two years literally walled in by product, she added.
The popularity of the downtown Yarmouth location was hampered by a lack of parking, so in 2009 the company moved its headquarters a few miles down the road to a Route 1 location adjacent to Pats Pizza. A few after signing a five-year lease, business slowed to a crawl.
“I had customers coming in and telling me their husbands had just lost their jobs. We had grandparents whose entire life savings were wiped out. I would go home so depressed, it was day after day, story after story,” said Demetropolous. “We tried to figure out how we could help ourselves and the community. We were down to eating food from our garden, it was pretty rough.”
Searching for a solution, Demetropolous came upon the idea to add a consignment section to the store featuring children’s clothes. It put money back into the community while also providing inexpensive coats, hats, gloves and shirts for families who couldn’t afford to buy new.
“It was a win-win situation for everybody. New customers came in and we got back on our feet,” said Demetropolous.
With the crisis weathered, Island Treasure Toys expanded into Freeport in 2010 with a store on Bow Street. Today, business at both locations is brisk, she says, with a steady stream of loyal customers stopping by for the latest Calico Critter, science kit, Japanese eraser or good, old-fashioned wooden car. Demetropolous attributes her success to hard work, excellent customer service, and staying true to the original vision of the company.
“We want to help create smarter kids. A toy has to have educational value, play value, quality, and sparks a child’s imagination,” she said. “We want to see them using their hands and using their heads.”