For educational toy shop Chalkboard, “location, location, location” is everything. Situated on Battersea’s Northcote Road, the store is slap-bang in the heart of South London’s Nappy Valley, a place where, according to Chalkboard’s co-owner Chris Songprasert, you “trip over buggies and scooters and dogs” when you go for a walk.
Having scores of young families on the doorstep is a boon for any toy shop, but “parent power” turned out to be a lifesaver for Chalkboard during the pandemic. Chris and his partner Giovanna D’Urso took ownership of the shop just before the first lockdown, and like everyone else, struggled to keep the business afloat while looking after – and attempting to home-school – their then-five-year-old son.
“The local community was just fantastic,” says Giovanna. “We had people knocking at the door saying, ‘Please, let me buy something. I could get it from Amazon but I wanted to come to you.’ It was really heartwarming, and if it wasn’t for Northcote Road sense of community spirit, I’m not certain we’d still be around.”
Chris and Giovanna both have extensive experience in the toy sector, having worked for the store in its previous guise, Fun Learning – in fact, the shop floor is where the pair first met. When the shop sadly folded two years ago, the couple took over not just the premises but the previous owners’ USP of getting to know every toy on the shelves inside-out.
“When I first started at Fun Learning, the owner spent two whole days going through every single product with me,” recalls Chris. “The staff were incredibly knowledgeable about the toys and games because they actually played with them, and it was empowering as a sales assistant to have the answers to every question instead of just reading off the back of the box. And that’s become the standard we work to at Chalkboard.”
While in-depth product knowledge is one thing that sets Chalkboard apart from its online counterparts, the other factor – impossible to recreate digitally – is fun. The store is awash with unboxed toys and games and has two demo tables where kids and parents can get hands-on with the merchandise.
“When kids first come in they can be quite tentative,” explains Chris. “We’re quite loud and silly, but we say, ‘Come and play this game with me!’, and they relax.”
Chris and Giovanna believe that getting hands-on is imperative for both kids and their parents when it comes to choosing playthings. “We’re all kinesthetic in some way,” says Chris. “When you see a product online, you don’t know what it feels like. Toys are sensory, and what works for one child might not work for another. The same holds true for parents; they should enjoy playing with a product, too. If kids can see their mum or dad enjoying playing a game, they feed off that.”
Every product stocked at Chalkboard must offer an educational benefit of some kind. “There’s definitely a place for licensed toys like Barbie and Paw Patrol, because they encourage emotional learning,” says Chris, “but it’s nice for us to be able to offer products that focus on fine motor skills, or problem solving, or spatial or non-verbal reasoning. And because the products are fun, kids don’t realise they’re learning.”
Djeco – a French company supplying “beautiful” retro-inspired wooden toys and puzzles, craft kits and more, is one of Chalkboard’s biggest hits, while products by Learning Resources and Smart Toys and Games consistently top the shop’s bestsellers chart. “We could definitely fill the whole shop with those two brands alone,” Giovanna says. “Their products feel really nice, they’re well designed… They hit all the marks.”
As for all small businesses, rising costs are causing some anxiety. Some of the shop’s suppliers have raised their prices four or five times in a single year, making it far harder to source those “cool birthday party gifts” around the £10–£15 price point. Chris and Giovanna are reluctantly reviewing which brands they can no longer afford to stock. “We want to support all our suppliers, but it’s getting hard,” admits Giovanna. “Everyone’s in the same boat, it’s just a tough time at the moment. With things like business rates on top, it can sometimes make us question why we’re doing it. But ultimately, our love for the shop, and seeing how it affects people in such a positive way, surmounts everything.”
60 Northcote Road, London SW11 1PA; 020 7924 7066; www.chalkboard.co.uk
This feature appears in the Spring/Summer 2022 issue of ToyNews. Read more here.