When Dyane Villalobos got laid off from her job in real estate in San Francisco over a decade ago, she decided it was time to try something completely different. Inspired by her search for quality toys for her young daughter, she started thinking about the idea of starting her own toy store.
“We were having to go out of the area to buy the types of toys we wanted for her, things that were more educational and weren’t just a bunch of cheap plastic. We wanted to focus on more creative toys, one that would last - more wooden toys, more stimulating toys, and fewer electronics.”
— Dyane Villalobos, owner of Childish Toy Shop
The idea led her to purchase a children’s resale business called Childish, then located in Live Oak. After donating the store’s existing merchandise, the store was re-born as a purveyor of quality, lasting and thought-provoking children’s toys. Less than a year later, the store moved to Soquel Avenue in Santa Cruz’ Midtown area.
In the 11 years since Childish first opened, Villalobos has built a business that is fun and welcoming- a place that’s aimed at children but is also just as delightful for adults to shop at as well. You won’t find a bunch of cheap plastic toys here. Instead, visitors can peruse everything from wooden blocks to science sets, games, puzzles, and more. Some of the most popular products they currently sell include micro scooters, Legos and shashibo cubes, a type of magnetic puzzle box (think a modern equivalent to the Rubik’s cube.)
The term Childish is apt; the bright, welcoming store also carries a plethora of items for children of all ages. The older end of that spectrum might enjoy a Dolly Parton or a Freddie Mercury tote bag, for instance. Since the closure of Palace Arts’ downtown shop, the store’s seen more demand for arts and crafts supplies.
Activity books are a huge seller lately. Villalobos and her staff work hard to curate their selection of wares, attending numerous trade shows and seeking out independent toy companies to purchase from with a heavy focus on U.S.-made products. A visit to the store isn’t just a shopping trip; it’s an adventure.
“I really strive to create a pleasant experience for everyone who visits,” she said, adding that she knows many of her customers by name now and they often pop in just to say hello and see what new items she’s added.
After outgrowing their first spot on Soquel Avenue, Childish has been at its current location, a former bead store, for about six years. And now, visitors and residents have two locations to get their Childish fix. Villalobos has opened a second spot right next to the Del Mar Theater, as part of the City of Santa Cruz Economic Development Department’s pilot program “Downtown Pops!”.
It’s a move that’s incredibly exciting for Villalobos, who operated a pop-up shop downtown back in 2019. “After getting a taste of downtown, I’ve been wanting to get back there ever since,” she said. “I think every city should have a toy store downtown.”
It’s also an exciting development for downtown overall, as city leaders work to help fill the area’s empty storefronts and remove some of the barriers to entry for businesses looking to open a brick and mortar location. Childish is the third business participating in Downtown Pops!, a vacant storefront activation program launched in Summer 2021 that provides subsidized rents for small locally owned businesses with the goal of securing a long term lease to fill vacant spaces.
Childish’s new spot is smaller than the Soquel store but with no shortage of quality merchandise. Villalobos’ vision for the new spot is to create a clean, modern and welcoming space that celebrates the magic and wonder of toys, and offers a family-friendly destination. Bringing more families downtown is near and dear to her heart, and she looks forward to helping fulfill this goal through Childish. As a woman-owned, minority-owned, queer-owned independent business, creating a culture of openness, inclusivity and community is core to the Childish ethos.
“I take a lot of pride in that, and that extends to my staff,” she said, adding that her own children, now 10 and 14 years old, also help out at the store.
These qualities led the Economic Development Department to select Villabos’ Childish store as the tenant for the newly remodeled space. Expanding to downtown will help bring more of that community spirit to a greater slice of Santa Cruz. Not only will children and their parents now have an authentic toy store downtown to visit, but during the holiday season, the new Childish location will also be hosting visits from Santa Clause in conjunction with the Downtown Association.