A big kid is in charge of The Thinker Toys Store
Aaron Bowman proudly confesses at 34 he is just a big kid who loves his job.
The lanky and affable Bowman is owner and sole full-time employee of Thinker Toys on the corner of Winchester’s Braddock and Cork Streets, where he admits he has played with every game offered for sale in the store.
“When I get a new toy in, I need to find out how it works so I can describe it,” said Bowman, who likes to talk about the toy either to the adult buying it as a gift or the accompanying child wanting it.
And as the name implies, this isn’t a video store.
“We don’t have anything that runs on batteries, where you just turn it on and watch it do something,” he said.
Shelves and aisles are stacked with several hundred toys, games and puzzles, including a few 1,000 puzzle pieces sets that appeal more to adults than the store’s main clientele – kids aged 3 to 12.
Bowman grew up surrounded by toys as his parents operated a toy store in the former Dayton’s Farmer Market, today’s Market Dayton, where his parents now operate Crafty Hands, a store selling jewelry, pottery and crafts.
“I never planned to own a toy store,” said Bowman. “I got a degree in computer science at James Madison University in 2005 and worked in Northern Virginia for four years as a programmer,” followed by odd jobs for the next three years.
“I just didn’t like the office atmosphere,” he said. “I wanted to think on my own.”
So he moved back to the Shenandoah Valley because “I love the valley, the mountains, trees and people who are nice, things are calmer and everyone isn’t in a hurry.”
In 2012, Bowman opened Thinker Toys in Creekside Station, moving after three years to his Old Town location.
“I like talking to people and when they come in here, they are usually in a good mood and we laugh and play,” he said. And as an addicted toy lover since childhood, he said, “You find out who makes good toys and who doesn’t. I wasn’t starting from scratch.”
The store name was chosen “because it gives people a little bit of an idea of what kind of store we are.”
When customers come in “most don’t have a specific item in mind and I have played with everything we have,” he noted – including Tinker Toys, now made in plastic, not wood.
Repeat customer Lisa Haynie, 30, of Old Town Winchester, was searching recently for a gift for a 5 year old that was “creative,” noting Bowman “knows the product and is very helpful. The toys are quality and they encourage thinking.”
Competition comes from Amazon and the internet but Bowman notes they can’t talk to kids to find out what they like. Bowman speaks from experience about a suitable item and he feels his commitment to service creates a strong repeat business since “every year we have done better. It’s a good trend.”
Grethel Lehman, of Kernersville, visited recently with her son Alasdair, 5, because “On the internet you don’t know what you are getting. You need a store like this to come and see it.”
“Most of our stuff isn’t in Toys R Us,” Bowman said. “Smaller stores can provide better service because they have people who care.”
Bowman buys toys at a discount for the Discovery Museum, schools and teachers when he can because “Teacher money is tight.”
One of his favorite toys is Magformers, which includes rainbow-colored magnetized metal triangles, squares, pentagons, hexagons, rectangles, etc. that latch on to one another to build 3D structures, like cars, houses, boats, planes, etc.
And he praises eco-friendly Green Toys made of 100 percent recycled materials and built so well, “You can’t hurt them,” said Bowman.
Other favorites include Aaron’s Thinking Putty which comes in various colors with different consistencies; Folkmanis Hand and Finger Puppets of animals, insects and mammals, and Rush Hour, a sliding block logic game with 40 thinking challenges – some including how to get out of gridlock in a city.
The store is open five days a week from 10 to 6 p.m. – closed Sunday and Monday. Phone: 540-450-8780.
Contact Tom Crosby at firstname.lastname@example.org