Play's the thing

Lin Stone's 9-year-old toy shop sells more than product

by Rosalyn Graham

The first time Lin Stone opened Jamie Two-Coats' Toy Shop, she had a rocking chair and a crib for her baby daughter in the middle of the shop. Since opening the second time just last month the crib and rocking chair are toy displays. and that daughter, now a fifth-grader, stops in for visits after school.

Last month, Lin Stone moved her Shelburne store, Jamie Two-Coats' Toy Shop, next door to larger quarters. Deciding to move was one thing; obtaining permission was something else. Stone is pictured in front of a painting of Pico the Gnome, after the book of the same title.

Nine years ago, Stone and her friend and business partner, Carin Cooper, were young mothers who knew how difficult it was to track down the kinds of toys they wanted for their children. They thought they could combine a shop selling beautiful, simple wooden toys, cloth dolls and games from manufacturers all over the world, with a workshop where they would continue to make the dolls and story-telling puppets that had been their "hobby business."

"I liked making things with my hands, so when my children were little, making toys was fun," says Stone, who had been an artist and art therapist. "It was transformative to make a toy for Christmas instead of just shopping." She and friends Cooper, Bette Ramey and Lynn Stewart-Parker made toys, dolls and puppets; knitted hats and teddy bears; and sold them at farmers markets and craft fairs and through ads in magazines such as Mothering.

Stone had taken an entrepreneurship course at the Trinity College women's small-business program, thinking she might start a toy manufacturing business; the school store that Cooper ran for the Lake Champlain Waldorf School had to find a new location when its spot in the school's hallway was deemed unsafe by the fire marshal; the toy store in Shelburne Shopping Park was closing; and Stone and Cooper knew lots of people who Stone says "didn't want violence, TV, the media to bring up our children. We wanted them to be coloring, learning to jump rope, playing a game and spinning a top."

They found an ideal location for their shop in a handsome New England-style clapboard house on Harbor Road in Shelburne near the corner of U.S. 7 with a welcoming side porch. "We wanted to be an old-fashioned village toy shop, where children could stop in and grow up with memories of the shop."

The partners quickly found it was unrealistic to think they could combine shopkeeping with toy manufacturing, and they focused on their philosophy of what a toy store should offer. "We asked ourselves, 'What have children played across all generations; what have they played across all cultures?' realizing that those are the toys that children really need not fads."

With the exception of a couple of years when she lived in Virginia, Bette Ramey (right) has worked with Stone from the beginning. Sharon Robinson stepped in to help while Ramey was gone and has stayed on.

The answers guided them as they stocked their shelves: things that move stilts, pogo sticks, balls and jump ropes; art and craft supplies for making things; the imaginative world of princesses, kings, queens, fairies and gnomes; imitative play materials for little chefs or little truck drivers; and games that teach following rules and taking turns.

Cooper describes how the partners divided the duties of shopkeeping. "Lin had taken Trinity's small-business course, so she would do projections, figure out budgets. I had experience in retail and with the Waldorf store. I would do a lot of buying, read catalogs, go to trade shows and do the displays. Lin is also a great buyer, so we shared those duties. She is very forward-thinking. She keeps us moving forward at a quick pace, and I steady the course."

Stone says her full-time job is "finding the things that are a bit of fuss and bother to find, the needle in a haystack."

Jamie Two-Coats carries toys Stone says will last forever and be hand-me-downs, but "we're not a collectors' shop." Some companies that make collectibles also make playables, she says, offering as an example the famous German doll maker Kathe Kruse, whose collectible dolls sell for up to $6,000. That company also makes soft, huggable dolls with sheep's wool-stuffed bodies at a more affordable $30 to $130 and dollhouse dolls for $12.95.

The shop sells toys from every continent, including European wooden board games, beaded dolls from South Africa, toys from Peruvian and Brazilian women's cooperatives, Russian hand-made matryoshkas (nesting dolls) and German hand-carved wooden knights, kings and castles. "We also try to buy "made in the USA" as much as possible," Stone says.

Some of those "made-in-the-USA" toys come from Shelburne. Five or six years ago, Stone couldn't find the toy work benches she wanted or the dollhouses she envisioned. She turned to Scot Swanborn of Swanborn Woodworking who does cabinetry and trim carpentry. The result is a collection of sturdy work benches with pegboard backs for kiddie tools, and four dollhouse designs, including a tall, thin, four-story townhouse that doubles as a bookcase.

Stone has always been a "roll with the punches" kind of person. A New Hampshire native, she studied art therapy at the Friends World College, a Quaker school in England. While working as an intern at a youth theater club in London, she met photographer David Stone, "a funny, witty Brit."

When she brought him home to New Hampshire's Mount Washington valley for a visit and introduced him to skiing, this Londoner who had spent his time in the dark room fell so in love with outdoor sports that he embarked on a career producing catalogs for outdoor sports companies. They moved to New Hampshire in November 1976 and married a month later. She found work with nursing homes and nonprofits.

Twelve years passed; a daughter, Molly Claire Victoria, was born. When David had an opportunity to create catalogs for Climb High, they moved to Vermont, where Stone worked with nursing homes until she chose to stay home with Molly, who is now a junior at Waldorf High School in Charlotte. Their second daughter, Scarlet Rose, was the inspiration for Jamie Two-Coats.

Time and fate have brought changes over the years. Bette Ramey moved to Virginia for several years, then returned to continue working in the shop; Cooper, her husband, Tim, and their children moved to Saratoga Springs, N.Y., making Cooper a long-distance owner who commutes to Shelburne regularly; and Stone's husband, David, died in July 2003.

Six months after David's death, Stone and Cooper faced another challenge when the lease ran out on the Harbor Road shop and the landlord needed the space for expansion. A perfect and obvious solution was to move into the handsome clapboard house next door that had been rental apartments for many years. Perfect and obvious maybe, but not easy. Shelburne's zoning regulations required a deeper setback for commercial use than for a residential use, and the Zoning Board denied her request to move the shop into the building.

Admittedly scrappy, Stone decided to fight for the new store. Within 24 hours, she had 377 signatures on a petition to change the rules.

"My customers and my neighbors wanted me to stay where I was, not move to Burlington," she says. She had stumbled into a brewing debate over what the people of Shelburne wanted for their village a more pedestrian-friendly town center with more local businesses. "The rules didn't reflect what people really wanted," she says.

Municipal change, whatever public support it might have, is slow. The shop closed temporarily in June, leftover stock from the big sale went into storage, and orders were on hold pending a decision by the Planning Commission. With her supporters, Stone went to meetings and held their breath until new zoning regulations made that front setback a more flexible "conditional use," and at the end of October, the Zoning Board granted permission.

Typical of the shop's displays is this wall dedicated to the beautifully drawn books featuring the adventures of boy reporter Tintin and his faithful dog, Snowy.

A month of intense work transformed the space, and the shop opened its doors just before Thanksgiving: 1,300 square feet, including a kitchen with milk and cookies and hands-on activities with a seasonal theme. "We're laughing because we're going back to things we did when we first opened but then didn't have time or space," says Stone. "There will be monthly activities like making 12 golden nut gift boxes for Christmas and oil lamps for Hanukkah, and we can have games out for the children to play with. Children can come here after school with their friends, and I can teach them how to play."

The new shop with its brightly colored walls and sparkling white woodwork has a new-baby room and an older children's room with globes, telescopes and European books not commonly found here. Stone is quick to dispel the impression that everything is serious and mission-driven. "A toy store has to have some naughty toys," she says, grinning. "Older kids who may not think that they'll like it here are in for a surprise. Give me a few minutes and I'll show them a catapult that shoots marshmallows really far and fast, and a block and tackle you can use to get cookies up to your brother in the top bunk at night; and of course, a bit of glamor a pair of gold pumps with fuchsia rosebuds on the gold lamé toes. No one should grow up without them."

Customers were thrilled to have the store open again. Maureen Wheeler of Charlotte, who first walked into the shop when her oldest son, now 8, was a baby, has found toys, games and treasured parenting advice as her family has grown to three sons. The loyalty she feels is echoed by a conversation she had with a neighbor in the aisles of Shelburne Supermarket just before the shop reopened. "They said no one was buying anything for Christmas presents. They were all waiting for Jamie Two-Coats."

... and who is Jamie Two-Coats? Nine years ago, Stone and Cooper were looking for a name for the shop that would be personable and welcoming to children and adults. They had the Jamie part, a name that could be identified as either a boy or a girl. One day, as they were watching children arrive at the Waldorf School, they saw a little girl with a calico skirt under a jeans skirt, and another girl with a winter toque, a hood and a colorful sunflower bonnet layered on her head. They smiled at the innocence of children who could feel free to be creative and unabashed. Stone was reminded of a longtime friend of her husband, a Londoner who was still called "Two-Coats" as an adult because as a child he had worn two coats. They had their name and a good story to share.

Originally published in December 2004 Business People-Vermont