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.’”
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.”
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.”