Small Business Focus: West Side Kids

By Carol Tannenhauser

“What are your commenters going to say about me?” laughed Jennifer Bergman, owner of West Side Kids, an independent toy store on Amsterdam Avenue and West 84th Street, which celebrated its 36th anniversary last month. “A is for activist is our bestselling book!”

Also, before the 2016 election, West Side Kids carried Hillary Clinton paper dolls, action figures, and biographies, while Donald Trump merchandise was not represented – even as a joke.

“I have a sales rep who couldn’t get over the fact that I was unwilling to buy Trump stuff and make money on it,” Bergman recalled. “I said, ‘I don’t want it in the store.’ One customer said, ‘Don’t you have to be bipartisan?’ I said, ‘No. I don’t. This store has to represent what we believe in.’”

Jennifer Bergman in the store.

To that end, Bergman has begun doing “political windows.” The Halloween display features a selection of toys falling either on the side of science or magic. On the side of science is a lego-like model of a space center; on the magic side is one of the White House.

“I love that children can look at them and start asking questions,” Bergman said, “and parents can have whatever kind of conversations they want about what’s going on in the world.”

West Side Kids has been mixing play and politics from the time Bergman’s mother, Alice, opened the store in 1981. An early feminist and civil rights activist, Alice had started a handmade toy company in 1971 – when Bergman was in nursery school at West Side Montessori – called “Toys for All Children,” eschewing the then-standard blond, blue-eyed, male-dominated version of reality for a more ethnically diverse, non-sexist one.

“She made an African-American, woman-doctor puppet – in 1971!” Bergman exulted. “She was way ahead of her time.”

Now 81, Alice retired three years ago to her home state of New Mexico, but Bergman said “she misses New York and we’re hoping she comes back.” Meanwhile, her influence on her daughter remains strong. “I haven’t really changed very much about the store.”

It is a beautiful, old space – brightly painted, covered from polished-wood floor to painted-tin ceiling with shelves and stacks of toys and books. (There’s even a copy of the Constitution!)

“My mother’s philosophy about toys is very strong and continues to exist today,” Bergman said. “Play is a child’s work, and toys are the tools for that work. You need the correct tools to grow into a creative, interesting adult. Everything in our store, to some extent, is educational, because it’s interactive. Nothing does anything for anybody. And, when possible, the toys are non-gender specific. I’m not going to carry a pink tool set. I’m going to carry a tool set and hope that boys and girls buy it.”

The staff at West Side Kids.

Five or six years ago, Bergman finally began stocking Barbie.

“With Amazon taking over the world of retail, we no longer have the option to only sell what we please,” she explained. “If we don’t have what people want, they can go online and buy it. We have to have a comprehensive selection of toys and more inventory all the time.

“My former neighbors, who have two young children, have never been in this store,” Bergman continued. “They buy everything online. Every day, you’d see packages in front of their door. That is so sad, because their children are missing out on the experience of a toy store. A toy store for a child is magical.”

Bergman would know; she was 14 when her mother opened West Side Kids. (Her father was an entertainment lawyer, not involved in the business.) After working there as a graduate student with her younger sister Leslie Bergman, she decided to go out and see what else the world had to offer. She left a job in children’s publishing to come back to the store when her mother fell gravely ill. Alice recovered, but retired soon after. Leslie moved on to a career in childcare and, in 2010, Bergman took the reins.

“I feel like I’m in the right place,” she said. “Having a family business is very special. I was raised here. it’s a part of me. It’s in my blood. Also, our sense of community is really strong. Before we opened, this was a Haitian social club. That’s how much the neighborhood has changed. We were real pioneers. There was us, Better Times Antiques, Good Enough to Eat, Sarabeth’s, Popover’s, and a tire store across the street. The community has stood by us over the years. We’ve been through a lot of challenges, competition, and economic downturns, and they always come back.”

Is Bergman worried that wearing her politics on her sleeve could be bad for business?

“I think it’s actually improved our sales,” she said. “I hear all the time from my vendors and reps that business is bad everywhere. We’re up nine percent for the year. I believe our windows are bringing people into the store. They’re seeing that we’re humans with a point of view, not a corporation.”

COLUMNS | 25 comments | permalink
    1. iz says:

      One of the best stores on the UWS. PERIOD. So lucky to have them!

    2. Carlos says:

      West Side Kids is an incredible store. Great selection, knowledgeable and pleasant sales staff, reasonable return policy. It is the go-to place for gifts for kids.

    3. COO of our family says:

      One of our favorite places in the neighborhood. Our kids grew up looking at everything on the shelves, especially the baby toys, Schleich animals, trains, and crafting kits. We’re proud to support this local business. If you don’t have kids, you can get fun coworker gifts, art supplies, and gift wrap here!

    4. JJ says:

      West Side Kids is great! They have a good selection, friendly staff and great gift wrapping!

    5. UWS Dad says:

      West Side Kids is a wonderful toy shop and it is our go-to location for toys for our kids, as well as birthday presents for their friends. We come in DESPITE the aggressive political posturing, not because of it.

    6. Tina Connelly says:

      I remember going to West Side Kids soon after my first daughter was born in 1984. At the time they also sold used kids’ clothing and I needed some onesies. Got into a conversation with the woman who helped me, who said they had gotten the idea for the store as parents at WSMS prepping for the Spring Fair. It was the first time I had heard of the school. We ended up sending four kids to WSMS and are still well-connected! So I will always be grateful to West Side Kids and recommend it now to friends shopping for their grandchildren!

      Sent from my iPhone
      Please excuse typos!

    7. Ts says:

      While I support local stores, not when they’re overly political…but then again what else can you expect on the UWS. MAGA

    8. Liz says:

      I love the store and shopped here for years when my daughter (now 30) was young. I went by the other day and found the political signage in the window off-putting. Please reconsider that–keep the magic and let kids learn about politics through other means. A is for Activist–you’ve got to be kidding! Give me Stuart Little any day.

      • lynn says:

        The world isn’t the same place it was 30 years ago. Kids in K and first grade did mock elections last year. They know who Trump and Clinton are, they see violence everywhere, and these things are discussed in school. I think A for Activist is a brilliant idea and the store has every right to sell what they choose.

    9. Scott says:

      We stopped shopping after we noticed a “Stay Woke” sign in the window. Totally inappropriate to place in a toy store window, in my opinion. I appreciate the owner is entitled to express her view, but give me a break.

    10. Mary says:

      If you can’t handle shopping at a store run by politically active Upper West Side business owners trying to shed light on police brutality and the plight of marginalized communities, your business isn’t very valuable. We need to set higher standards for our kids and not teach them to ignore issues in our neighborhoods. I’ve always shopped here and I will continue to do so as long as they’re in business. This is why I moved here 40+ years ago and it’s nice to know with all of the changes to the area some of the original ideals survive.

      • SouthernGentleman says:

        Unless you plan on adopting until your golden years, you are almost done being a customer of this shop if you’ve been here over 40 years. And my math isn’t even that good.

        Politics and kids don’t mix, don’t kid yourself….get it?? kid…

      • Sherman says:

        I find it ironic that you’re condemning “police brutality” just as there was a street in Central Park named in memory of Steven McDonald.

    11. Joanna F. says:


    12. Jason says:

      I had no idea of the politics behind this place, will window shop there, and then buy it from Amazon.

      • Starrrks3 says:

        Yadda-yadda … i’m sure they’ll miss your business. I like what they stand for so much i’m going to have another child …

    13. Mom says:

      This store is so convenient for my family and three kids for birthday parties and such. I even benefit from their frequent shopper program.
      But I think the politics are annoying and over the top.
      Will reluctantly, need to find another place to shop.

    14. Teresa Boemio says:

      I love this store. Many happy memories purchasing gifts for my son and for his friend’s birthdays.

    15. Siggy says:

      Leave the parenting (including attempts to teach values and politics) to parents and just appreciate the foot traffic. Instead of acting like the busybodies who offer unsolicited opinions to parents in the park and on the sidewalk.

    16. Bill says:

      My favorite store on the Upper West Side. For those put off by its politics, I will endeavor to make an extra visit to make up for each negative comment here.

    17. Independent says:

      Ms. Bergman prides herself on being “unwilling to buy Trump stuff and make money on it”, declaring that her store “has to represent what we believe in.” (It is not clear just who ‘we’ is.)

      But then we are told that,

      “Five or six years ago, Bergman finally began stocking Barbie.” and the justification for that decision provided by Ms. Bergman is,

      “If we don’t have what people want, they can go online and buy it. We have to have a comprehensive selection of toys and more inventory all the time.

      What if Ms. Bergman were ever to become convinced that selling “Trump stuff” or any other merchandise that she found comparably odious was no less necessary in order to stay in business than selling Barbie stuff?

      • Cat says:

        Oh please, you’re always looking for something that isn’t there. A little girl (or boy) wanting to own a Barbie, and the store providing them, does not remotely compare to what Trump merchandise represents.