Simple toys key to Pure Imagination

Pure Imagination toy store.
Pure Imagination toy store. CDT photo

There was a time when games and toys didn’t need to be connected to Wi-Fi or have the support of a major franchise.

They were meant to build, create and inspire the imagination. They included puzzles, magic tricks and science kits.

Rhett Walsh said he and his co-owner, Marc Tressler, love technology but think basic toys and games are some of the best building blocks for learning.

“Kids still like to play with the simplest toys,” he said.

Through this love of simple toys, Pure Imagination was born. Now in its 13th year of operation, the corner toy store still offers “a wide variety of educational toys and gifts along with hard-to-find ‘retro’ toys,” Walsh said.

Tressler and Walsh were inspired to open the store after a community yard sale weekend in Bellefonte, Walsh said. After visiting the downtown and surrounding Victorian neighborhoods, they felt the town could really use a neighborhood toy store.

If the term “pure imagination” sounds familiar, the name for the store was inspired by the song of the same name featured in the 1971 film “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.”

Tressler and Walsh have 20 years of retail experience, Walsh said. Having worked in everything from grocery stores to shoe stores, big businesses to small businesses, they found they loved small businesses the most.

“You can give more attention to those little details that keep customers coming back,” he said. “Toys are also a lot of fun to sell.”

The shelves and walls of the store are a multicolored extravaganza of playthings. Activity books, floor pads, toy cars, art supplies and solar-powered robots only scratch the surface of what is offered. There are toys to cover any interest, and children aren’t the only ones who can take part in the fun.

“We have a lot of toys geared toward the younger kids,” Walsh said, “but there are all sorts of fun things for any age at Pure Imagination.”

Baby and toddler toys are very popular, he said, and basic and early-learning toys for ages 3 and up also sell well. For the older kids, science and craft kits and construction toys are hot sellers.

The store also shares a unique relationship with the Melissa & Doug toy line. The children’s toy company was started by Melissa and Doug Bernstein in their Connecticut basement. Twenty-five years later, they’ve grown it into a nationwide toy manufacturing business.

Pure Imagination has built up a good relationship with the company over the years, Walsh said. The store features almost the entire line of products, featuring hundreds of toys for all ages.

“They make some of the best wooden toys around,” he said.

Equally as impressive as their in-store stock is the store’s Web presence. Through the store’s website, shoppers are able to create their own accounts, order online and track their orders. With more than 20 categories, hundreds of toys, puzzles, games and costumes are available for purchase.

The website was started in 2003, Walsh said, and was one of only a handful of specialty toy stores to have an online presence at that time.

“We loved the idea of selling online and did very well for a number of years selling our products nationwide,” he said.

The past 10 years have seen the rise of Amazon and many other stores selling online as well, he said. Many local customers use the Pure Imagination website to see what the store has to offer.

The store gets calls all the time from customers asking if they can hold a toy for pickup after work, he said. Occasionally, a local resident will order from the website as well. In those cases, they ask the customer if he or she would like to stop by to pick it up.

They will refund shipping in those cases, he said.

Tressler and Walsh also offer free gift wrapping and a layaway program, Walsh said.

Play is encouraged in Pure Imagination, he said, and several areas of the store are designated “play stations.” In these areas, kids have access to toys sold in the store, including a train table, a three-story dollhouse and a play kitchen.

“There’s nothing worse than going into a toy store where your kids can’t play,” he said.