More than two months after the coronavirus suspended their transport service, the railroad cars at the Frisco Train Store came rumbling back in late June.
In a feat of engineering, 2-year-old Peter Rogers connected five locomotives — four blue Thomas the Tank Engines and one green Percy — and skillfully swung them through a tight mountain tunnel.
“Choo-choo-choo. Do-do-do!” he sang as he steered the magnetized cars over the rolling hills of the wooden track, roaring past painted trees and across suspension bridges.
Peter and his 4-year-old brother, George, hadn’t been to the Valley Park store since February, eons in the lives of preschoolers.
The shop had remained top of mind, said the boys’ mother, Melissa Rogers. Peter and George asked about it almost daily while they were quarantined at their Ballwin home.
Even in non-pandemic times, small stores such as Frisco need that kind of loyalty to survive in a crowded retail landscape where trains and kitchen sets, Legos and sticker books can be purchased quickly — and often for a lower price — on the internet or during a weekly Target run. The opportunity to play gets families in the door, introduces them to new merchandise and reassures parents that they are buying something their children will use.
Mike Atwood of the Minifig Shop recognized the competition he would be facing from Amazon and eBay when he opened his Lego resale store in Kirkwood last October. He had been buying, selling and trading Legos online for a decade.
“We made a lot of decisions when we opened the store, to have play areas, to have birthday parties,” Atwood said.
Minifig shoppers can thumb through dozens of bins and baskets to find that just-right set of legs, a cowboy hat or bouquet of plastic daisies — which Atwood often lets them take for free. Building a minifigure from scratch costs about $3.
On weekends, brick-stacking enthusiasts used to stand elbow to elbow at the Lego-covered play tables. Those days are gone, but the store was able to weather the shutdown because of its established online presence and a lean staff of family members.
“We’re more fortunate than a lot of businesses,” Atwood said. “We have more flexibility.”
He was already well-practiced in getting Legos squeaky clean. When he buys a used batch of blocks, he sorts through them, picking out broken pieces, errant Nerf artillery and misplaced Barbie shoes. The salvageable Legos are loaded in laundry bags, run through the steam cycle of a commercial-grade washing machine and laid on racks to air dry.
At the store, play tables are now limited to two builders, with gloves and hand sanitizers at the ready.
“There’s only so much you can do,” said Atwood. “It’s like having fruit out at the grocery store; it’s clean, but it gets touched.”
When the shop reopened in June, its foot traffic was about a quarter of what it had been. Before the shutdown, Minifig customers were about two-thirds children and the rest “AFOLs,” adult fans of Legos. Now, Atwood is seeing an even split of grownups and kids, with some parents wary of giving their little ones free rein to explore.
Many customers have asked when private events will resume, which Atwood is aiming for next month.
“We’re in wait-and-see mode,” he said.
Rebranding and renovating have been the watchwords for Urban Fort Play Cafe over the past three months. Megan King-Popp, a former preschool teacher, opened the McKinley Heights attraction with Monica Croke in December 2017.
About half its revenue came from food and drink sales and the rest from the $10 per child admission.
Although the cafe has reopened, the play area remains closed. No preschoolers are working up an appetite on the climbing wall or big yellow slide or at the make-believe farmers market. No parents are treating themselves to a latte while they admire their offspring’s wobbly block tower.
“With the pandemic, it’s not a functional business model,” King-Popp said.
Urban Fort needs different kinds of clients: neighbors who grab a coffee on the way to work or stop by for lunch, but might not appreciate a backdrop of mild pandemonium.
The cafe has updated its outdoor patio and built new dividers indoors to wall in the chaos. King-Popp plans to reopen the play side next month, by reservation only.
While Urban Fort is wooing a new customer base, the Frisco Train Store is counting on its old one.
After a couple of weeks in which only two or three shoppers came through the door each day, owners Tom and Kristin Berry posted a plea on Facebook: “We need your help!” it began.
“We desperately needed a boost to get back on track,” Tom Berry said of the June 16 entreaty, which was shared 1,200 times.
In hundreds of comments, the store’s regulars said they would be happy to pay for a turn at the 16-foot train table.
“You have saved my sanity so many times by having the open play,” one parent commented. “I would do anything to keep your wonderful business going.”
In the two days after the post, the store had its most sales ever. The Berrys moved a couple of play tables off the floor and divided toys into batches, so they could switch them out between groups, disinfecting each train car, piece of track and railroad-crossing sign.
Reservations are made in advance for up to 10 youngsters in each hourlong block. Tickets are $3.
It’s a worthwhile investment for the Lesire family of Caseyville. On their first trip back since the pandemic, 2-year-old Audrey wore her special purple cape to celebrate.
Sara Lesire browsed books like “Scuffy the Tugboat” and “Tootle” while 4-year-old Luke rearranged cars in a double-decker garage, and Audrey set out a snack of watermelon and cheese in the play kitchen.
“We always pick out something fun when we’re here,” said Lesire.
The Berrys are more optimistic than they were in early June. They’ve listed all their products online, sold out a few of their play slots and even received a $150 donation from a young fan’s lemonade stand.
“I’m definitely feeling good about the support,” said Tom Berry.
For now, it’s enough to keep Frisco chugging along.
Daily updates on the latest news in the St. Louis business community.