NASHVILLE, Ind. — Since 1970, The Toy Chest has been a Brown County staple. It first opened on Main Street as a display for founder Ed Hollis’ hand-carved circus until a fire destroyed the building ten years later.
Then, in 1988, the Toy Chest reopened in the same location where you’ll still this iconic toy shop today: tucked inside the Artist Colony Shops on Van Buren Street in the heart of downtown Nashville.
Since becoming The Toy Chest’s owner in 2014, Hilary Key has carried on the legacy of making Indiana’s oldest toy shop the kind of place where all generations can play like kids again.
We are headed to downtown Nashville on this trip In Your Neighborhood.
“We firmly believe that there’s not an age you should ever outgrow play,” said Key. “Which means we make a point of having games and goofy things not only for teenagers but for adults.”
Now in their 50th year, The Toy Chest is not your average toy store.
It’s the kind of place that can bring generations together over a shared experience of play and fun through toys.
We get to see kids who come in telling their parents that they only want video games leaving thrilled about a board game,” said Key. “We see a lot of great connections between grandkids and grandparents when the grandparents are seeing a toy that they know and that they loved and sometimes it’s a kids first exposure to a kaleidoscope… It can be really fun to see that.”
When it comes to selecting their inventory, they focus on quality and type of play.
Think more “Santa’s Toy Shop” than big box store.
“We strive to have a higher quality…you know not everything— we have pickle fingers for Pete’s sake— things that are just goofy and inexpensive,” Key explained. “But there are a lot of toys that we want them to have the potential of being heirloom toys that could be passed on to future generations that isn’t going to fall apart a week after you got it.”
There’s something for everyone— from puzzles and games to sensory toys to stuffed animals, figurines and puppets, outdoor toys, building kits and crafting sets and more.
“These are soapstone carving kits,” she explains while showcasing the item. “You carve it, sand it and wax it… And it’s getting to be really popular for the parents to get it for the kid to make [something out of it] for a grandparent for Christmas or as a gift for someone else… they are also a good way to point out that crafts are by no means just for girls.”
The Toy Chest also offers an array of STEM-based toys– including science and engineering kits and their new line called Celestial Buddies.
“Space has been really trendy over the last couple of years, but it’s never been quite this cute,” she said. “They come with some fun information in their tag [and] they pair perfectly as a gift with a space puzzle or a space book.”
You’ll also find some mainstream favorites like the TonieBox—soft speakers that read a story to your child when a Tonie figurine is placed on top.
“It also comes with a creative Tonie so now my kids have three stories recorded of me reading to them so they like to listen to those when I’m at work,” Key explained.
But one of Key’s personal favorite items might surprise you.
“I always feel a little weird when I tell people my favorite thing in the whole toy store is a set of knives. Until I explain I just get a funny look.” she said with a laugh. “They can cut through a raw carrot, but they can’t cut a finger so if you really want your kids to get involved in the kitchen and you don’t want to be scared to death…These are a spectacular item.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many parents found themselves not only working from home, but also taking on homeschooling their children. And they’ve looked to The Toy Chest and their array of educational toys as extremely valuable tools.
“We are doing a lot of things more than ever to really help people who are homeschooling,” Key said. “So [parents are] in here and they’re like, ‘This is a science class!’ while looking at one of the chemistry sets or something.”
COVID-19 has impacted not only the setup inside the shop (with the removal of the play station tables and hands-on demo areas), but also the inventory.
“Our craft section I think has tripled in size,” Key explained. “It’s crafts, games, puzzles and very outright educational… we believe that all play is educational but things that you look at it and it’s obviously educational is what a lot of people are wanting right now.”
You don’t even have to come inside to find the perfect gift. Some of the other changes they made during this “new normal” include a walk-up window, daily live Facebook videos, free delivery within a 25-mile radius [and $5 flat rate shipping within the United States] and custom-made packages for any budget and interest.
“So you might say, ‘I want a $50 arts and crafts package. I have 3 kids. Their ages are 5,8 and 12. One loves mermaids, one hates dinosaurs,” she noted. “You give us as much or as little information as you want and we would build that package to help you what we called it ‘Staying Sane at Home.”
For Key, one of the biggest assets of being a locally owned business is the personal connections they can make and their ability to make some magic happen when it comes to meeting the needs of their customers and community. Through this difficult year, The Toy Chest has been able to meet those needs through things like personal shopping and putting together customized packages, doing a school assist program and facilitating a “Give Away A Box” program to help bring some joy to other children.
“When a family contacts us on behalf of someone and says, “This is my friend, she lost her job. She has 3 kids at home and doesn’t want them watching TV all day, but they can’t afford this level of science kits,” Key explained. “Then we’ve been able to go, ‘Well Person A just spent $200 on a Give Away A Box and now we can take that $200 and give it to Person B’s four kids and all of the things they need at home.”
Four Things You Need to Know About The Toy Chest:
- The Toy Chest was first opened in 1970 by founder Ed Hollis on Main Street in downtown Nashville, Indiana. In 1988, it moved to its current location in The Artist Colony Shops at 125 S. Van Buren Street. Hilary Key has owned the shop since 2014 and has continued the legacy of making Indiana’s oldest toy shop a must-visit for everyone who loves to play.” We firmly believe that there’s not an age you should ever outgrow play,’ she said.
- This is not your average toy shop. “The big thing here is that our main focus is on play more than on toys… I’m really looking at play value of the toy,” Key said. “So, we make all of our decisions based on the play that the kid will get out of the toy and that tends us toward stocking a different style of toy than what you might find in [a big box store].”
- Just in time for holiday shopping, The Toy Chest has released their holiday catalogue (which is also available online on their website). They’re also offering custom holiday packages and stocking stuffer packages. They recently launched their “SUPER Sticker Club” as well– which is a subscription club which gets your child 12 sheets of stickers for $15 each month.
- If you are looking to spread some kindness, they also offer a “Give Away A Box” option, where you can donate a box of toys for a family who might be going through a tough time and needs a little holiday magic.
Key and her staff have clearly worked to plant a seed of positivity despite the challenging year they, too, have faced as a local business. In turn, they have felt an immense amount of love from their community.
“I’ve never seen the small business support in this way,” Key said through tears. “We put out one month how behind we were in meeting our goal of being down 30% and the response we got from that within a few days made it so that we ended that month only down 11% when we were sitting down like 50%.”
“The support and the kindness… I’ve had customers send me flowers,” she added. “Customers who have been like, ‘I know it’s been a tough year’ and I’m like, ‘You are so nice… Thank you!”
For more information about The Toy Chest, check out their website by clicking here. To see more photos and reviews by local Yelpers, check out their Yelp profile. You can also connect with them on social media via Facebook and Instagram.
Looking for more places to shop ‘til you drop in Nashville? Check out some of these other beloved Brown County favorites: