Two local shops offer toys and recreation for kids of all ages.

It's the time of year that tests the mettle of even the best parents: what to buy the little ones for Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwaanza. Not that there's a lack of choices: the toy industry is a multi-billion dollar business that offers everything from action toys to play vanities. In 2000, toy purveyors earned over $69 million, down from a record high of $71 million in 1999. This includes sales of videos and video games.

In Tucson, two locally owned, independent shops--The Kid's Center, on Swan between Grant and Pima, and Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle's at the Crossroads Shopping Center--offer a wide selection of age-appropriate items for children from pre-schoolers to pre-teens.

Jim Davis has owned The Kid's Center since 1989. When the City of Tucson decided it wanted his property on Aviation for parkway construction, Davis was forced to sell. Then the owner of Davis Kitchens, he opted for a business that was "more fun" than designing custom kitchens and The Kid's Center was born.

A stroll through the jam-packed store reveals an appealing inventory of toys for the imagination, books, dolls, musical instruments, building projects, arts and crafts, board games, puzzles and, of course, the requisite dinosaurs. "We have the largest collection of kids' literature in town," Davis says. "We carry a depth that teachers like." This includes theme books and those with a multicultural perspective.

As parents grow increasingly concerned with their children's academic success, Davis reports a growing popularity of children's literature. "Kids who can't read will suffer in their long-term goals," he says, echoing what every educator knows. Besides books, parents are buying video and CD collections that offer the youngest child exposure to Mozart, Van Gogh, Shakespeare or Einstein.

Two things you won't find here are games that promote violence or Barbie dolls. Davis believes Barbies are not suitable for younger girls and instead offers the politically correct Groovy Girls. This set of soft dolls comes with a wide variety of skin tones and hair ranging from straight to kinky. In addition, Groovy Girls aficionados can collect an assortment of accessories including beds, chairs, and, of course, clothing.

With the prevalence of the nesting instinct, it's no surprise that board games are popular items among the stay-at-home set. At The Kid's Center, the Amazing Labyrinth, where one searches for treasure through a shifting labyrinth, is a big seller.

Just up the street from Davis' store is Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle's. At the Crossroads location for approximately nine years, the shop celebrates its 25th anniversary next year. Though it started out as a small cramped toy outlet, its current brightly-lit venue offers a colorful collection of thoughtful toys for children.

David Correa, manager of the store for two years, reports that dolls are a big seller these days. By way of explanation he offers the theory, popular among toy sellers, that in times of tragedy or military conflict people seek out items providing comfort, particularly items from their childhood such as dolls. You won't find Barbies here either, and Correa says they have only "low play value" since they discourage imaginative play.

In fact, the folks at this toy shop try to encourage parents to "think outside the box" when purchasing items for their children. Some young girls, for example, might be interested in construction toys or train sets while certain boys may prefer toys that tweak the imagination. Correa also observes that some toys have more staying power than others. Yo-yos, for example, come and go in popularity while the once pandemic Pokemon made a big splash then faded into oblivion.

Though neither of the shops reports any significant change in buying patterns after 9/11, Correa noted that traffic did increase and people are coming into the store to play and relax more than they did. He noted a dramatic increase in people spending more time with their children and attending the free events the store offers.

Both The Kid's Center and Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle's, locally owned independents, provide a wide selection in friendly and upbeat atmospheres. They are the perfect alternative to the mega-box Toys 'R Us. This corporate giant, with headquarters in Paramus, N.J., has a policy prohibiting its employees from speaking to the press. David Conca, manager of the Broadway location, refused to be interviewed by the Tucson Weekly. Conca said any Toys 'R Us employee who spoke with the media risked being fired. This is one company that's not playing around.

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