Two young boys ran past colorful displays and toys to a low table in the rear of the Gumdrop Tree, intent on the wooden train set play area with Thomas the Tank Engine.
"Thomas the wooden train area has been huge for us," said Cathy Hughes, store owner.
The Gumdrop Tree, which opened this spring in downtown Brainerd, offers baby gifts, toys, books and unusual items. Toys, board games and candy have a nostalgic feel as many parents recall them from their own childhoods. Orders may be placed for items the store does not have on hand.
There are puzzles, plush animals, Felt Kids and Colorforms. A display of Felt Kids offers a felt backdrop and forms -- people, pets and products -- that stick to the backdrop. Children create their own games fueled by their imaginations. That type of quiet play minus the electronic gadgetry is typical of the Gumdrop Tree's inventory.
Many items can be hard to get outside of the Internet. Hughes looks for items that are not easily found anywhere else, she said.
"We are not afraid to go against super Wal-Mart because what we have is different," Hughes said. "We are the old-fashioned toy store. ... It's back to what play was all meant to be."
Prices range from a $2 bracelet to a $120 large, soft, realistic-looking crocodile. A family bought the crocodile late last week, creating an interesting image as the large creature crossed Laurel Street. Hughes exacted solemn promises from the boys to take good care of the creature.
"That's exactly what it's all about," she said afterward. "Kids come in all smiles. ... It's not the high end. It's the play that's affordable."
The Brainerd store is Hughes' second, with an original location in Aitkin. Hughes said the Brainerd store is bigger, offering the option of more product lines. She said a goal is to keep each store unique. In Brainerd, space allowed the store to have age-based sections -- babies and toddlers -- to make shopping more convenient for those looking for gifts.
Hughes' father-in-law created a Ferris wheel of 25-cent bins using Amish buggy wheels. One customer comes in daily just to buy candy from the dime rack. Much of the candy is nostalgic: Skybars, Turkish taffy and Boston Baked Beans. Gummi options come in packages resembling breakfast, tacos and submarine sandwiches.
But the majority of the store is devoted to imaginative play. A seasonal area is now stocked with summer supplies. Nearby the theme is black for glow-in-the-dark items. Other displays feature handcrafted wooden puzzles -- including one that creates a map of the United States -- a symbol-playing monkey, string puppets, dolls, journals and baby blankets. A Find It game is actually a plastic tube with tiny beads that shift with a shake and reveal a mix of small items inside. A check-off list comes with the package. Recently a shopper bought one for a hospital patient.
The store carries items that appeal to a variety of age groups -- bath confetti, mood rings, Minnesota T-shirts and sweatshirts, fish pens, Mars Mud (called iridescent intergalactic goop), and links bracelets and customized charms. A boy at the Aitkin store recently bought a bracelet and 13 charms for his mom's Mother's Day present.
Inspired by Macy's, Hughes plans to have window displays created around a book theme that will attract people to the store just to see the display in the tradition of downtown window shopping.
"That's what we want to try to get back to."
RENEE RICHARDSON can be reached at email@example.com or 855-5852.
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