Karen Barwick remembers as if it were the most recent Black Friday her inspiration for starting Boomerang Toys, Lower Manhattan’s go-to destination for eclectic playthings, 15 years ago. “My oldest son was a toddler in 2002,” she recalls, “and was invited to a birthday party. So we had to buy a gift, and I realized that the nearest toy store was at Union Square.” They dutifully trudged to 14th Street, along with several other Battery Park City parents, all of whom lamented that there was no place to buy so much as a teddy bear anywhere south of Canal Street.
“That night, I was lying in bed, and a lightbulb went off in my head,” Ms. Barwick recalls. “I’m going to open my own toy store.” She had worked for Polygram Records for years, eventually being promoted to head the then-new department that created websites for the company’s recording artists. “The first band they assigned us to build a page for was U2,” she remembers. “I was hoping they would give us a less prominent act to start with, but they said U2 needed to be online immediately.”
Ms. Barwick had taken maternity leave when her son, Felix, was born, and Polygram had laid her off a few weeks after she returned. “After a wave of mergers and takeovers, they decided to move the web team to Europe,” she recalls. “So I realized that with a toddler and a new baby, I wanted to be more involved in my kids’ lives, and hopefully have more control over my time and my destiny.”
Spurred by having to journey uptown for a birthday gift, she decided to open a toy shop in Tribeca, at West Broadway and Walker Street. Looking back, she giggles at the notion that running her own business would leave more free time to spend with her children. “The first three years, I basically worked seven days each week, from nine in the morning to nine at night,” she says.
“But a few years in, once the business found its footing and was up and running, then it got better,” she reflects. Before the newborn Felix was old enough to attend kindergarten, Boomerang Toys had already become a local institution, where a generation of Lower Manhattan kids grew up accustomed to browsing and playing with toys before their parents made the purchase. “We have always welcomed children to come in and touch and see and feel the toys,” Ms. Barwick says. “And we have always put a lot of thought into which ones we have in the store. We continually ask, ‘why this and not another toy?'”
As Ms. Barwick discussed this approach recently, a customer overheard and offered her own testimonial. “We’ve visiting from Australia,” Kristy Napthali said, “and I will not shop in big stores or online. My husband and I deliberately searched for a small toy store, and decided on this one, because everything is hand-picked and here for a reason. This place has different, unique merchandise, rather than the generic stuff you see in large chains, or on e-commerce sites.”
This convergence of selection and service made Boomerang a hit, which soon led to the opening of a second location, in Battery Park City, within the shopping complex then called the World Financial Center. “We began to establish a real connection with the community,” she notes, “where we knew the names of parents and the kids they were buying for.”
“Business was going really well,” Ms. Barwick observes, “but commercial rents in Lower Manhattan are always a wild card.” So it was that when the World Financial Center began its 2014 transformation into the more-upscale Brookfield Place, Ms. Barwick was notified that her lease would not be renewed. She temporarily moved the Battery Park City store to the New York Mercantile Exchange, but the out-of-the-way location drew far less foot traffic, and the store eventually closed. A third outpost, on Staten Island, also attracted a loyal following, “but the owner sold the building, and the new landlord raised the rent to a level that our business couldn’t support,” she says.
In the meantime, she moved the Tribeca store from Walker Street to its current location (at 199 West Broadway, between Duane and Reade Streets) when the original building was sold and the new owner announced plans to demolish it. “In every case,” she says, “the stores were profitable, but the rents became prohibitive.”
Along the way, she came to grips with another peril: “The internet is very difficult to compete with,” Ms. Barwick acknowledges. “Customers will often quote the Amazon price for something we carry.” Setting aside that Amazon buys toys by the shipload, while a business like Ms. Barwick’s orders a few dozen units at a time, she notes, “I usually answer by asking what Amazon does to support their child’s school or sports team.” This touches on another facet of Boomerang’s connection to Lower Manhattan: For years, the store has sponsored teams in Downtown Soccer League and Downtown Little League, as well as Manhattan Youth’s basketball league. “We also contribute to auctions and PTA fund-raising drives at the local public schools, and many of the private nurseries and pre-schools,” she says.
This year’s must-have toy is the Fingerling, which are out of stock on Amazon, at Walmart, and every other large retailer. But Boomerang has one left.
And Boomerang gives back in other ways. “This year’s hot toy is called the ‘Fingerling,” Ms. Barwick notes, of a miniature monkey that clings to a child’s hand, while blinking its eyes and occasionally passing gas. “We ordered 48 units, which sold out almost immediately once word got around that we had them in stock,” she says. All except one.
“We hung onto the last piece,” she says, “which we will give away in a raffle on Wednesday.” Anyone wishing to participate is asked to buy a ticket costing three dollars, none of which goes to Ms. Barwick or Boomerang. “We using the raffle to raise money for Stockings with Care,” she says, referring to the charity based in Battery Park City that makes the holidays brighter for impoverished families throughout the five boroughs, by purchasing, wrapping, and delivering gifts for more than 1,700 needy kids.
Looking to the future, Ms. Barwick says, “I can’t definitely say we’ll be here in five years, but I hope we will. If things go well, I’d like to try to expand again. With hindsight, I’m not sure I would have started this business if I knew 15 years ago everything that I know today. Being older has made me more cautious financially. If I were to do it again today, I’d probably have more questions about taking care of my family.”
“But I was talking to my son, Felix, about this a few days ago,” she says. “And he disagreed. He said, ‘think about it, Mom. You got to come on every school trip. You picked me at school every afternoon. If you had been working in a corporate office for all of those years, you might have had a steadier paycheck, but you would have missed all of that.'”
Her voice catching in her throat, Ms. Barwick asks, “how can you put a price on that?”