By Sue Botos
The first hint that Once Upon A Time on Detroit Road in Rocky River is not an ordinary toy store strikes a visitor while walking though the door.
Absent is the often mind-numbing seasonal sensory overload of blasting music, beeping electronics, neon colors and the overwhelming space of big-box stores. Instead, soft classical melodies play, walls are adorned with blue skies and white clouds and the gentle expression of a 6-foot-tall stuffed giraffe welcomes guests. A visitor almost expects to see Santa’s elves at work creating the unique array of toys. Above all, children (and grown-ups) are invited to play with toys that are powered by imagination rather than batteries.
That’s just the way owner Jack “Toyman” Seelie wants it. So do his loyal customers, better known
as “believers,” who have been a part of the tale for 25 years.
“I don’t chase fads. A toy has to have value in and of itself,” Seelie said during a recent interview at the shop. He added that to be included in his inventory, a toy can’t be violent, sexist or electronic. “We believe parents should limit exposure to video games because they teach passivity,” he stated.
A former lawyer, Seelie began his quest for the perfect toy in the 1980s when his three children were small. He was disappointed in the cheaply made, mass-marketed toys of the time and wanted to find something better. Then, during a family vacation to Sanibel Island, Seelie discovered inspiration.
“I found this little store called the Cheshire Cat,” he recalled. Impressed with the selection of high-end imported playthings from Europe, Seelie confessed to the store owner that he would love to open such a shop, but had absolutely no retail experience.
“I talked with the owner, and she said she would help me start a store in Cleveland,” Seelie said.
Doing some “pre-Internet” research, Seelie found a small 600-square-foot space in Cleveland’s Old Arcade, close to his law office. Keeping true to her word, the Cheshire Cat owner helped him place his first order.
“When I went to see the deliveries, I was like a kid on Christmas morning,” Seelie remembered. He said he would leave his office during his lunch break – the busiest time for the store – and rush over to work for a while.
But the Rocky River resident had his eye on expansion, in particular on the former Beachcliff Foods store on the corner of Detroit Road and Wright Avenue. “I told the owner, if this place is ever for rent, call me,” Seelie recalled.
About a year later, in 1988, the weaving loom company occupying the space left and, after some major renovation, everyone lived happily ever after.
But a few dragons have been slain along the way. “We came roaring back from the recession. About four years ago, times were tough,” Seelie recalled. But it was the “believers” who supplied the magic to carry the store through, when others have disappeared.
“We have survived for 25 years. I think people come here because they know they’ll get high-quality toys that you won’t find in a big-box store,” Seelie stated.
This thought was echoed by believer Paul Brondos, who was visiting with his daughters Lily, 5, and Nina, 2. “The content of this store is wonderful. The quality of toys is much better than the big boxes,” he commented as Lily played with her favorite Calico Critters and Nina colored.
Staff members are a big part of the magic. “We get to demonstrate a lot of toys,” Jan Novak said. “Seeing kids when they come in here for the first time, they just can’t believe the magic exists.” She added that there is something for everyone from preschoolers to adults, especially inventive games that are fun and educational. “The games are a sneaky way of learning,” she commented.
How long will the Once Upon A Time story continue? Seelie seems confident. As he tells some young shoppers not eager to leave the shop, “We’ll be here when you come back tomorrow.”