After decades of selling children’s clothing in Dupont Circle, Sandi and Lew Tipograph decided it just wasn’t worth it.
They preferred toys instead.
The couple, who founded Kid’s Closet in 1985, closed the shop in April, discouraged by rising Dupont Circle rents and the changing demographics of the District. They sold all remaining clothing inventory and decided to start from scratch.
Next week, they plan to open Tipo’s Toy Box in Gaithersburg, focusing on educational toys, including items for children with learning disabilities.
“We really like the toy business for many reasons,” said Lew, 64. “With clothes, we had to have all kinds of sizes and all kinds of seasons, and there was a lot of discounting that goes on. Everybody wants to come in for 40 percent off, 50 percent off. You don’t get that in the toy business. The pricing is a little more stable.”
The Tipographs, who come from a family of retailers, took out a home equity loan and invested some of their own money to buy nearly $200,000 worth of toys for their new shop.
“It was a hard move,” Lew said, “but it’s a new beginning for us.”
The Tipographs opened Kid’s Closet in 1985 after years of demand.
Back then, Sandi’s father owned a hosiery store, Les Gals, in downtown D.C., and for years, she watched as customers came in looking for kids’ clothing.
“We got dozens of requests a day for children’s things,” said Sandi, a former elementary school teacher. “But this was in another era, when shopping on Connecticut Avenue was very vibrant.”
With the help of her family, she and Lew opened Kid’s Closet on 20th and K streets NW. They later moved to Connecticut and M streets NW.
“It was clear that there was a real use for a children’s store in that area,” Sandi said. “And for many years, it really did work very nicely. But as the rents got more expensive, small businesses like our really took a beating.”
Sales at Kid’s Closet began slowing several years ago, with the rise of online shopping. Then there was a barrage of other obstacles: the recession, rising gas prices, sequestration.
“We were constantly on our toes,” said Sandi, 62. “We felt people really pulling back. Up until then, things had been pretty comfortable for us.”
The neighborhood had begun changing, too. Families began moving out, and more young singles moved in. Many of the store’s regular customers had been replaced by people looking for a last-minute item. The Tipographs responded by stocking up on gifts and sundries, things a parent-on-the-go might need.
“We became more convenience store,” Lew said. “If working mothers needed tights or a birthday gift, it was like a 7-11 for little kids. But as far as dedicated shoppers, there weren’t enough.”
The Tipographs spent more than three years looking for a new space, even before it was clear they would have to shut their doors in Dupont Circle.
“We looked all over Northwest Washington — Dupont, Georgetown, Bethesda, Chevy Chase,” Lew said. “But there just wasn’t a need.”
Eventually, they decided they had to go where families with children were increasingly settling: the suburbs.
They found a 2,500-square-foot space in the Kentlands neighborhood of Gaithersburg about a year ago. It was immediately clear, the couple said, that it was the right location for a toy store.
“When we came across the Kentlands, it was like we’d gone back in time,” Sandi said. “Kids were out and about without their parents. They weren’t being raucous — they were just eating hamburgers or riding skateboards or talking.”
The Tipographs, who live in Rockville, are hoping that the toy store will draw in a steady stream of customers. And, unlike clothing — which children don’t tend to get excited about — they’re hoping the toy store will appeal to both children and their parents.
“We want to make it a very fun and friendly place,” Sandi said. “For me, it’s been a chance to buy all of the toys I’ve always wanted to buy.”
Tipo’s Toy Box will sell a range of items, from puzzles and plush toys to kid-friendly LCD tablets. Many of the novelty toys come from specialty lines such as Bruder, Quercetti and Plasmart, Sandi said.
“The toys we’re going to have are not the kind of things you’d see at a mass merchant like Target or Wal-Mart,” Lew said. “Learning, creativity, quality — all of those things are reflected in our products.”
The store, which will have five employees, will offer gift wrapping, shipping and a selection of personalized toys. A designated events area will host workshops for parents and teachers, and well as children’s birthday parties.
For now, the Tipographs are waiting for final permits. They plan to open Tipo’s Toys quietly next week. A grand opening is planned for Oct. 19.
“We’ve started completely from scratch,” Lew said. “We’ve had to evolve with the times.”