AN IDEA BECAME A BUSINESS
Phil Conley served in World War II aboard the USS Arkansas Battleship. After the war and a couple unsatisfying jobs, he realized two truths…
- He wanted to be his own boss.
- He only wanted to sell things people wanted to buy (as opposed to needed to buy).
In 1949, he and his wife Esther bought a house at 407 First Street a couple blocks from the birthplace of the Republican Party, turned the main floor into selling space, the upstairs into offices and the basement into storage.
On May 23, 1949 they opened and called it Toy House.
Everyone said they were crazy. “You can’t sell toys year-round in Jackson.” But they did. In fact, they sold so many toys that the business outgrew that original house.
In the mid-1950’s they bought the two houses south of them to make room for expansion and a parking lot. You can see the expansion in the pictures on the right.
At the same time that the store was expanding, the first of many competitors opened in Jackson. Shopper’s Fair, a giant discounter that was the predecessor to big box stores like Walmart and Target showed up on the north side of town. Everyone told Conley that Shopper’s Fair would put him out of business. Shopper’s Fair only lasted a handful of years. Toy House kept growing.
In 1957 Good Housekeeping Magazine did a story on Phil & Esther Conley highlighting young entrepreneur couples who had started their own businesses.
The next major event for the store happened in 1962 when Phil & Esther bought out a neighboring baby furniture store and added baby products to the mix. Phil had originally helped Bennett’s Furniture open in 1958 but by 1962 Mr Bennett wanted out. Originally, they called the new baby business at Toy House “Li’l Folks”. Eventually we changed the name from Toy House to Toy House and Baby Too.
To make room for the baby products, the store underwent more expansions until only the upstairs of the original house could be seen poking out of the top of the building. Even then, it wasn’t enough.
By 1967, the thrice-transformed 10,000 square foot Toy House with the new baby department was bulging at the seams once more.
A change needed to happen.
TIME FOR A CHANGE
Phil Conley, besides serving his country, also served the City of Jackson on the planning commission, as a city commissioner, and eventually as Mayor. Toy House and Baby Too was outgrowing the original store on First Street, even with all the expansions. Conley saw an opportunity to develop some vacant land on Mechanic Street just north of the downtown.
The property had originally been a coal dump for the bustling railroad industry that led to Jackson’s growth in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Then it served as a lumberyard for several years. When the new highway loop around the downtown was created, Conley saw a piece of property with all the benefits of being downtown plus room for his own parking lot.
As everyone who ever worked for Phil Conley knew, his mantra was always, “Plan for Success!”
On May 11, 1967, Phil Conley knelt down on a rainy day with his two-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter Laura Wrzesinski and broke ground on a brand new 20,000 square foot building. The headline over the picture said, “But Grandpa… Momma won’t like it if we play in the mud.”
On September 15, 1967 Toy House and Baby Too opened the doors on our current location on Mechanic Street on the north edge of downtown Jackson along the banks of the Grand River. There was plenty of parking and plenty of room for the expanded toy and baby departments.
In August of 1969, with business still growing, Phil and Esther hired their son-in-law Chuck Wrzesinski to help run the business.
Chuck showed up early for his first day in a crisp white shirt and tie only to find that he would spend his first morning on the job in the sweltering August heat of the warehouse unloading a truck filled with toy boxes and tables & chair sets. Phil Conley showed up later that morning to find his new manager shirtless and sweating at the top of a conveyor belt.
With Chuck on board, the business continued to grow and the store needed more room. By 1972, only five years after moving in, they built the first of three expansions to the Mechanic Street property.
The Hobby Department was opened in the new space. including model trains, rockets, and those new-fangled, radio-controlled vehicles. There was also room to bring in bikes and swing sets and for a short time, swimming pools.
In 1974 Toy House and Baby Too celebrated 25 years of business. Phil and Esther Conley had built a magical store that was delighting generations of customers, had faced down the threat of competition, and continued to grow.
Even the third generation had joined the mix. You can see Chuck and Sue Wrzesinski’s kids, Laura & Phil, dressed as clowns handing out balloons at the 25th Birthday Party celebration. (Yes, that is Phil Conley in the white shirt and tie in the lower left, and Chuck Wrzesinski in the white shirt and tie standing behind him.)
A YOUNGER MAN’S JOB
Phil and Esther Conley had built a store for the ages. But as Phil had often said, retail was a young man’s job. It was time for someone else to take the reigns.
Following the 1976 Christmas season, Phil and Esther sold the business to their daughter and son-in-law, Sue and Chuck Wrzesinski.
Chuck and Sue hit the ground running, managing the store through the tumultuous economy of the late 70’s, the phenomenal growth of the 1980’s and the competition that came to town in the late 80’s and 90’s (including a second Meijer’s Thrifty Acres, a Target, and a Toys R Us).
Under Chuck and Sue’s guidance, Toy House grew to carry the largest selection of toys from the largest collection of vendors under one roof of any store in America. To this day you still won’t find a larger collection of toys under one roof.
In 1985, as the product lines were expanding and during the growth of such companies as Little Tikes, Chuck oversaw the second expansion of the current building, pushing Toy House and Baby Too over 27,000 square feet!
Even with all the new competition, Toy House and Baby Too continued to thrive.
By 1993, Chuck and Sue recognized a need in the market and convinced their son, Phil, to join the business to grow the Baby Department that Conley had brought to the store in 1962 into a major department for the store.
On April 30, 1993, Phil Wrzesinski left his job working with youth and joined the team.
In that same year Toy House and Baby Too faced new competition. Toys R Us announced it was opening in Jackson that fall. The reporter from the local paper called Chuck and asked, “So when do you think you’ll close?”
We still chuckle over that question. Chuck’s answer was, “Well, I’m just turning fifty and not quite ready to retire. But since my son just started working here, maybe you should ask him.”
Phil still doesn’t know the answer to that one.
Less than a year later, the store went through another expansion adding another 3,000 square feet, making Toy House and Baby Too one of the largest independent, family-owned toy stores in all of America.
Chuck retired after the 2005 Christmas season. Sue joined him in retirement five years later, leaving Toy House and Baby Too in the hands of third-generation owner, Phil Wrzesinski.
Phil’s first major task was to remodel the entire layout of the store to make the aisles wider and easier to navigate. Yes, the Hobby Department is still here, but not in the same location it was before May, 2006.
Our goal, however, has never changed. It is the same as it was back in 1949. We’re here to make you smile.
Will there be a fourth generation?
You’ll have to ask his sons…