By Mark Wilcox – Wyoming Business Report
JACKSON – An out-of-production Imperial Star Destroyer built from more than 3,100 Legos, which weighs in at more than 11 pounds, flies menacingly over a corpulent teddy bear in a prominent display window in Jackson. The Lego set can now only be found online. On Amazon.com, it carries a price tag of almost $1,300.
Surrounding the unlikely duo of voluminous teddy bear and “Star Wars”-themed Legos is a host of other toys, stuffed animals and games. Dangling Christmas ornaments complete the motif, and effectively remind bundled-up passersby on the town’s busiest boardwalk exactly which holiday follows Thanksgiving.
The display marks the arrival of Teton Toys to one of the Town Square’s most coveted retail spaces after only two years of doing business in Jackson. “We literally outgrew [the old store],” owner Wes Gardner said.
Capitalizing on the failure of Coldwater Creek, which shut its doors earlier this fall, Gardner, 33, jumped on the chance to double his square footage while simultaneously moving closer to the iconic elk-antler arches.
Previously, his business occupied a third-story space half a block away from his new location. In a mere 2,000 square feet, Gardner sought to display $250,000 in toy inventory. Moving into the 4,000-square-foot space, he says he’s surprised they had been able to fit everything in the old one. Even without ordering more inventory, the new store already feels full.
And though the move rid Gardner’s customers of some open-air stair climbing, they will still have to descend one flight of indoor stairs to get their toy fix. Teton Toys occupies the basement of the new Lee’s Tees, which now rents most of the ground floor after Coldwater Creek vacated the building.
Lee Gardner, owner of Lee’s Tees and Wes’s uncle, said he is only the fourth tenant of the space in its varied history.
Lee’s Tees, in business since 1978, may represent one of the most upscale T-shirt shops around. Lee employed Wes at Lee’s Tees for 12 years before his nephew jumped ship to start Teton Toys.
“For me, it was the day I walked past Broadway Toys, and I saw the sign on the door: “Going out of business,” Wes said. “I was like, ‘What? … Why?’ It’s arguably the highest traffic store in town.”
In fact, Wes sought advice from Andy Schwartz, former owner of Broadway Toys & Togs, while starting his own toy shop.
“He was really helpful, putting me in touch with certain reps,” he said. “He even shared some of his financial info at one point.”
Wes’ shop occupies the psychic hole left by the departure of Toys & Togs, and by Main Event another Jackson toy, book and video store that closed its doors after Wes opened.
Toys that bring joy
People expecting to see toys right when they walk in the door just beyond the sign and display window will be disappointed. The stairwell leading to Teton Toys in the basement is halfway back in Lee’s Tees’ cavernous space.
“He does get a lot of people coming to see his toys,” Lee Gardner said while directing traffic to the toy store beneath his feet only days after the Nov. 18 opening.
Wes Gardner has an explanation for this. It is the reason he doesn’t mind having a toy shop underneath a T-shirt shop.
“I’m a destination store,” Wes said. “I could literally be in a cave, and 60 percent of my traffic would still find me. If [Lee] doesn’t have a good space, he’s not going to sell anything.”
One couple that found his space despite being in the basement is Pete and Carolyn Anderson from Tucson, Ariz. While shopping for their 3-year-old niece, they stood in front of a large rack of localized stuffed animals, trying to decide what to take home. They settled on a moose, among others, which they had just seen near Jackson.
“She’s only familiar with javelinas and coyotes,” Carolyn said. “It’s really cute that they have local animals.”
Another significant source of traffic for Teton Toys, especially during the off-season, is the locals. One local resident shopping for her grandchildren’s Christmas was Meg Womac.
“You’ve got to support one another,” she said. “It’s always fun to see our locals expanding.”
And to Wes, the added space is more valuable than even the new location.
“Finally, my day doesn’t have to be consumed with how I can pack this stuff in,” he said.
Financially, Wes said he hopes the move is a good one. He’s expecting a 50 percent increase in sales, though he said 20 percent would be “all right.” The new location was just on the limit of what he thought he could afford to do, though he wouldn’t disclose details.
Notably absent from Teton Toys are video games and just about anything electronic.
“I try to only carry cool stuff,” he said. “You’re going to be in this store for an hour – literally.” And that is an arrangement he expects the less-patient gender to find trying.
He built most of the displays by hand and even laid his laminate flooring himself. Even now, he carries his revolving limits as far as companies will allow him, continuing to up his inventory from the meager $25,000 he had to begin with to beyond his current $250,000.
“My money’s here in the back room,” he said. “My business is intelligently run – but it’s run at a high risk.”
But in the end, Jackson’s unique toy shop is really there because one man just can’t seem to grow up.
“I’m not going to lie,” Wes said, “part of it is because I’m a big kid.”
Wyoming Business Report freelance writer Mark Wilcox lives in Jackson and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.