Value Added: Potomac’s wealthy crowd losing Toys Unique, a beloved toy store


Jarunee Chantraparnik plans to close Toys Unique, the store in Potomac, Md., she has owned and operated by for 20 years. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

I have written many columns about entrepreneurs reinventing themselves and their companies in order to survive.

Then there is the story of Toys Unique, a quaint, neighborhood specialty shop in wealthy Potomac that stubbornly holds on to its ideals, even if it means closing the business — which is happening at the end of this month.

Thomas Heath is a local business reporter and columnist, writing about entrepreneurs and various companies big and small in the Washington Metropolitan area. Previously, he wrote about the business of sports for The Post’s sports section for most of a decade. He has also covered local news, including the Maryland General Assembly and investigative work in Fairfax county. He has served as a correspondent for Newsweek and The Post, participating in coverage of the Oklahoma City bombing, the Unabomber and the O.J. Simpson trial. Heath was born and raised in Syracuse, N.Y., where he attended Catholic schools. He is a graduate of Fordham University and was a 2001-2002 fellow at Columbia University’s Knight/Bagehot business fellowship program. View Archive

There are no toy guns sold at Toys Unique. No Internet sales. No Xbox. No Halo: Spartan Assaults. No Transformers. The business doesn’t have a Web site.

Jarunee Chantraparnik, 67, is the throwback — a store owner who knows her clients, their needs, the kids’ ages, even their likes and dislikes. Need the right gift for your brother? She has it. Or for a birthday party for a 9-year-old? She will recommend one and wrap it herself.

“Once, a salesman laughed at me when I told him that I have to study the product. He said, ‘What was there to study?’ I am not here to sell. I want people around me to get the right products and to be happy with what they get,” she told me. “I know my customers.”

For 20 years, Chantraparnik has cultivated her exclusive clientele, which has included prominent families with names like Fernandez (Monumental Sports), Curley (law), Trone (Total Wine), Zapata (finance) and Kay (technology.) The late Time correspondent Hugh Sidey and his wife, Anne, were loyal customers.

When told the store was closing, 8-year-old Alexander Fernandez, who received a Toys Unique remote-controlled car for Christmas from his older sister Sofia, marched into the store and up to the counter.

“ ‘Miss Jarunee. I heard you are leaving. I am so sad,’ ” Chantraparnik recalled him saying.

Chantraparnik starts girls and boys on Barbie dolls and train sets; marches them through Hula Hoops, dominoes, stuffed animals and Play-Doh; watches them grow with Legos, old-fashioned board games and build-it-yourself model rockets that whoosh hundreds of feet into the air.

The store carries crafts and educational materials, word games like Q-bitz and Q-Ba-Maze. There are Thomas the Tank Engines and books like “Who Was Ferdinand Magellan?” and “Who Is Barack Obama?” There’s even “Dracula,” “Jane Eyre” and “Crime and Punishment” for the precocious read-a-holics who prefer Freud over foosball.

The big-margin items? Do-it-yourself crafts where kids make jewelry, slime and drawings.

Not-so-big margins? Lego.

“Lego is never going to die,” she said. However, the margins are thin because she is forced to compete with the low prices at big-box stores.

Toys Unique has been profitable for most of its 20 years, although Chantraparnik doesn’t rely on it for her sole source of income. The past five years have flattened at around $300,000 in revenue as the business has evolved.

“When I first opened the store, kids were building model cars and trucks. Those were very popular. That is practically nonexistent now,” Chantraparnik said. “Business has shifted. Younger parents are using the Internet to do their shopping.”

Chantraparnik grew up in Bangkok, where her father — a Presbyterian minister — was in charge of the YMCA in Thailand. Her mother was a teacher and later managed a school teaching English for Thais. Chantraparnik came to the United States in 1965 to study at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Ore., where she earned a degree in French studies.

She moved with her husband, who worked for Sodexo, to the Washington area and Chantraparnik joined Riggs Bank, where she pecked at computers and read the office subscription to the Harvard Business Review in her spare time. She took computer science courses at American University and worked on automation for the Montgomery County government.

Chantraparnik had always wanted a business of her own, and a friend who was a local bank executive suggested she open a toy store in Potomac, which was blossoming into a bedroom community for Washington’s uber-rich. The man asked if she wanted a partner, and Chantraparnik declined.

“I wanted to be in charge,” she said. She hired a real estate agent to find her space and then scraped together $50,000 or so from her savings for insurance, inventory, lease down payments and fitting out the store with shelves and carpeting.

She said she used common sense to decide what to buy. Chantraparnik devoured toy catalogues. She visited the annual Toy Fair in New York City, creating a network of reliable sales representatives, all the time learning, learning, learning.

She limited her wholesale purchases of toys to allotments of $500, $1,000 or $1,500, which limited potential losses if something didn’t sell. Toys that don’t sell are given to local charities or institutions. She doesn’t discount.

There have been ups and downs through two decades.

“There were a few tough periods, especially when Imaginarium opened across the street,” she said, referring to the educational toy store chain. “However, Potomac customers were very supportive.”

A couple of years ago, two young women expressed interest in buying the store, but the landlord declined their application because of their lack of retail experience. They ended up buying a restaurant in the Chevy Chase area, instead.

The store is small enough that Chantraparnik can run it herself. If she has an errand or medical appointment, she asks her husband to fill in.

Not surprisingly, Toys Unique collects a third of its revenue between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Summer is dead. Birthdays are gold. Fridays and Saturdays are the busiest. Sundays tend to draw fathers and their kids, giving mom a day off.

“I have a lot of boys — 10, 12, 14 years old — who still love model rockets, and it’s something they can do with their dad.”

Her most expensive item, at $350, is the Lego Mindstorms, a series of robotic kits that date back to 1960s Massachusetts Institute of Technology research. Some kids buy them to take to summer Lego camp.

I asked Chantraparnik what she plans to do when she closes for the last time in a few weeks.

“I will get up a little later, taking time to drink a cup of coffee instead of making one cup at 10 a.m. and finishing it in the afternoon. In the spring and summer, I will work in my beautiful garden. I can sit and watch flowers blooming at noon. We will spend more time visiting friends and families in Thailand . . . not rushing.”

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